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With new limited-service brands emerging at a rapid pace, consumers have more dining choices than ever, and their preferences are proving that established national concepts could learn a thing or two from these smaller, younger chains. According to a nationwide study on consumers’ favorite quick-service chains from Market Force Information, brands like Firehouse Subs, Qdoba, and Papa Murphy’s rank better for customer satisfaction compared to more established category players like Subway, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut.
The Market Force Information Study polled more than 6,100 consumers who were asked to rank the top restaurants in four popular categories: pizza, Mexican fare, sandwiches, and chicken. “We then ask respondents to rate their last experience at a given brand and let us know if they would recommend eating there, and we use that data to rate each brand,” says Janet Eden-Harris, CMO and senior vice president of strategy at Market Force Information. In addition to ranking restaurants consumers favor most, the study looks at what contributes to these preferences, analyzing factors such as service, food quality, and value.
In the chicken segment, Louisiana-based Raising Cane’s topped the list, followed by Chick-fil-A and Zaxby’s, and all top three chains scored best for food quality. In the sandwich category, Firehouse Subs ranked No. 1 and was the favorite for friendly service and accommodating children, also taking second place in quality food and atmosphere. Panera Bread ranked No. 2 overall, followed by Jimmy John’s and Subway. In the Mexican segment, Qdoba beat out Chipotle, coming in as No. 1 overall—respondents pinpointed the brand for its varied menu items, including specialty burritos and a three-cheese queso sauce.
Eden-Harris says the rankings reflect how newer and smaller brands are offering consumers something new. “The value of having a tried-and-true brand is that consumers know and can count on what they’re getting. But it terms of driving big satisfaction, you have to go above the basics, and a lot of these new, emerging brands are mixing it up,” she says. “Qdoba lets you pick and customize, so a consumer knows they will like what they get. A lot of these emerging brands have a new take on their categories.”
The pizza category rankings were particularly interesting, Eden-Harris says. Take-and-bake concept Papa Murphy’s came in at No. 1 overall and was rated first for both quality and healthy food and second in fast service and value.
“It’s interesting to see how Papa Murphy’s has risen to the top—they were there when we did this study last time a little more than a year ago,” Eden-Harris says. “You start to see some of the brands that do particularly well on a couple key attributes, and we see it across categories—we call these operational excellence attributes. It’s things like having fast service, having friendly service, offering a warm atmosphere, or healthy food changes.”
Pizza Ranch came in second overall for the category, followed by Papa John’s, Cici’s Pizza, Domino’s, and Pizza Hut. Pizza Ranch received the most votes for atmosphere and accommodating children, and CiCi’s was second in both categories. The fastest service went to Little Caesar’s, while CiCi’s took the top spot for value.
“It’s good for people in the business to see these results because a lot of these attributes consumers value are ones [operators] can influence,” Eden-Harris says. “It’s really hard if people were rating higher based on something like a convenient location. You can’t help that, but you can invest in things like training and hiring the right kind of people.”
By Tamara Omazic