There are a lot of considerations that go into running a successful fast food location, both in terms of turning a profit and ensuring the best possible experience for customers. The two go hand-in-hand, and according to the QSR Top 50, McDonald’s took the top spot in 2021. Not surprising, given substantial investments into new locations and tech and digital initiatives. The Top 3 was rounded out by Starbucks and Chick-fil-a, both of which posted strong financial numbers during the pandemic. All three found ways to succeed in the face of an ever-shifting pandemic. 

While a sales-oriented view of success is important, consumer-centric indicators provide additional context around what leads to success, and can even tell a slightly different story. That is what CivicScience set out to explore in a recent study launched in late Q3 of 2021, examining factors for judging food quality and dining experiences, America’s favorite brand, and who delivers the best food and dining experiences. 

While McDonald’s took the top spot in the QSR Top 50, they placed 3rd in the CivicScience rankings, trailing Wendy’s, and Chick-fil-a, which nearly 1-in-4 American adults said is the best fast-food restaurant. Rebased among fast food eaters only, here are the rankings:

Taking a closer look, the data show:

  • Men are more likely to say the Wendy’s is #1, while more men think Chick-fil-A is best, they are less likely to name it #1
  • Women are less likely to say that Chick-fil-A is #1, and are 10% more likely to say that McDonald’s is the best
  • Frequent QSR diners, people who say that they eat fast food at least once a week, or predominantly eat at fast food restaurants when dining out, are 67% more likely than the national average to say that McDonald’s is #1
  • Regional loyalty was also apparent; unsurprisingly, the South overwhelmingly says that Chick-fil-A is tops (30%), and are 25% more likely to say it’s the best compared to the average American adult, while the Northeast is more than twice as likely to say that Dunkin’ is the best
  • Compared to other adults, 18-24 year olds are nearly 60% more likely to say that McDonald’s is the best
  • On the whole, those that say that Chick-fil-A is best tend to be wealthier, identify as Republican, and fall within the 35-54 year old age bracket

But what goes into being the best? Our data shows that food quality, order accuracy, and order consistency are the three most important qualities when it comes to QSR menu options.

As for the drive-thru experience, the keys to success seem to be convenience (speed and location) and the staff (speed and friendliness).  Speed is particularly important for drive-thru, as people are 25% more likely to cite it as important compared to dining-in. Whereas cleanliness is 20% more likely to be important for dining in vs. drive-thru. But cleanliness is still in the top three for drive-thru, which means even if drive-thru is the focus, the locations can feel unclean or unsafe. 

  • Service of employees was a combination of speed of service and friendliness of the staff, which when separated out fall in the top 3 behind cleanliness. 
  • It’s important to keep in mind that cleanliness may be inflated due to COVID, but perhaps that expectation sticks around.

In summary, the recipe for success with QSRs is having top-notch service, which starts with engaged and happy employees, consistently accurate orders with high quality ingredients served quickly, and, especially now, a clean environment.