Consumers do not always find bigger to mean better when it comes to overall guest satisfaction at U.S. burger chains, according to Empathica Inc.’s 2013 Quick Service Restaurant Benchmark Study.

The survey of 10,000 U.S. consumers rated brands’ food, atmosphere, customer service and other attributes, and ranked the chains based on the percentage of respondents who said they were “delighted” by certain restaurants. The latest data, broken out for the burger segment, revealed that the biggest chains in the country delighted the fewest customers, while regional or upstart fast-casual brands, like In-N-Out Burger and Five Guys Burgers and Fries, inspired the highest levels of guest satisfaction most often.

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In-N-Out led the study overall, with 66 percent of its customers saying they were “delighted” by their latest experience there, followed by Five Guys with 57 percent, Whataburger with 49 percent, Culver’s with 48 percent and Steak ‘n Shake with 46 percent.

Burger King finished last out of 16 chains in the study’s burger segment report, delighting only 29 percent of its guests. McDonald’s and Wendy’s did not fare much better, delighting 32 percent and 34 percent of guests, respectively.

Dr. Gary Edwards, chief customer officer for Toronto-based Empathica, said the data revealed that advantages for McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s in marketing clout and system size may translate into traffic and sales, but often can be a disadvantage when it comes to guest satisfaction.

“The trade-off is that the top-of-mind awareness and major ad dollars and locations on every major street corner are what push consumers into quick-service restaurants,” Edwards said. “It’s not that they do an exceptional job. The gap between expectations and execution is very small, and what the big chains have going for them is their consistency. … They create an expectation that’s almost always met, so the experience becomes like a packaged good, because they manufacture all the variation [of experience] out.”

Edwards added that some of the fast-growing, newer entrants to the burger scene, like Five Guys, may experience some leveling off in their performance on Empathica’s study in the coming years as they reach and become more established in their markets. Eventually, he said, the pattern of expectations being met consistently would expose those chains to the same challenges of staying relevant, exceeding expectations, and growing incremental traffic and sales that exist for the segment’s biggest brands.

“Gravity will do its magic eventually, and there would be a sameness setting in,” he said. “Over time, they’re under the same pressure of how to innovate and keep their offerings fresh. What happens in these newer markets is that they get glutted and more fractured, and entrants settle around a mean. But now, it’s a great place for consumers to be, because there are some wonderful new choices.”

The study’s participants responded that food taste was the most important factor in determining their level of satisfaction with a restaurant experience, while menu variety was the least important factor. Two other aspects, including “attentive staff” and “I felt valued,” were listed as important to customers when they rated which restaurants delighted them.

Performance varies across dayparts

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Empathica found that some chains struggled to consistently deliver across dayparts, and the discrepancies affected those brands’ overall rankings.

Krystal, which tied for the sixth-highest overall percentage at 43 percent, was the seventh-ranked chain for customer satisfaction at lunch but the 15th-ranked chain at dinner.

Jack in the Box dropped to a tie for the ninth-highest overall delighted percentage, at 36 percent, despite being the sixth-ranked chain for satisfaction at dinner. However, its strength at dinner could not offset its ranking as 13th for lunch.

Meanwhile, In-N-Out and Five Guys finished first and second, respectively, for both mealtimes, and Steak ‘n Shake, Whataburger and Culver’s rounded out the top five in both dayparts.

“I don’t have a good explanation as to why [some brands] are not consistent across dayparts,” Edwards said. “You’d have to get up close to the advertising and where their locations are. … You have to ask yourself, are you just appealing to your most loyal segment, or do you need to hit the segments where there are more opportunities?”

He pointed to Burger King as an example of a chain that has expanded its marketing focus recently, with its “Taste is King” advertising campaign and new menu items of the past 18 months trying to position the brand beyond the narrow targeting of young males via commercials that formerly featured brand mascot The King.

Though Burger King finished at the bottom of this year’s Empathica study, Edwards speculated that the gap between Burger King and the rest of the pack might have been larger had the chain not amended its marketing.

“It’s not for me to question the strategy, but upon reflection, it’s the right approach,” he said. “It takes time to change perception. These are very slow-moving entities.”

The burger segment report findings were gleaned from Empathica’s larger Quick Service Restaurant Benchmark Study, which included 62 total brands. The 10,000 participants were surveyed in March.

Contact Mark Brandau at
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