Jimmy John's chips and sandwich.
KFC restaurant.

Let’s step away from the sales and into the consumer response. What did this past year tell us?

Many quick-service restaurant brands benefited from being well-positioned to support off-premises dining during COVID waves. Already serving a high percentage of sales through drive-thrus, they were set up to do more of the same. Or were they? Looking at satisfaction ratings for the QSR 50 brands, it appears their guests did not always feel the same. Guest satisfaction declined a quarter of a star from January to December 2021. While the entire restaurant industry also experienced a drop, it was less severe. So, what caused the downward shift, what impact did it have on sales, and what does this mean for the future?

The Why Behind the Movement

It seems QSR 50 chains were perhaps not as prepared as may have been concluded, at least from the perspective of consumers response. Review velocity increased dramatically from March through August of 2021. This likely indicates there was a similar increase in demand. Pent-up demand drove impressive sales comps, not only over 2020, but in some cases over 2019, as drive-thru and carryout became the go-to for COVID-conscious diners. However, the decline in satisfaction—especially the greater fall for the top quick-service chains in America—indicates fast food was generally not prepared to serve diners with the same level of guest experience as they were known for in the past (labor shortages could be a culprit). Diners more frequently cited the quality of food declined, as did staff demeanor.




We can dig deeper into the feedback that makes up overall guest satisfaction to see why guests were less satisfied over time. Using Merchant Centric’s proprietary Artificial Intelligence, we count the number of positive and negative mentions within review feedback on key themes such as Food, Staff Demeanor, Staff Dedication, Timeliness, Service Accuracy, Price/Value, Loyalty & Referral and 100-plus additional themes. We then use Theme Performance Scores (tps), the ratio of positive mentions for a theme relative to the percentage of negative mentions for the same theme. A TPS score of 1.0 indicates that guests mention that theme at the same rate positively and negatively. The higher the score, the better, as it indicates a higher ratio of positive mentions to negative mentions. The table below shows the TPS of key themes for the QSR 50 in 2021.

Merchant Centric chart.

Praise for Food and Staff Demeanor have the highest mention rates in review feedback and, as seen in the table, also have the highest TPS scores. This indicates they are key themes guests focus on when determining their rating. The table shows that both declined over time, with Food declining 32 percent by end of year and Demeanor declining 26 percent. This indicates guest satisfaction with Food quality and staff Demeanor deteriorated significantly over 2021. 

Timeliness, another key theme for quick-service brands, had a similar decline as Food, although less frequently mentioned. Staff Dedication boasted the largest decline, occurring largely in the second half of the year, and appears to indicate restaurants are still struggling to hire, train, and retain staff with the same efficiency as pre-COVID. Ironically, Order Accuracy—another highly important theme for the sector—was not as negatively recognized over time. 

The decline in guest experience among the QSR 50 concepts resulted in declines in perception of Price/Value, ultimately challenging the all-important decision as to whether guests will remain loyal, return or refer others. We see respective declines for Price/Value and Loyalty/Referral at 23 and 22 percent, respectively.

So, what does this mean for the remainder of 2022 and beyond? Guests will show loyalty to brands that delight them with a well-rounded and high-quality experience, no longer simply because they are open and convenient. Quick-serves looking to understand why their comp sales in 2022 are down should explore what guests are saying online and via internal feedback forms. Ensuring your restaurant meets all the tenants of your brand promise will be key to winning in 2022, as the landscape is ripe with opportunity to capture loyal guests from competitors. Guests are starved for quality taste options served by gracious staff, which generally presents an opportunity for emerging chains. Just look at Chick-fil-A—which sits atop our guest satisfaction table—and see brands that deliver on what they are known for will succeed.

Note: All data and analytics presented in this article are based upon Merchant Centric’s findings and, like all data sets, are inherently limited in scope and nature. Data presented herein may not be comprehensive and may exclude certain brands or brand locations. Data is provided without guarantee as to its accuracy, completeness, or currency, and Merchant Centric expressly disclaims any and all liability resulting from reliance on information or opinions included herein. Brands selected are for illustrative purposes only and data should not be relied on as reflective of or attributable to all brands within a segment or cuisine. Please note that certain brands included herein are clients of Merchant Centric.

Theme Performance Scores (tps) is the ratio of positive mentions for a theme relative to the percentage of negative mentions for the same theme in all reviews collected for the brand. A TPS score of 1.0 would indicate that guests mention that theme at the same rate positively and negatively. The higher the score, the better, as it indicates a higher ratio of positive mentions to negative mentions

Adam Leff is the co-founder and Chief Strategy Officer for Merchant Centric, a leading reputation management solution that caters to the restaurant, veterinary, and automotive industries.

Image credits:Culver’s

Leaders: 3.89+ Stars (out of five stars)

1. Chick-fil-A

Food: 5.65

Dedication: 2.37

Loyalty and Referral: 1.40

Image credits:Chick-fil-A

2. Culver’s

Food: 6.47

Dedication: 3.41

Loyalty and Referral: 2.09

Image credits:Culver’s

3. Raising Cane’s

Food: 5.71

Dedication: 2.22

Loyalty and Referral: 1.94

Image credits:Raising Cane’s

4. In-N-Out Burger

Food: 5.88

Dedication: 6.75

Loyalty and Referral: 2.60

Image credits:Adobe Stock

5. Papa Murphy’s

Food: 7.70

Dedication: 2.53

Loyalty and Referral: 1.54

Image credits:Papa Murphy’s

6. Freddy’s Frozen Custard

Food: 5.36

Dedication: 2.95

Loyalty and Referral: 2.20

Image credits:Freddy’s Frozen Custard & Steakburgers

7. Five Guys

Food: 5.16

Dedication: 1.87

Loyalty and Referral: 1.48

Image credits:Adobe Stock

8. Starbucks


Image credits:Starbucks

9. Krispy Kreme

Food: 6.50

Dedication: 3.00

Loyalty and Referral: 0.75

Image credits:Krispy Kreme

10. Firehouse Subs

Food: 5.50

Dedication: 1.57

Loyalty and Referral: 1.37

Image credits:Firehouse Subs

11. McAlister’s Deli

Food: 5.08

Dedication: 1.73

Loyalty and Referral: 1.51

Image credits:McAlister’s Deli

12. Jersey Mike’s

Food: 5.23

Dedication: 1.72

Loyalty and Referral: 1.37

Image credits:Jersey Mike’s

13. Shake Shack

Food: 3.00

Dedication: 1.78

Loyalty and Referral: 1.54

Image credits:Shake Shack

14. Dairy Queen

Food: 3.68

Dedication: 1.55

Loyalty and Referral: 0.92

Image credits:Dairy Queen

15. Marco’s Pizza

Food: 4.79

Dedication: 4.21

Loyalty and Referral: 1.46

Image credits:Marco’s Pizza

16. Arby’s

Food: 3.77

Dedication: 1.70

Loyalty and Referral: 1.06

Image credits:Arby’s

17. Whataburger

Food: 2.46

Dedication: 1.25

Loyalty and Referral: 0.73

Image credits:Whataburger

Straddlers: 3.61-3.88 Stars

18. White Castle

Food: 2.75


Loyalty and Referral: 0.89

Image credits:White Castle

19. Moe’s

Food: 2.99

Dedication: 1.37

Loyalty and Referral: 0.95

Image credits:Focus Brands

20. Subway

Food: 3.29

Dedication: 1.31

Loyalty and Referral: 0.81

Image credits:Subway

21. Zaxby’s

Food: 2.80

Dedication: 0.91

Loyalty and Referral: 0.86

Image credits:Zaxby’s

22. Qdoba

Food: 2.98

Dedication: 1.39

Loyalty and Referral: 1.09

Image credits:QDOBA

23. Tropical Smoothie Café

Food: 2.68

Dedication: 1.11

Loyalty and Referral: 0.90

Image credits:Tropical Smoothie Cafe

24. Pizza Hut

Food: 2.26

Dedication: 1.09

Loyalty and Referral: 0.87

Image credits:Pizza Hut

25. Del Taco

Food: 2.66

Dedication: 1.06

Loyalty and Referral: 0.87

Image credits:Del Taco

26. Carl’s Jr

Food: 2.29

Dedication: 1.20

Loyalty and Referral: 0.75

Image credits:Adobe Stock

27. Panera Bread

Food: 3.09

Dedication: 1.23

Loyalty and Referral: 0.90

Image credits:Panera

28. Sonic Drive-In

Food: 2.28

Dedication: 0.92

Loyalty and Referral: 0.77

Image credits:Sonic Drive-In

29. Baskin-Robbins



Image credits:Baskin-Robbins

30. Hardee’s

Food: 2.60

Dedication: 1.37

Loyalty and Referral: 0.74

Image credits:CKE Restaurants

31. Dunkin’

Food: 1.91

Dedication: 1.18

Loyalty and Referral: 0.63

Image credits:Dunkin’

32. Bojangles

Food: 2.83

Dedication: 1.04

Loyalty and Referral: 0.76

Image credits:Bojangles

33. Tim Hortons

Food: 1.80

Dedication: 1.24

Loyalty and Referral: 0.69

Image credits:Tim Hortons

34. Little Caesars

Food: 2.50

Dedication: 0.69

Loyalty and Referral: 0.70

Image credits:Little Caesars

35. Checkers/Rally’s

Food: 2.62

Dedication: 0.83

Loyalty and Referral: 0.70


Image credits:Checkers & Rally’s

Chasers: 3.60 and below

36. El Pollo Loco

Food: 2.20

Dedication: 0.90

Loyalty and Referral: 0.79

Image credits:El Pollo Loco

37. Jack in the Box

Food: 2.02

Dedication: 0.82

Loyalty and Referral: 0.71

Image credits:Jack in the Box

38. Wendy’s

Food: 2.10

Dedication: 0.80

Loyalty and Referral: 0.68

Image credits:Wendy’s

39. Taco Bell

Food: 2.25

Dedication: 1.08

Loyalty and Referral: 0.74

Image credits:Taco Bell

40. Panda Express

Food: 2.09

Dedication: 0.97

Loyalty and Referral: 0.73

Image credits:Panda Express

41. Church’s Chicken

Food: 2.39

Dedication: 0.88

Loyalty and Referral: 0.65

Image credits:Church’s Chicken

42. Jimmy John’s

Food: 3.64

Dedication: 0.90

Loyalty and Referral: 0.77

Image credits:Jimmy John’s

43. Wingstop

Food: 2.05

Dedication: 1.02

Loyalty and Referral: 0.91

Image credits:Wingstop

44. McDonald’s

Food: 1.27

Dedication: 0.84

Loyalty and Referral: 0.61

Image credits:

45. Domino’s

Food: 1.77

Dedication: 0.52

Loyalty and Referral: 0.66

Image credits:Domino’s

46. Papa Johns

Food: 1.99

Dedication: 0.62

Loyalty and Referral: 0.63

Image credits:Papa John’s

47. Burger King

Food: 1.43

Dedication: 0.84

Loyalty and Referral: 0.56

Image credits:Burger King

48. Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen

Food: 2.26

Dedication: 0.69

Loyalty and Referral: 0.58

Image credits:Popeyes

49. KFC

Food: 1.67

Dedication: 0.75

Loyalty and Referral: 0.55

Image credits:KFC

50. Chipotle

Food: 1.51

Dedication: 0.73

Loyalty and Referral: 0.57

Image credits:Chipotle
Fast Food, QSR Slideshow