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Consumer Trends

Consumers' favorite chains

In today’s crowded, competitive market, operators must figure out what’s most important to their target customers to get them in the door—and keep them coming back. Those that have managed to crack the code landed a spot on our first-ever ranking of consumers’ favorite brands. Here, based on exclusive data from Chicago-based research and consulting firm Technomic, are what consumers say are their favorite chains in each segment and why. In each instance, we cited one thing the brand is doing right—a lesson for operators looking to engage their customers and stand out from the competition.

About the research

Technomic’s Consumer Brand Metrics program is a comprehensive, ongoing brand performance study that tracks the performance of leading limited-service and full-service restaurant chains by measuring the consumer experience. This study included the top 100 chains in the U.S. in terms of sales, plus additional chains that fall outside the top 100 to round out certain categories. An online questionnaire asked consumers about the importance of more than 60 attributes related to the restaurant experience, followed by questions about specific restaurant brands and recent experiences with those brands. The data represents responses from approximately 80,000 consumers, with data collection occurring between Oct. 1, 2012 and Sept. 30, 2013. Scores represent the percentage of respondents who strongly agree with the statements on a scale of 1 to 5.

Top 5 brands overall

Service and
Unit appearance
and ambiance
Food and
and takeout
1.Papa Murphy's66.9%81%53%59%77%66%
3.Cracker Barrel Old Country Store63.6%71%64%62%62%58%
4.Firehouse Subs63.5%77%59%60%68%53%
5.In-N-Out Burger60.5%77%53%52%64%57%


Top Chain: Papa Murphy’s Take 'N' Bake Pizza

This 1,400-unit take-and-bake pizza chain once again has managed to make its way into the hearts (and stomachs) of diners. In several surveys, including Technomic’s, Papa Murphy’s has consistently reigned among the top-rated chains. In this year’s ranking, the chain took the highest spot in three of the five scored attributes: service and hospitality, convenience and takeout, and value. So what is Papa Murphy’s
doing right?

At the core of Papa Murphy’s business is value, both in terms of its customers’ time and money. It has identified itself as the solution for busy families who don’t often have time to make a fresh meal from scratch. Papa Murphy’s restaurants do all of the prep work and still allow for a meal that is cooked at home—all consumers have to do is put the prepared, uncooked pizza in the oven. And this convenience does not come at the price of quality. The brand drives home its quality message by making the pizzas to order in front of the customer with fresh ingredients—and touting its competitive advantage: dough is made fresh daily, cheese is shredded in-house daily and vegetables are cut and prepared every morning. The end result is a scratch-made, affordable meal specified to the diner’s liking, but without the prep time.

The chain’s service style also differentiates it from most other big-name pizza brands. Instead of waiting for the delivery guy, consumers are the ones doing the cooking. That means not only do they have control over when they eat, they also have a connection to the meal because they put some effort into its preparation. This, paired with a price point that ranked among the top in value, is what drives the decidedly family-friendly business. 

Quick Service

With three of the top five chains overall hailing from the quick-service segment—Papa Murphy’s, Chick-fil-A and In-N-Out Burger—it’s worth looking into what they’re doing well. As expected, all three chains received high marks in the area of convenience and takeout. All also ranked high in service and hospitality. One main factor in that category: the attitude of the staff. According to Technomic, some 91 percent of consumers say that pleasant, friendly service is important in their quick-service decision.

#1 Papa Murphy’s

Parent: Papa Murphy’s International
HQ: Vancouver, Wash.
President and CEO: Ken Calwell
Units: 1,400
Website: papamurphys.com

What they’re doing right:
Menu development has been at the cornerstone of Papa Murphy’s success. As of late, the chain has invested in and retooled its product development. Instead of creating LTOs, there’s a focus on developing strong items that could become permanent fixtures on the menu. This shift doesn’t take away from letting diners know that pizzas are made with fresh ingredients. The chain uses its social media channels to promote the quality of its ingredients. Facebook and Twitter posts have included pictures of fresh vegetables, while others boast about preparation. A recent post about fresh ingredients got more than 500 Facebook likes.

Overall: 66.9%
Service and hospitality: 81%
Appearance and ambiance: 53%
Food and beverage: 59%
Convenience and takeout: 77%
Value: 66%

#2 Chick-fil-A

Parent: Chick-fil-A, Inc.
HQ: Atlanta
Chairman, President and CEO: Dan T. Cathy
Units: 1,771
Website: chick-fil-a.com

What they’re doing right:
Chick-fil-A stood by its mission to “promote a healthy lifestyle” by rolling out four better-for-you meals this past April. Designed with the health-conscious diner in mind, the three new entree salads—Cobb Salad, Asian Salad and Grilled Market Salad—are made fresh throughout the day from premium ingredients. Chick-fil-A also revamped its salad dressing options, offering new dressings unique to the chain. The other new item is the Grilled Chicken Cool Wrap, built on all-natural, high-fiber flax bread. Nutritional info is promoted for all four items, along with the rest of Chick-fil-A’s menu.

Overall: 64.9%
Service and hospitality: 78%
Appearance and ambiance: 61%
Food and beverage: 61%
Convenience and takeout: 69%
Value: 55%

#3 In-N-Out Burger

Parent: In-N-Out Burger
HQ: Irvine, Calif.
President and owner: Lynsi Torres
Units: 289
Website: in-n-out.com

What they’re doing right:
A perpetual consumer favorite, In-N-Out Burger is known for its loyal fan base, with some going as far as to call its fans cult-like. Much of the chain’s new business is garnered from the word-of-mouth of its already enthusiastic fans—and the enthusiasm and insider buzz extends to its famous secret menu. The chain keeps its social media chatter to a minimum, posting mainly about new restaurant openings, retail clothing sales and major events. When the chain celebrated its 65th anniversary this October, its Facebook post received more than 29,000 likes, more than 1,300 comments and more than 5,000 shares.

Overall: 60.5%
Service and hospitality: 77%
Appearance and ambiance: 53%
Food and beverage: 52%
Convenience and takeout: 64%
Value: 57%

#4 Culver’s

Overall score: 58.4%
Culver’s ties engaging social media elements into menu promotions, getting consumers excited about different offerings and LTOs. The chain ran a successful fish-face photo contest on Facebook to promote its cod items and coincide with its walleye special.

#5 Krispy Kreme

Overall score: 58.1%
Krispy Kreme constantly rolled out new and seasonal flavors in 2013. From a line of dark-chocolate doughnuts to seasonal fruit flavors, consumers often had the option to try something different.

Fast Casual

As chains strive to find the right balance between price and quality, the fast-casual market is booming. These operators seemingly have found the sweet spot, managing to capitalize on the middle ground of taste versus cost. From the consumer standpoint, the food quality is a notch above that of traditional fast food, but it still comes out quicker and cheaper than most full-service meals. As diners continue to trade up from quick service and trade down from casual dining, the fast-casual market will continue to grow and get more competitive.

#1 Firehouse Subs

Parent: Firehouse of America, LLC
HQ: Jacksonville, Fla.
CEO: Don Fox
Units: 707

What they’re doing right:
Giving back to the community—specifically first responders (firefighters, police officers and EMTs)—is at the forefront of Firehouse Subs’ operation. The chain helps its customers to get involved too, encouraging goodwill by running promotions and drives for its Public Safety Foundation. At the beginning of 2013, for example, the sandwich chain ran a Pickle Bucket Post-a-Thon, during which it donated $1 to its foundation for every fan photo featuring a Firehouse Subs Pickle Bucket posted to its social media pages.

Overall: 63.5%
Service and hospitality: 77%
Appearance and ambiance: 59%
Food and beverage: 60%
Convenience and takeout: 68%
Value: 53%

#2 McAlister’s Deli

Parent: Roark Capital
HQ: Atlanta
President and CEO: Frank Paci
Units: 324

What they’re doing right:
McAlister’s hosted its fifth annual Free Tea Day on July 25, where it served an estimated 320,000 32-ounce glasses of free iced tea. This annual one-day event has become a mainstay for the chain’s fans, so it’s heavily promoted to assure the date is public knowledge. In addition to in-store and social media-based marketing for the event, the chain ran a Sweet Summer Sweepstakes to coincide with the tea giveaway. As part of the sweepstakes, McAlister’s offered up one $100 gift card every day leading up to Free Tea Day, starting July 1. The grand prize, announced the day of the giveaway included free tea every week for a year and a sponsored, catered party.

Overall: 59.5%
Service and hospitality: 72%
Appearance and ambiance: 55%
Food and beverage: 59%
Convenience and takeout: 61%
Value: 50%

#3 Jason’s Deli

Parent: Deli Management, Inc.
HQ: Beaumont, Texas
Founder and CEO: Joe Tortorice, Jr.
Units: 247
Website: jasonsdeli.com

What they’re doing right:
Jason’s Deli makes sure to pay attention to all of its guests—including those with food allergies and dietary restrictions. To honor National Celiac Awareness Month last May, Jason’s Deli used Facebook to encourage guests to check out its “Gluten-Sensitive” menu. The expansive menu includes everything from soups and salads to sandwiches built on gluten-free bread. The menu even lists gluten-free options for
kids. Customers who tried gluten-free items and posted a photo of their dish via Instagram or Twitter were entered for the chance to win a $10 gift card.

Overall: 58.5%
Service and hospitality: 71%
Appearance and ambiance: 50%
Food and beverage: 59%
Convenience and takeout: 64%
Value: 49%

#4 Jersey Mike’s Subs

Overall score: 58.0%
In 2013, Jersey Mike’s rolled out a new mobile app that combines digital ordering with tracking and managing loyalty points. It also allows users to post to social media, find a nearby location and access nutritional information.

#5 Panera Bread

Overall score: 57.1%
Panera has continued to expand its Panera Cares program, opening the fifth pay-what-you-can unit in 2013. The non-profit model assures that all consumers who need a meal get one, with some diners paying less than the suggested donation price for their meal and others paying the suggested price or more.


It’s no secret that the midscale segment—full-service all-day concepts with moderate check averages—has struggled in the last several years. Consumers just aren’t visiting these value-driven restaurants as much as they used to as a result of other segments encroachment on their business. With higher quality offerings from fast-casual concepts and value pricing and deals from the casual-dining sector, many midscale restaurant operators are fighting to remain afloat. Those who have been successful understand the need to excel in a variety of service attributes to avoid being edged out by the other segments.

#1 Cracker Barrel

Parent: Cracker Barrel Old Country Store, Inc.
HQ: Lebanon, Tenn.
President and CEO: Sandra B. Cochran
Units: 625

What they’re doing right:
Cracker Barrel wants to make the holidays easy on busy consumers. The chain took to social media to tout its retail store as the perfect place to purchase a gift, especially while diners were already out at the restaurant, making dining and shopping an easy combination. To make its fans aware of what’s in stores, Cracker Barrel posted pictures of available gifts to its Facebook page. These posts saw positive results—a single Facebook post of assorted holiday candy and treats got 1,240 likes and 73 comments.

Overall: 63.6%
Service and hospitality: 71%
Appearance and ambiance: 64%
Food and beverage: 62%
Convenience and takeout: 62%
Value: 58%

#2 Bob Evans

Parent: Bob Evans Farms, Inc.
HQ: New Albany, Ohio
CEO and Chairman of the Board: Steven A. Davis
Units: 561
Website: bobevans.com

What they’re doing right:
Bob Evans partnered with a tech company this fall to develop a location-based app. This new technology allows the chain to send information on deals and promotions to customers who are in close proximity to a Bob Evans location. Consumers who download the app and subscribe will receive phone notifications of deals when they are within a certain parameter from a unit, targeting customers who are out and on the go.

Overall: 55.8%
Service and hospitality: 66%
Appearance and ambiance: 54%
Food and beverage: 54%
Convenience and takeout: 58%
Value: 47%

#3 Shoney’s

Parent: Shoney’s North America Corp.
HQ: Nashville, Tenn.
Chairman and CEO: David Davoudpour
Units: 180
Website: shoneys.com

What they’re doing right:
CEO David Davoudpour has made it his mission to revamp the brand under the “Start Fresh” slogan. That refresh includes an updated menu and look that aims to appeal to today’s consumer. Several stores, including units in Panama City Beach, Fla.; Greenwood, Miss.; Smyrna, Tenn.; and Branson, Mo., have been renovated this past year to feature an updated look. Like other units, they also serve the update menu, which emphasizes fresh food.

Overall: 50.1%
Service and hospitality: 60%
Appearance and ambiance: 46%
Food and beverage: 49%
Convenience and takeout: 51%
Value: 45%


Overall score: 50.0%
IHOP adjusted its menu design, making it easier to navigate for the consumer. The new menu also helps draw attention to lesser known dishes and newly introduced items.

#5 Village Inn

Overall score: 48.7%
Village Inn brought back its popular Pie Rush Wednesday promotion several times in 2013, offering a free slice of pie with dine-in purchases. Fans of the brand were made aware via the chain’s website and Facebook and Twitter pages.

Casual Dining

A bit of good news on the casual-dining front: customer enthusiasm is up, reports Technomic. Operators in the casual-dining arena have been forced to compete with more than just one another for the last few years—they’ve also struggled to keep up with the ever-growing fast-casual market. This increased competition has led many to up their game. Some 41 percent of consumers indicate that they are okay with the prices at upscale casual-dining restaurants because of the overall dining experience, according to Technomic’s Future of Casual Dining Trend Report. The challenge then still is to juggle the ever-changing needs of the consumer. Casual-dining operators are striving to deliver the full package and keep consumers in the mindset that casual-dining restaurants are worth it.

#1 Maggiano’s Little Italy

Parent: Brinker International, Inc.
HQ: Dallas
Senior Vice President, President of Maggiano’s: Steve Provost
Units: 45
Website: maggianos.com

What they’re doing right:
Maggiano’s gains a large number of its social media followers by running contests on its different pages. The chain increased its number of Pinterest followers in the last year and a half, for example, by running recipe contests and Pin-to-Win-type giveaways, all encouraging customer engagement. The chain even ran a Pinterest contest offering to host a wedding reception for the winning couple, conveniently promoting its catering and event abilities. Between contests and food pics, the chain ended the year with more than 1,800 pins.

Overall: 58.4%
Service and hospitality: 69%
Appearance and ambiance: 58%
Food and beverage: 57%
Convenience and takeout: 58%
Value: 50%

#2 Carrabba’s Italian Grill

Parent: Bloomin’ Brands, Inc.
HQ: Tampa, Fla.
Executive Vice President, President of Carrabba’s: Steven Shlemon
Units: 238
Website: carrabbas.com

What they’re doing right:
To drum up business for a new menu this October, Carrabba’s turned to members of its loyalty program. The chain held a free First Tastes tasting event for members, and then tagged diners’ photos on Facebook and Twitter to get other consumers excited about the new dishes. For another Twitter conversation, the chain celebrated National Lasagna Day in July by sending its chefs to Twitter to answer lasagna-focused questions during a live chat. Due to its success, the chain again did a live Q&A session with chefs via Twitter in October.

Overall: 58%
Service and hospitality: 68%
Appearance and ambiance: 59%
Food and beverage: 58%
Convenience and takeout: 54%
Value: 51%

#3 Bonefish Grill

Parent: Bloomin’ Brands, Inc.
HQ: Tampa, Fla.
Executive Vice President, President of Bonefish Grill: Stephen Judge
Units: 188
Website: bonefishgrill.com

What they’re doing right:
Bonefish Grill makes sure its fans don’t miss deals and specials. Its well-known Wednesday $5 Bang Bang Shrimp deal is promoted via social media every week. Facebook mentions of that deal got anywhere from 450 to more than 800 likes throughout 2013. Similarly, the chain made sure fans were aware of its seasonal LTOs. Several “don’t miss” mentions for soft shell crab got more than 800 likes, and the post mentioning the last day for availability of Day Boat Scallops reached nearly 1,000 likes.

Overall: 56.6%
Service and hospitality: 69%
Appearance and ambiance: 56%
Food and beverage: 56%
Convenience and takeout: 55%
Value: 48%

#4 Texas Roadhouse

Overall score: 56.4%
The chain has recently taken to sharing recipes with its consumers. A glance at Pinterest will teach fans to make homemade Apple Twice Baked Sweet Potato or Texas Roadhouse’s chicken wings.

#5 Olive Garden

Overall score: 56.3%
Olive Garden has updated its TV ad campaigns to relate to younger consumers, switching from an Old World Italian theme to a more modern feel. These campaigns also promote consumer-friendly deals such as two dinners for $25.

Millennials’ Favorite Chains

More so than their older counterparts, millennial diners—which Technomic defines as ages 21 to 36—seek out options based on cravings and moods. They also tend to look more for new and unique flavors than members of the Gen X and Baby Boomer groups, as well as options to customize, according to Technomic. Here are their favorites:

Top Quick-Service Chains

In-N-Out Burger
Overall score: 70.9%

Krispy Kreme
Overall score: 69.8%

Papa Murphy’s
Overall score: 68.1%

Top Fast-Casual Chains

Overall score: 66.0%

Jason’s Deli
Overall score: 64.1%

Five Guys
Overall score: 63.5%

Top Casual-Dining Chains

Red Lobster
Overall score: 64.6%

Bonefish Grill
Overall score: 62.1%

LongHorn Steakhouse
Overall score: 60.2%

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