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Fast-food restaurants

Fast-food restaurant buying guide

Last updated: April 2013
Getting started

Getting started

Next time you have a craving for fast food, think twice about slowing down for Burger King, KFC, McDonald's, or Taco Bell.

In our first major survey of quick-service restaurants (industry-speak for fast-food chains), subscribers who made a total of more than 98,000 visits to 53 chains said that those four big corporations were worse than many others. The main reason: the uninspiring food, though they also had so-so service. Readers said those chains, which boast of supersized value, don't even offer much bang for the buck. Other major chains with relatively low scores: sandwich shops Arby's and Quiznos and pizza joints Domino's and Pizza Hut.

By contrast, our survey revealed good deals and even better meals at dozens of less-ubiquitous fast-food restaurants. Readers gave 21 of them especially high marks for food; 11 stood out for value. In-N-Out Burger (in Arizona, California, Nevada, Texas, and Utah), Chipotle Mexican Grill (nationwide), Chick-fil-A (nationwide), and Papa Murphy's Take ‘N' Bake Pizza (in 37 states and Canada) ranked at the top of their type, and offered speedy and solicitous service that the industry giants couldn't match. (Most restaurant counts are approximate.)

Our survey's other key findings include:

Diners want better food

Many restaurants scored higher for service--specifically, speed and politeness--than for food. At chains with the highest scores for food, 42 to 54 percent of patrons called the fare excellent, but at Burger King, KFC, McDonald's, and Taco Bell, no more than 11 percent of patrons did. In fact, 15 to 19 percent of respondents who ate at one of those chains thought the food was fair, poor, or very poor. At Sbarro, an international Italian chain trying to emerge from bankruptcy, 27 percent of patrons judged the food fair, poor, or very poor.

Cheap food may not be a bargain

Fifty-four percent of those surveyed cited low prices as a reason for picking a particular fast-food restaurant, and savvy shoppers can often score discounts by downloading coupons and other perks from a chain's website and social-media pages. But despite the low prices, just 19 percent of all respondents said they got excellent value for their money. In-N-Out Burger, Papa Murphy's, and CiCi's Pizza offered the best value; Sbarro, Round Table Pizza, and KFC, the worst.

Diners want a better experience

Whether they ordered cafeteria-style, at a counter, or at a drive-thru, or had food delivered, readers were much less pleased overall with fast-food restaurants than with casual full-service restaurants such as Cracker Barrel, Outback Steakhouse, and Red Lobster. Sixty percent of respondents said they were completely or very satisfied with their fast-food dining experiences vs. 68 percent of casual-restaurant patrons.

Sometimes fast food isn't

The slowest places to get fast food were KFC, Popeyes, and Pizza Hut.

Consumers talk thin but eat fat

Despite their reputation for blowing a diet to smithereens, fast-food restaurants offer plenty of healthful options. Hardee's (in 30 states) and Carl's Jr. (Mostly in Western half of U.S.) started selling charbroiled turkey burgers; Subway (nationwide), egg-white omelets, and Little Caesars (nationwide), pizza crust and sauce with no animal products.

Trouble is, there aren't many takers. "Indulgence wins over healthfulness every time," said Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Technomic, a food-service research and consulting firm in Chicago. When asked if they had eaten a healthful meal during their most recent visit to a fast-food restaurant, only 13 percent of those surveyed said yes. At pizza chains, just 4 percent said they'd ordered something healthful.

Subway, with a "Fresh Fit" menu and its spokesman Jared Fogle (an everyday guy who lost 245 pounds partly by living on the chain's low-fat subs), had the most diet-conscious eaters: Almost half of respondents who ate there said they chose a nutritious meal. But not all sandwiches are created equal, even at Subway, where the foot-long Italian B.M.T. sub packs 900 calories and 40 grams of fat.

The big picture

On average, our survey respondents bought lunch or dinner at a fast-food chain four times a month; 13 percent did so 10 or more times. Although three-quarters said the sagging economy didn't affect how often they ate fast food, 22 percent said they eat out at fast-food restaurants less often than they used to because of financial concerns.

Still, fast-food restaurants have weathered the recession better than white-tablecloth and casual restaurants, many of which were forced to offer discounts such as smaller portions at lower prices. "The restaurant industry is immediately affected by how flush consumers feel, so the recession had a huge impact," said Robin Lee Allen, executive editor of Nation's Restaurant News, a trade publication. But things are picking up. Fast food is relatively inexpensive to begin with, and chains are attracting new customers who are determined to keep eating out but on a tighter budget.

Many chains keep customers coming back with limited-time promotions. The tactic of mixing low-price choices (think Dollar Menu), patented specialties (McDonald's Big Mac), and some pricier items (like the chain's McWrap sandwiches) is called barbell or tiered pricing. Its goal is to lure customers with a few heavily advertised loss leaders, then tempt them to buy more profitable items.

That's effective, but experts wonder whether rising commodity and fuel costs will lead to price hikes that cause a double whammy: fewer cars at the drive-thru and fewer customers buying profitable fare.

To enhance the customer experience (and the perception of value), many chains are upgrading their restaurants. McDonald's, for example, replaced its classic yellow-and-red interiors with muted yellows, greens, and oranges and exchanging its fiberglass chairs for wood and faux-leather ones. In addition, many franchises added a second drive-thru window; some, a TV or two.

Besides remodeling, some chains are allowing customers to place orders online for pickup, expanding their selection of snacks and breakfast items, adding grilled items, reducing fat and sodium, and catering to customers with diabetes or gluten intolerance.

How to avoid temptation

Some states and towns have passed or are considering regulations requiring restaurants to display nutrition information at the point of sale, so it's in your face when you order. Does that keep diners from overindulging? A handful of small studies show mixed results.

Researchers at Yale University reported in a 2009 study that they observed 303 adults in New Haven, Conn., and found that a group that saw calorie counts before ordering consumed 14 percent fewer calories than a group that didn't. A study by New York University researchers who analyzed the ordering habits of consumers in low-income areas suggested that those who were exposed to calorie counts before ordering didn't make healthier choices.

Another study by researchers at Duke-National University of Singapore Graduate Medical School focused on one fast-food chain in King County, Wash., where local legislation requires calorie counts. It found that the labeling had no effect on consumer behavior in the year after the law's implementation.

A provision in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 requires consistent calorie labeling of menus at food establishments with 20 or more locations. But that part of the legislation is progressing slowly.

Even before the rule takes effect, there are plenty of ways for you to ensure that healthfulness wins over indulgence:

Visit websites

Many fast-food chains post figures for fat, calories, and sodium.

Have it your way

Many chains will hold the mayo or cheese, go easy on sauces, substitute skim milk for whole, or serve dressings on the side. Being able to customize was a key reason many respondents visited sandwich shops.

Beware of certain words

When you see "battered," "creamy," "crispy," "crusted," "sautéed," or "stuffed," read "fattening." Look for roasted, broiled, baked, grilled, charbroiled, steamed, poached, or blackened food.

Summon your willpower

Don't supersize unless you plan to feed the entire family. Opt for a single patty instead of a double- or triple-decker, the standard soft drink rather than the Bunyonesque option, and a turkey or veggie burger instead of beef. More chains carry unsweetened tea, flavored water, and coffee as alternatives to sodas. Try a side salad with low-fat dressing, and for dessert, try sliced apples with a fat-free caramel sauce instead of a vanilla shake. At Sonic, the apples and sauce are 110 calories, vs. 480 calories for the shake.


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