While fast-food chains are keen to capture the latest flavor trend or launch the most innovative menu item, many are forgetting core ingredients of the restaurant experience, new research suggests. In a recent study from Market Force Information, a Louisville-based consumer research firm, more than 12,700 consumers were asked to rate quick-service and fast-casual restaurants on seven attributes, including cleanliness, atmosphere, food quality, friendly service, fast service, healthy food and value. More than two-thirds of respondents said certain brands performed only three or fewer of these factors very well.
“Brands should be on alert to the fact that many of their individual restaurants do not deliver a great experience,” said Cheryl Flink, chief strategy officer for Market Force. “There is clearly room to improve.”
The study ranked top quick-service restaurant chains in four categories, including pizza, Mexican, chicken and sandwiches.
“Across the board, fewer than half of consumers said they had a really great experience in a restaurant,” Dr. Flink said. “If you’re going to drive loyalty to the brand, those numbers have got to go up because the industry is so very competitive.”
A particular threat to the sandwich category are convenience stores. Wawa, for one, scored highly among the likes of Jason’s Deli, Panera Bread, Jimmy John’s and Subway.
“Wawa has really gained market share by focusing on both convenience and good food,” Dr. Flink said. “That puts enormous pressure on Q.S.R.s, who are traditionally positioned on convenience and good food as well. And now we have convenience stores that are very convenient getting into the food market.”
Sandwich shops may snag back stomach share by playing to their strengths. Brands positioned on affordability, for example, must deliver the value customers expect.
“If they are basing their brand off of speed, they need to make sure that speed is there,” Dr. Flink said. “If it’s customization, like Subway, they need to make sure all of the things used to customize a sandwich are there, and that the new menu items are clearly understood and delivered by the front line teams.”
Fast-casual restaurants also are biting into Q.S.R.’s business. In Market Force’s study, Chipotle Mexican Grill topped the rankings of Mexican chains with a composite loyalty score of 59%, while Taco John’s and Taco Bell sank to the bottom with scores of 36% and 34%, respectively.
“Fast-casual restaurants generally deliver a higher quality of food accompanied by a higher price,” Dr. Flink said. “Many millennials have gravitated to this model. Q.S.R.s are being pressed, crunched for market share by both fast-casual focusing on high quality food and by convenience stores. Focusing on convenience and good food.”
Other noteworthy findings from the study:
Papa Murphy’s ranked highest among pizza chains for its take-and-bake pies.
“I think as people are trying to balance work and home, they don’t want to serve their children a frozen pizza or have something delivered out of a box but perhaps feel there’s something about taking it home and baking it that feels a bit more like home, a little more customized,” Dr. Flink said.
A third of consumers said they prefer to use a mobile app or tabletop technology to order and pay for food.
“Most restaurant brands are focusing on service as their competitive differentiator today, but that may not be the case tomorrow as technology for ordering and paying continues to attract attention,” Dr. Flink said.
Thirty-eight per cent of respondents visited a chicken chain at least five times in the 90-day period, and 24% brought children on the most recent visit. Chick-fil-A scored highest in the category with a composite loyalty score of 74%, while Church’s Chicken and KFC came in last, at 32% and 31%, respectively.