Five Guys Burgers and Fries is consumers’ favorite quick-service/fast-casual restaurant, according to a new survey conducted by Market Force Information, a provider in customer intelligence and customer experience management solutions. Panera Bread ranked as the second favorite, followed by Chick-fil-A and Chipotle.

The survey examined which restaurants are consumer favorites and why, and what’s in store for the restaurant industry. It was conducted in May among Market Force’s network of 300,000 independent mystery shoppers and merchandisers—consumers across the country dubbed The Force. More than 5,000 consumers responded.

Panera netted the most votes, but Five Guys was No. 1 when number of restaurants was considered. When the consumers were shown a list of the country’s 52 top franchise quick serves and asked to select their single favorite, Panera received the highest response, earning 10 percent of the vote. Subway and Chick-fil-A tied for second place with 8 percent, McDonald’s was third with 7 percent, and Five Guys received 6 percent to come in fourth. This was a marked shift from six months prior, when Chick-fil-A and McDonald’s tied for favorite quick-service/fast-casual restaurant. 

But the results only told part of the story. While Panera has more than 1,300 locations in the U.S., Five Guys has less than half that number. Since consumers are only likely to vote for restaurants they visit, Market Force indexed the results to account for the number of restaurants to see which chains would dominate. When this component was factored in, Five Guys was a clear leader with 22 percent of the votes. Panera dropped to second with 15 percent and Chick-fil-A received 11 percent to rank third.

It was not difficult to understand why Five Guys fared so well with consumers. When the respondents were asked to score these same restaurant chains for characteristics they appreciate most, Five Guys scored highest in 8 out of 10 categories, including quality of food, friendly service, and cleanliness. Panera bested Five Guys in the healthy choices and green/sustainable categories. 

With 60 percent of respondents reporting that they eat at a quick serve or fast casual five or more times per month, there is a lot of opportunity to capture wallet share. Consumers are experimenting with new restaurants, too. Three in 10 had tried a quick-service/fast-casual restaurant in the preceding 30 days, and Five Guys was the most trialed restaurant. Sonic received the next highest number of mentions and Chipotle, Smashburger, and Panda Express tied for third. But those who tried new places were not entirely satisfied. Only 64 percent said their experience was great, while a third said it was just okay or bad.

“With consumers trying new options with some frequency, quick-service and fast-casual restaurants can’t afford to make operational missteps that taint the customer experience,” says Janet Eden-Harris, chief marketing officer for Market Force. “There’s a direct correlation between how satisfied a customer is and how much they spend, so delighting the customer can go all the way to the bottom line.”

Advertising was not the main reason behind the experimentation. In fact, less than 5 percent said they tried a new restaurant because of an advertisement. Most—approximately 30 percent—were prompted to try a new place by a friend’s recommendation. Around 28 percent said they drove by a restaurant and decided to try it. 

The survey was conducted in May and June 2010 among the Market Force network of more than 300,000 consumers. The pool of 5,000 respondents ranged in age from 18 to 72 and reflected a broad spectrum of income levels, with 60 percent reporting incomes of more than $50,000 a year. Seventy-six percent were women, the primary household consumer purchasers. Half of the participants said they have children at home.

Menu Innovations, News, Sandwiches, Chick-fil-A, Five Guys, McDonald's, Panera Bread