The Worst, and Best Fast Food

Burger & French Fries

The Worst, and Best Fast Food
| published July 14, 2014 |

By Thursday Review staff

It may come as a shock to some; it may come as no surprise to still others. Taco Bell, the industry leader in U.S. fast food taco and burrito production, lands dead last on a recent poll by Consumer Reports.

The survey asked tens of thousands of Consumer Reports readers to offer opinions on hundreds of restaurants nationwide. In the category of fast-food restaurants serving burritos Taco Bell, placed last. But the dubious honors do not stop there for Taco Bell’s parent company Yum Brands. Yum also owns KFC, and unfortunately for the Colonel’s legacy, the chain he founded in Corbin, Kentucky now ranks dead last among those same survey participants in the category of chicken restaurants—fried, grilled or baked.

Yum Brands was not the only major player to get hit with bad news. McDonald’s, the world’s most popular hamburger seller, came in last place among about 20 major fast food burger restaurants.

The poll, which compiled opinions from more than 30 thousand respondents, seems to offer an obvious contradiction: why would restaurants of immense popularity and huge sales land at the bottom when it comes to our opinions of quality and service?

Food purists and healthy-eating advocates would offer up an easy explanation: marketing. The fast  food industry of one of the biggest spenders when it comes to advertising, especially on television.  And any concerns over quality or content get pushed into second-place because of massive ad budgets and constant marketing bombardments.

McDonald’s, Taco Bell and KFC have never purported to sell high quality food, nor is this fare to be confused with healthy eating. On the contrary, a significant body of medical opinion now holds that these three fast food chains—very nearly by themselves—are largely responsible for a pattern of poor eating habits by Americans dating back decades, and we can in part blame these foods for a continuing increase in obesity rates and an even more troubling national increase in diabetes, heart disease and internal cancers.

On the other hand, forget those snobs and enjoy it. It’s just fast food, right?

Well, some fast food industry experts say that part of the problem for those three—McDonald’s, KFC, Taco Bell—is quality of ingredients. For Yum Brands, especially, quantity trumps quality—and high volume sales often means low cost food products and cheaper ingredients. In that sense, the results of the survey should come as no great surprise. Taco Bell is able to sell its popular tacos and burritos in huge numbers in large part because it is able to keep the cost down. Taco Bell’s burritos may cost about $1.50 each. A comparable burrito in a sit-down restaurant might run as high as $9.95 (though it may also come with a side dish or two). Taco Bell specializes in keeping its menu prices low—in part to appeal to younger diners, in part to appeal to families. Even higher-quality fast food operations like Chipotle charge more for the same items, but the difference is that Chipotle lands much higher on that same Consumer Reports survey. An equivalent burrito at Chipotle would run about $6.

For burger giant McDonald’s, which has been the target of healthy-eating advocates for decades, the issue may be more problematic. The anti-McDonald’s forces often point to McD’s massive advertising and marketing budgets, as well as the iconic restaurant’s longstanding direct appeal to children. According to Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity, the fast food industry is one of the biggest spenders on advertising. In 2012, for example, the fast food industry spent $4.6 billion on the marketing of products generally deemed unhealthy, and only a small fraction of that money was spent promoting healthy alternatives found on those same restaurants’ menus.

“Most advertising,” said Jennifer Harris, the lead author of the Rudd Center’s report, “promotes unhealthy regular menu items and often takes unfair advantage of young people’s vulnerability to marketing, making it even tougher for parents to raise healthy children.”

Yet parents and kids still swarm into McDonalds locations all across the United States. In addition to the advertising, convenience plays a huge role in the popularity of fast food—especially those three appearing at the bottom of the list.

Still, there has been some recent bad news for McDonald’s. The burger giant has had three consecutive quarters of poor profit reports—its longest stretch of negative financial news in decades. Likewise, KFC has seen its numbers suffer. Both fast food chains have watched as competitor Chick-fil-A has gained customers, often at the direct expense of their own sales. Chick-fil-A customers rank its ingredients as high quality and its service as exceptional.

The winners in recent surveys are the so-called fast-casual restaurants. The top of that list includes Chipotle Mexican Grill, Firehouse Subs, Five Guys Burgers & Fries, Jason’s Deli, Jersey Mike’s, Panera Bread, and McAlister’s Deli. Most of these restaurants have made enormous gains in sales in recent years, as well as game-changing gains in customer loyalty. All offer what they describe as fresh ingredients (at least fresher than the traditional fast food fare), and made-to-order prep work.

McDonald’s, despite its millions of diners each day, was ranked below many of its burger competitors, including Hardees, Wendy’s, White Castle, Burger King, Checkers Drive-In, and Carl’s Jr. McDonald’s even came in below Jack in the Box and Krystal.

The Consumer Reports survey ranked Chick-fil-A at the top of the chicken competitors, ahead of El Pollo Loco, Popeye’s, Boston Market, Bojangle’s, Zaxby’s and Church’s. KFC was last in terms of quality and taste. In the sandwich and sub category, Portillo’s topped the list (with the highest score of any fast food restaurant in any category), followed by Firehouse Subs, Schlotzsky’s, Jason’s Deli, and McAlister’s. At the bottom of the deli list were Arby’s, Subway and Boston-based Au Bon Pain.

McDonald’s—and again this may come as a shock to some readers—received the overall lowest score of all fast food restaurants, only slightly ahead of Taco Bell.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Step Aside, Colonel Sanders; Thursday Review; March 29, 2014.

Taco Bell is Clowning Around; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; March 27, 2014.