Quick service is a crowded market, but one segment has to take the lead. And for the time being, it looks like burger chains are the top pick.

According to Empathica’s 2013 Quick Service Restaurant Benchmark Study—which surveyed 10,000 U.S. consumers about food, order accuracy, speed of service, menu, restaurant atmosphere, staff, and value at 62 top quick-service brands—an industry-high 60 percent of customers surveyed visited burger brands.

Forty-one percent visited sandwich chains; 33 percent visited pizza and pasta brands; 30 percent visited chicken chains; 26 percent visited snack and coffee brands; 24 percent visited Mexican chains; and 12 percent visited Asian and seafood brands, according to the study.

“Burgers continue to have a strong place of romance, if you will, in the heart of America,” says Dr. Gary Edwards, chief customer officer at Empathica. He adds that a “renaissance” of niche players coming into the burger segment has spurred continued interest in the category as a whole.

Despite the continuing emergence of better-burger brands, the segment remains a relatively low-price and high-value one, which Edwards says “keeps it on the opportunity list for grabbing a quick lunch at an affordable price.”

Within the burger segment, Edwards says better-burger chains are taking a bite out of traditional fast-food burger brands’ customer loyalty, as they offer “a better experience, a better product in many cases, and an experience around it that’s focused on service quality.”

“Consumers are getting choosier, and they know—for the same or relatively similar cost—there’s better offerings out there,” Edwards adds, noting that while big burger chains like McDonald’s certainly aren’t going away, they’re getting more and more competition from their fast-casual counterparts.

But just because customers are visiting burger restaurants most often doesn’t mean they were satisfied with their overall visits. In fact, the burger segment had the lowest number of satisfied customers, with slightly more than two in five guests (42 percent) reporting that they were satisfied with their visit to a burger brand.

Just 43 percent of guests visiting Asian and seafood restaurants were satisfied, while 48 percent said their visits to both pizza and pasta chains and chicken chains were satisfactory. Nearly half of guests visiting Mexican and snack and coffee brands (49 percent and 51 percent, respectively) felt satisfied with their visit.

The sandwich segment, however, fared relatively well, with 52 percent of guests who visited a sandwich chain reporting they were satisfied with their visit.

“It’s the fact that it’s not just price, but actually the value associated with [sandwich chains],” Edwards says, adding that customers see more value in purchasing a ready-to-eat sandwich that would take a lot of time and fresh ingredients to make themselves.

The Benchmark Study also found that other factors, gender in particular, played an important role in which segment customers visited most often. Women tend to have a stronger preference for pizza, pasta, coffee, and snack chains than men do, while men are more likely (62 percent) than women (58 percent) to frequent burger chains.

Edwards says this discrepancy presents burger brands with an opportunity to improve their marketing toward females.

“Especially with women, they still carry the primary responsibility for decisions around the family,” Edwards says. “With that, there’s opportunity and some are responding to it.”

By Mary Avant

Burgers, Consumer Trends, News, Outside Insights