Large chains like McDonald’s, KFC, Taco Bell, Subway, and Pizza Hut continue to capture the vast majority of fast-food occasions. But smaller, more regional concepts like Pei Wei, In-N-Out Burger, Panera Bread, and Raising Cane’s capture the highest customer satisfaction ratings, according

to restaurant researcher Sandelman & Associates.

Pei Wei, a small Asian quick-service restaurant chain that is the sister concept of full-service P.F. Chang’s China Bistro, receives top honors in Sandelman & Associates’ 2007 Quick-Track Awards of Excellence. Pei Wei, considered a fast-casual chain, specializes in providing high-quality, quick meals in a comfortable casual environment. Pei Wei has a small base of users compared with the fast-food giants, but 59 percent of those who recently patronized the chain rated their last visit “excellent” overall. That is the highest “excellent” rating of all 138 quick-service chains monitored by Sandelman & Associates’ in 2007.

The top 10 chains rated “Excellent” overall in Sandelman & Associates’ Quick-Track study are:

1. Pei Wei

2. In-N-Out Burger

3. Panera Bread/St. Louis Bread Co.

4. Raising Cane’s

5. Chick-fil-A

6. Firehouse Subs

7. Chico’s Tacos

8. Ledo’s Pizza

9. Starbucks

10. Imo’s Pizza

“Clearly fast-food users are looking for a better overall dining experience,” says Bob Sandelman, CEO and founder of Sandelman & Associates. “Our Awards of Excellence winners are raising the bar for the fast-food giants and the big chains are responding,” added Sandelman. “Industry leader McDonald’s, for example, is rolling out specialty coffees and testing a café environment to better compete with Starbucks.”

Awards of Excellence also are given for different aspects of the dining experience, such as taste of the food, speed of service and value for the money. Southern California favorite In-N-Out Burger maintains its cultlike following partly because of its tasty food: the chain has the highest “excellent” rating on taste of the food. Another Awards of Excellence winner, Panera Bread, reflects its fast-casual status by posting leading “excellent” ratings on quality of the ingredients, variety of menu items and cleanliness of the restaurant. Upstart Raising Cane’s shines when it comes to service, garnering top “excellent” ratings on temperature of the food, friendliness and courtesy of the employees, and accuracy in filling orders.

The awards are based on the quarterly syndicated Quick-Track® research program conducted by Sandelman & Associates, a San Clemente, Calif.-based market research firm that tracks consumer trends for the restaurant industry. The Quick-Track Awards of Excellence are based on ratings provided by the study’s respondents on fast-food chains they visited in the past three months. In all, Quick-Track surveyed more than 84,000 quick-service restaurant users in 70 U.S. markets during 2007.

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