A new large-scale consumer study conducted by Market Force Information reveals America’s favorite quick-service restaurants chains in four popular food categories: pizza, Mexican, chicken, and sandwiches. Papa Murphy’s topped the pizza category for the third straight year, while Taco Bueno ranked first for Mexican, Chick-fil-A for chicken, and McAlister’s for sandwiches.

More than 10,000 consumers were polled for the study, which revealed consumers’ quick-service dining habits, brand preferences and use of technology to order and pay.

Pizza: Papa Murphy’s and Pizza Ranch Get Largest Slice of Votes

In the immensely competitive $40 billion pizza industry, Papa Murphy’s reigns as consumers’ favorite chain for the third consecutive year. Pizza Ranch again took the No. 2 spot and Marco’s Pizza landed at No. 3, after not earning enough votes last year to qualify.

Carryout chain Little Caesars offers the best value and has the third-fastest service of the chains studied, according to Market Force’s attributes rankings. Meanwhile, Papa Murphy’s ranked first for food quality and led by a large margin in the healthy options category, one of the only areas where the brands weren’t tightly clustered. Pizza Ranch earned top marks for friendly service and atmosphere.

Other Pizza Category Highlights:

  • 28 percent visited a pizza chain at least five times in the previous 90 days.
  • Marco’s Pizza had the most new trials with 17 percent bringing children on their visit.
  • Pizza Ranch led in loyalty card awareness: 89 percent know they offer one.
  • 53 percent have downloaded a pizza chain’s app.
  • Domino’s has the greatest awareness for its mobile app: 60 percent know of it.

Mexican: Taco Bueno Edges Out Chipotle

For the first time, Taco Bueno earned enough votes to qualify for Market Force’s quick-service study and it took the top spot in the Mexican category, beating out Chipotle and Qdoba, which tied for first in 2015. Chipotle ranked second and Rubio’s Fresh Mexican Grill—another newcomer—ranked third. Qdoba and El Pollo Loco rounded out the top five.

Although Taco Bueno was the favorite in the Mexican food category, it only ranked first in one area: value for the money—a category in which Del Taco was a close second and Qdoba was last out of the brands studied. Chipotle and Rubio’s outperformed others in food quality, and Rubio’s also excelled in atmosphere, cleanliness, and friendliness. Diners think Chipotle, by far, offers the healthiest options, followed by El Pollo Loco. Taco Cabana ranked lowest of the chains studied in friendliness, speed, and cleanliness.

Other Mexican Category Highlights:

  • 18 percent visited a Mexican chain at least five times in the previous 90 days, a significant drop from 2015 when 14 percent were visiting at least 10 times every 90 days.
  • 20 percent brought children on their visit.
  • Baja Fresh had the most new trials.
  • Qdoba led in loyalty card awareness: 63 percent know they offer one.
  • 45 percent have downloaded a Mexican food chain’s app.
  • Taco Bell has the greatest awareness for its mobile app: 35 percent know of it

Chicken: Chick-fil-A Rules the Roost

Chicken is one of the fastest-growing segments in the quick-service space, with appeal for kids and adults alike. In the Market Force study, Chick-fil-A led for the second year with a 77 percent score, while Raising Cane’s ranked second with 70 percent, Zaxby’s third with 63 percent, Bojangles’ fourth with 60 percent, and El Pollo Loco fifth with 59 percent. Wingstop dropped slightly in the rankings, while Church’s Chicken made substantial gains, jumping 16 percentage points over 2015.

Not surprisingly, category-leader Chick-fil-A captured the top spot in nearly every attribute that Market Force studied, including food quality, fast and friendly service, atmosphere, and cleanliness. Raising Cane’s, a fast-growing chicken finger chain, was the value leader and ranked second in every other area but one. El Pollo Loco was recognized for offering the healthiest food options, followed by Chick-fil-A and Boston Market. KFC scores last out of the brands studied on four of the seven measures.  

Other Chicken Category Highlights:

  • 48 percent visited a chicken chain at least five times in the previous 90 days, with 22 percent visiting at least 10 times.
  • 18 percent brought children on their visit.
  • Wingstop had the most new trials.
  • Raising Cane’s led in loyalty card awareness: 29 percent know they offer one, the lowest of any category.
  • 40 percent have downloaded a chicken chain’s app, the lowest of any category.
  • Wingstop has the greatest awareness for its mobile app: 24 percent are aware of it.

“In the fast-growing [quick-service] industry, chicken chains must embrace every opportunity to differentiate and pull ahead of the flock,” says Cheryl Flink, chief strategy officer for Market Force Information. “Our research reveals that there’s room for chicken brands to differentiate by building their loyalty card programs, increasing their app usage and adding more healthy menu options.”

Sandwiches: McAlister’s and Firehouse Subs

Even though there are more quick-service cuisines and options, diners are still lining up for sandwiches for many of their meals, and McAlister’s takes the top spot in the segment. It beat out Firehouse Subs, which ranked second, followed by Jersey Mike’s and Panera. Last year’s favorite, Jason’s Deli, fell four spots to fifth place.

No one brand dominated the attributes in the sandwich category. When it came to food, Jason’s Deli was tops for quality and Panera for healthfulness. Convenience store chain Wawa ranked highest for value, and will continue to put pressure on the sandwich category. Jimmy John’s far outpaced the others for speed of service.

Other Sandwich Category Highlights

  • 39 percent visited a sandwich chain at least five times in the previous 90 days.
  • Just 11 percent brought children on their visit.
  • Firehouse Subs had the most new trials.
  • Panera led in loyalty card awareness: 74 percent know they offer one.
  • 50 percent have downloaded a sandwich chain’s app.
  • Panera also has the greatest awareness for its mobile app: 36 percent know of it.

Significantly more diners are picking up tablets to place their orders at quick serves. Twenty-two percent said they have ordered using a tablet in the previous 90 days, up 340 percent from 2015. Twenty-three percent used a mobile app and 16 percent used a kiosk. Still, most favor placing their orders in person—30 percent said they prefer ordering via tech and 70 percent said they prefer ordering at the counter.

Nearly one-quarter used technology to pay for their meals, either using a mobile app or digital wallet. Younger generations were nearly twice as likely to pay using an app than their older counterparts.

For the rankings, Market Force asked participants to rate their satisfaction with their most recent quick-service experience, and their likelihood to refer that restaurant to others. The results were averaged to attain a Composite Loyalty Index score. Only chains that received at least 100 votes were analyzed.

The survey was conducted online in January 2016 across the United States. The pool of 10,477 respondents represented a cross-section of the four U.S. census regions. Fifty-one percent reported household incomes of more than $50,000 a year. Respondents’ ages ranged from 18 to over 65. Approximately 68 percent were women and 32 percent were men. 

News, Pizza, Sandwiches, Chick-fil-A, Chipotle, Firehouse Subs, McAlister's Deli, Papa Murphy's, Pizza Ranch, Raising Cane's, Taco Bueno