My favorite industry's-eye-view publication, Nation's Restaurant News, ran the results of a favorite quick-service chain poll conducted by a consumer trends research firm called Market Force Information.
The results of the poll were calculated in an interesting way: The votes earned by each chain were divided by the number of its locations to control for the availability of a given food option. While a bit crude as a statistical technique, this yielded results that were pretty plausible. What follows: the top and bottom three chains out of the top 13 from the poll, with some color commentary.
Rating: Number 1
Five Guys does a really plausible old-fashioned American "better burger" and fantastic fresh fries. Inasmuch as we wish we could go back to the 1950s and figure out what made McDonald's so popular, this is it: When you make food to order and use good ingredients, humble American burgers become crave-worthy.
Rating: Number 2
If you've met an In-N-Out Burger customer, you've probably met a fanatic. From the fresh taste to the "secret menu" to the overall hip throwback vibe, this is a very simple idea executed very, very well. If there's an In-N-Out in your area, and you like burgers, it quickly becomes your favorite fast-food joint—with a bullet. The only surprise is that it didn't top Five Guys, which usually loses to In-N-Out in taste challenges.
Rating: Number 3
It's just humble old chicken, right? Not even a proper fried chicken joint, per se. And yet, there's a fanatic contingent out there. Chowhound flstnole writes in a thread about the restaurant: "Just wanted to see if anyone else loves Chick-fil-A as much as me. I could eat it for every meal." Honey Bee's story is even crazier: "my indulgent mother used to go to Chick-fil-A every Monday and buy five original sandwiches. She would drop one off at school and stash the remaining four in the fridge for the rest of the week. She did this every week of the school year from first grade through eighth grade." Apparently all the chain needs to do is wrangle its burgeoning reputation for being anti-gay; when they're writing Internet satire about you, you've got a growing image problem.
Rating: Third to last.
Plausibility: Not very.
This seems to be a case where ubiquity is working against the restaurant—McDonald's has roughly 14 million locations in the U.S., meaning that by this survey's math, it would be nearly impossible for the chain to get ahead regardless of how many people go there for breakfast. While many of McDonald's mainstay menu items are driven by economy first, appearance second, and taste last, the chain innovates like crazy. If it's not coffee, it's yogurt, or breakfast, or ... etc. And McPizza, right? Love that stuff. (Yes, I'm fully aware that McPizza is widely disliked.)
Rating: Second to last
Like McDonald's, Subway is everywhere, which no doubt hurts it in a survey weighted like this one. But, ironically, Subway's long-term market positioning—as a place where you can eat healthy food that helps you lose weight—may hurt it with customer loyalty. It can be seen as a place you have to go to eat sensibly, not the heaven-sent answer to a raging fast-food craving.
Rating: Dead last
Plausibility: Extremely high.
The brand's signature burger, the Whopper, has been irrelevant for years, if not decades; the rise of "better burger" chains has got its number. Something's gotta give.