Four big names lose

36,733 readers rate the food, value, staff, and speed at 53 chains

Last reviewed: August 2011
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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 those four biggies 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 (264 restaurants in Arizona, California, Nevada, Texas, and Utah), Chipotle Mexican Grill (1,100 nationwide), Chick-fil-A (1,536 nationwide), and Papa Murphy's Take 'N' Bake Pizza (1,250 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:

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 eateries like 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 (1,900 in 30 states and nine countries) and Carl's Jr. (1,100 worldwide) recently started selling charbroiled turkey burgers; Subway (34,679 in 98 countries), egg-white omelets; and Little Caesars (thousands from coast to coast), pizza crust and sauce with no animal products.

Trouble is, there aren't many takers. "Indulgence wins over healthfulness every time," says 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 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 footlong Italian B.M.T. sub packs 900 calories and 40 grams of fat.