CORRECTION: Due to miscalculation of data, Freddy’s Frozen Custard and Steakburgers was incorrectly ranked. The fast casual should be No. 6 within the Leaders group. QSR and Merchant Centric apologize for this error. 

Consumers continued to let quick-service brands know what’s important to them in 2022. Based on nearly nine million guest reviews, the big stories are positive gains for staffing, while price/value continued to take a hit, as to be expected. In addition, we see that while there are some gains in guest opinions, trends in overall guest satisfaction were not evenly spread across the segment. Leaders held strong, but “Straddlers” and “Chasers” encountered declines.

Staffing Turnaround

Guest recognition for staff demeanor and staff dedication had taken significant hits, with Theme Performance Scores (tps) dropping throughout 2021. Dedication dropped below a TPS of 1.0, indicating complaints outnumbered praise. This contributed to the overall decline in guest satisfaction for the category in 2021, as measured by ratings on social sites. In 2022, with significant focus on hiring and training, guests have noticed improvements and this trend has begun to turn around. Staff dedication and staff demeanor TPS scores gained 67 and 12 percent, respectively, from the end of 2021 (see chart). This is significant progress, but still below previous years’ levels. 

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As seen in the accompanying table, Shake Shack is one brand that has leveraged technology to allow front-of-house staff to focus more on the guest. Its staff scores have improved, while its food score has remained relatively unchanged, yet impressive. So, Shake Shack’s relative staff score improvement has helped the brand move up five positions in relative guest ratings within the top group of “Leaders.” It is now challenging Five Guys, while also improving its loyalty and referral score along the way.

El Pollo Loco is another brand with similarly impressive upward movement, jumping from 36 in the “Chasers” category last year to 26 in “Straddlers” this year, touting valuable improvements in dedication and loyalty and referral. 

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Guest satisfaction leaders hold on

The barrier to enter the “Leaders” group remained similar to last year at 3.83 stars out of five, versus 3.89 stars in 2021. Note that the annual guest satisfaction trend for most of these brands was well above that level. “Straddlers” and “Chasers,” on the other hand, both saw meaningful declines in guest satisfaction. The hurdle to achieve “Straddler” membership dropped from 3.61 stars out of five to 3.36 stars, and the ceiling on “Chasers” dropped from 3.6 to 3.44 stars.

Guest satisfaction for food among the “Leaders,” as measured by TPS scores, continues to significantly outpace the “Straddlers” and “Chasers.” This is followed by staff dedication, which leads to significantly higher scores for Leaders for loyalty and referral. Looking at the members of each of the three groups is not surprising and appears from their scores that they more closely compete within their same group of “Leaders,” “Straddlers,” or “Chasers” than across groups.

Guest opinions on inflation is reflected in price/value scores

Complaints about price/value increased relative to praise throughout 2021 and into 2022, with the TPS score for these quick-service brands dropping to .98 since the end of 2021. Of the five key themes mentioned, price/value has the smallest gap between “Leaders” and “Chasers,” illustrating how it is the most difficult theme to differentiate across groups. We see that inflation pressures have pushed the average price/value TPS scores for “Straddlers” and “Chasers” below 1.0, meaning they are receiving more price/value complaints than praise. On average, Leaders were able to remain above 1.0, still boasting more praise.

Pizza brands continued to have very high price/value scores above 2.0, indicating they receive twice as much praise than complaints, with standouts including Little Caesars, Marco’s Pizza and Papa Murphy’s. In the burger category, In-N-Out Burger scored the highest at 5.0 and was the clear standout in the price/value scores. Checkers/Rally’s and Del Taco also had superior price/value scores above 2.0 in 2021, which, despite remaining high in 2022, dropped below the 2.0 threshold.

What does all this mean for the remainder of 2023? Can “Straddlers” and “Chasers” solve the staffing challenge as “Leaders” continue to forge ahead?  We expect technology will continue to be a key component to answering this question, especially as it allows staff to deliver more on dedication and demeanor. Also, if inflation slows, it will likely enable greater competition and improvement from guest perspectives in food and price/value. 

Adam Leff is the co-founder and Chief Strategy Officer for Merchant Centric, a leading reputation management solution that caters to the restaurant, veterinary, and automotive industries.

Special note: All data and analytics presented in this article are based upon Merchant Centric’s findings from the brand’s featured in the QSR 50 and, like all data sets, are inherently limited in scope and nature. Data presented herein may not be comprehensive and may exclude certain brands or brand locations. Data is provided without guarantee as to its accuracy, completeness, or currency, and Merchant Centric expressly disclaims any and all liability resulting from reliance on information or opinions included herein. Brands selected are for illustrative purposes only and data should not be relied on as reflective of or attributable to all brands within a segment or cuisine. Please note that certain brands included herein are clients of Merchant Centric.

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