NRN presents Consumer Picks — a comprehensive look at customer preference and restaurant brand strength. This annual special report is produced with WD Partners.
Find out more about individual restaurant brand rankings and scores >>
NRN editor-in-chief Sarah E. Lockyer
What’s your favorite fast-food sandwich?
That’s one of my favorite questions to ask. The answers vary so widely and often speak volumes about the person, like where they are from (In-N-Out enthusiasts are typically from California), whether they are honest (I believe very few people who say, “I’ve never had fast food”) and how much fun they like to have (I find those who enjoy this ranking game tend to also enjoy life).
Mine? Wendy’s Junior Bacon Cheeseburger. My colleagues at Nation’s Restaurant News have often heard me sing the praises of the Junior Bacon Cheeseburger, and I am often mocked for my very detailed explanation of why it’s my perfect sandwich.
• Winning Brands
• Demographic trends by segment
• In-N-Out again leads Limited Service
• Cheesecake Factory continues to lead Casual Dining
• Original Pancake House leads Family Dining
• Ruth's Chris Steak House leads Fine Dining
Outside of traditional fast food, I get into even more trouble when it comes to my love of cheeseburgers. Just two weeks ago I used Uber (an on-demand car service app) to go to a Five Guys so I could indulge in two patties with onions, ketchup and mustard (I used the ordering app to pre-order, of course). Not only did I take the car there, but I also took it home, and the driver was very happy with his side of Little Fries.
I’ve also been known to eat a soup or salad weekly at Pret A Manger, stop nearly every afternoon at Potbelly for a Diet Coke and the 100-calorie pack of chocolate cookies, and I sneak in a Domino’s pizza and breadsticks when I can — typically when the husband is traveling. As a New Yorker by birth, he condones no pizza other than our neighborhood by-the-slice Donna Bella Pizza.
Admittedly, it’s the full-service restaurant chains I don’t get to hit up often, but I did recently stop at an airport Chili’s and fell in love with the Southwestern BLT on a pretzel roll. And now that I’m thinking of airports, I can barely make a flight without grabbing Auntie Anne’s Original Pretzel Nuggets.
It’s not just me. In an age where restaurant chains are the enemy among advocates for healthful food and ingredient transparency — to be fair, some chains can do more to provide healthful alternatives and higher food standards — many of us still have our favorites. My brother gets a Chipotle burrito nearly every Sunday, my sisters tell me Noodles & Company is a favorite with their kids, and my mom feels better each time she splurges on a Starbucks coffee. Some families’ Sundays aren’t complete without a visit to IHOP, and major milestones are often celebrated at Ruth’s Chris Steak House.
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We all have some deep connections to restaurants, whether because of price, menu, friends’ recommendations or that ultimate untouchable — “craveability.”
It is those connections that we quantify here in the fourth annual Consumer Picks special report. With survey data collected and analyzed by WD Partners, our co-lead in this report, we have ranked 162 restaurant chains using more than 44,000 customer rankings of 10 dining-out attributes in four industry segments. It is the industry’s definitive look at what consumers want from a restaurant brand and which chains are winning today’s share of stomach.
Demographic differences also become clear through this study: Millennials want to know the brand was recommended, while baby boomers place a premium on cleanliness. Consumers also tell us they want craveable items from limited-service brands, a pleasing dining atmosphere from casual-dining chains and menu variety from family-dining restaurants.
Whether you are ranked in this report or not, No. 1 or No. 100, a winner in craveability or a loser on value, this report breaks down how restaurants can entice, engage and retain customers.
After all, when you land on a consumer’s list of favorites, you’re lucky. When you work to stay on that consumer’s list, you’ve won.