Chick-fil-A Named America’s Favorite Restaurant Chain – Again

Food & Drink

Chick-fil-A has once again been named the top limited-service restaurant chain in the country–its fourth year in a row claiming the top spot on the American Customer Satisfaction Index.  

The ACSI offers as strong of a pulse as one can get on the industry, as it’s based on the input of nearly 23,000 consumers.  

That Chick-fil-A is a perennial favorite is no surprise. The chain, known for its customer service training, has had quite a year–generating more than $10.4 billion in sales and leapfrogging Taco Bell and Subway for the No. 3 spot in the industry, according to National’s Restaurant News. This is quite a feat considering the chain is open just six days a week. 

Notably, the chain didn’t perform as strongly as it did last year, losing one percentage point in ACSI’s 100-point scale, from 87 to 86. But it still looms large over its closest competition on the consumer satisfaction scale, outpacing “all other restaurants” at No. 2 with a score of 82, and Panera at No. 3 with a score of 81. 

Four chains tied for fourth with a score of 80–Arby’s, Chipotle, Papa John’s and Pizza Hut. The latter two chains have been jockeying for the runner-up prize in the pizza category behind market share leader Domino’s since 2017

The tie itself may come as a surprise for Pizza Hut fans considering the much-publicized, tumultuous year Papa John’s has endured. However, Papa John’s sales have yet to reflect this relatively high level of customer satisfaction. The company’s sales in 2018 dropped more than 7% and its adjusted net income declined $71.9 million. Further, BTIG analysts cautioned earlier this week that any meaningful turnaround has yet to take hold. 

The remaining chains on the ACSI are at or below the industry average. Domino’s is flat at 79, perhaps another surprise considering its dominant market share position and industry-leading, customer-facing technology investments

Citing lack of variety, Little Caesars is the lowest ranked chain in the pizza category, with a score of 77. This may soon change, however, as Little Caesars is the largest pizza brand to jump on the high-demand, plant-based trend with an Impossible Pizza test.  

Starbucks inched up 1% this year to 79, breaking last year’s tie with Dunkin’, which stayed stable at 78 despite significant branding changes (just “Dunkin’” will do now), and a heavier focus on espresso coffee versus donuts in an attempt to woo younger consumers. 

Subway dropped 1% to 79, the only other chain besides Chick-fil-A to experience a decline this year. Subway’s drop comes as the beleaguered chain experiences a significant amount of closures and some turmoil with its franchisees.  

KFC showed a 1% gain to garner a 78 score, while sister chain Taco Bell also ticked up a percentage point, to 75. As the ACSI points out, these results coincide with parent company Yum Brands’ ongoing three-year initiative to transform the business. For KFC specifically, this effort has led to five straight years of same-store sales growth and the chain is aiming to generate net new unit growth this year for the first time since 2004

Rounding out the list are burger heavyweights Wendy’s (77), Burger King (76), Sonic (76), Jack in the Box (75) and McDonald’s (69). 

This is the fourth straight year McDonald’s has hovered at the bottom of the ACSI rankings with a score of 69, despite its efforts to transform into its Experience of the Future design. Still, these lagging customer satisfaction scores have had no bearing on the chain’s financial performance as of late. According to Restaurant Business, McDonald’s same-store sales growth has outpaced all of its burger competitors in the space, including an impressive 4.5% jump in Q1.  

In other words, while the ACSI’s thesis that higher levels of customer satisfaction tend to generate higher earnings and stock returns, it doesn’t always work that way in practice. Even though the quick-service segment showed an overall decline in customer satisfaction scores, for example, analysts recently pointed out that fast food stocks are on a tear this year. 

Next year should be even more interesting as these QSRs start to realize the effects of their significant technology investments aimed at enhancing the customer experience. McDonald’s, for example, recently spent $300 million on Dynamic Yield, a technology company that uses artificial intelligence to create a more personalized experience at the drive-thru. Sonic is also testing AI-powered menus, while Taco Bell and KFC focus on self-order kiosks, and Chipotle tinkers with a new drive-thru lane specifically for mobile orders. All of these efforts (which are just the tip of the iceberg) are being made specifically to remove ordering friction, which should–in theory at least–provide a bit of a customer satisfaction lift.      

That is, if customers actually want friction removed. Considering the disparity between full-service scores (81) and limited-service scores (79), one has to wonder if “customer satisfaction” comes from speed and convenience or good, old-fashion service itself. 

As foot traffic slows across the entire industry, off-premise occasions are projected to grow at a staggering pace. That said, according to ACSI data, diners who order food for delivery are more satisfied (83) than those who dine in (79). This means that operators will have to continue to navigate the tricky paradox of service versus speed in their never-ending quest to satisfy their customers.  

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