Restaurant rivalries: Which coffee, Mexican food, and burger brands keep customers happy?

Will you get the better breakfast at Starbucks or Dunkin’? Does Chipotle or Taco Bell have higher quality Mexican food? Which burger joint has the fastest service?

While the ACSI can never answer these questions definitively, we can tell you what customers think about everything from food quality to store speed to mobile ordering.

When we look at scores for some of the biggest restaurant rivalries in the business, we get a new perspective on what’s working and where these brands could focus their efforts to improve customer satisfaction.

Starbucks vs. Dunkin: Top coffee brands face off on food

Last year, Starbucks and Dunkin’ were dead even in their overall ACSI customer satisfaction scores. This year, Starbucks inched up 1% to take the lead, 79 to 78.

In terms of beverage quality, Starbucks and Dunkin’ tie, but Starbucks has a slight lead in the variety of beverages. Where things get interesting is in the food. Both restaurants have been putting more resources behind their food offerings.

At its annual shareholders meeting in 2018, Starbucks revealed its intention to double its food business by 2021. Dunkin’ recently beefed up its breakfast options, debuting a new Egg White Bowl and Sausage Scramble Bowl to compete with the likes of McDonald’s, Taco Bell, and Panera, not to mention Starbucks.

Starbucks has a small advantage over Dunkin’ on food quality according to customers, but customers give Dunkin’ better marks for variety of food as it edges out Starbucks. These results aren’t in the same echelon as the two brands’ drinks, but it will be interesting to see how the scores evolve as both brands continue to expand and enhance their food menus.

One area where both are especially strong is mobile. Starbucks stands out for the quality of its mobile app, while Dunkin’ is close behind. Customers also give Starbucks higher marks for the reliability of its mobile app compared to Dunkin’.

Chipotle vs. Taco Bell: Digital and delivery from top Mexican food chains

Chipotle’s overall ACSI score plummeted in 2016 following its food safety crisis, and still hasn’t returned to its pre-crisis score, but it has shown incremental improvement, rising 1% this year to a respectable score of 80. Its same-store sales are also improving, up 10% in the first quarter of 2019. Taco Bell now sits at 75 after a 1% gain of its own.

Despite its struggle to return to its pre-crisis ACSI score, Chipotle still outstrips Taco Bell in food quality. And while Taco Bell has a strong showing in order accuracy, Chipotle again ranks higher.

Both restaurants are moving quickly to cater to a new generation of mobile-first customers seeking convenience. Both brands have launched delivery options — Taco Bell through GrubHub, Chipotle through DoorDash — and are ramping up digital operations.

But when rating mobile apps, Chipotle again is the clear winner, scoring high for both the quality and reliability of its mobile app, with Taco Bell lagging behind in both categories.

Wendy’s, Burger King, Red Robin, or McDonald’s: Who has the fastest fast-food burger?

Red Robin, in the full-service restaurant category, has the highest overall ACSI score among the four burger restaurants at 79. Among fast-food chains, Wendy’s leads with a score of 77, followed by Burger King at 76. McDonald’s sits at the bottom of all fast-food restaurants at 69.

When it comes to courtesy, the scores tell a similar story. One thing you don’t often see in the service industry is high scores for courtesy. But these burger joints are serving up a different trend.

Red Robin scores high for courtesy, followed by Wendy’s and Burger King close behind with respectable scores of their own. McDonald’s, however, lags the field in a distant fourth place.

McDonald’s has been trying to modernize its operations, adding self-order kiosks, digital menu boards, and curbside pick-up for mobile orders. So far those efforts haven’t improved its overall ACSI score, but did it do anything to improve its speed in fulfilling orders?

Not according to customers. McDonald’s scored well below the category average for speed of checkout or delivery. The fastest burger is from Wendy’s, but Burger King and Red Robin are close behind. Unlike the standout courtesy scores, the store speed for all four burger chains is pretty low across the board.

Does competition bring out the best of the brands?

Every one of these restaurants is making moves to improve and expand their menus, better cater to changing consumer tastes, and advance their mobile technology and delivery capabilities to serve customers the way they prefer to order and receive their food.

While brand rivals certainly fuel the strategy to some degree, restaurants should also make sure they’re listening closely to their customers, who are ultimately the only judge that matters in the competitive restaurant industry.

How millennials are reshaping the restaurant industry

Millennials spend more on dining out than any other demographic, to the tune of $92 billion in 2016. That number is only expected to grow as their earnings increase.

So it’s no surprise that millennial tastes are reshaping restaurants, from the food they serve to the way it’s ordered. That means food trending toward natural, organic, and plant-based. Some 40 percent of millennials are reportedly taking on a plant-based diet.

While millennials eat out, they also like to order in, prompting technological changes in how restaurants take orders, accept payments, and design their websites and mobile apps.

Restaurants’ ability to meet new preferences and expectations in the last year has had a significant effect on their ACSI scores. After a drop last year, full-service restaurants rose 3.8 percent to 81. Fast food edged up 1.3 percent to 80.

But where the improvements—and the need for improvement—are most obvious is in the ACSI scores for every element of customer satisfaction.

What restaurants are getting right?

Full-service, sit-down restaurants have improved across nearly all aspects of the customer experience.

Food order accuracy remains a strong point with a score of 89, up 2 percent year over year. Restaurant staff are more courteous and helpful—another 2 percent gain to 87.

Food quality (up 4 percent to 87) and food variety (up 4 percent to 86) show strong gains in areas that cater to millennial preferences for fresh, quality ingredients and customization. Beverage quality (86) and variety (83) are also much improved this year.

Full-service restaurant layout and cleanliness rates well at 86 and continues to exceed the fast food industry (84).

Fast food restaurants are right behind the full-service category in highly accurate order fulfillment, rising 1 percent year over year to 88. It remains by far the top-rated aspect of the fast food experience. Staff do a good job of serving customers (85) and food quality rose 1 percent to 85.

The element that improves the most is also the fast food industry’s reason for being: speed of check-out or delivery. Service speed is up 2 percent to 84.

Where restaurants have room to improve

Food-to-table service from full-service restaurants is quicker (up 2 percent to 83), but lags fast food check-out and delivery speed (84).

The only element to weaken for the full-service category is website satisfaction (83). This should alarm restaurants as online ordering continues to gain traction with customers and off-premise dining becomes more critical for boosting sales.

Unlike the full-service segment, fast food beverage quality has not improved (84) and beverage variety is somewhat lacking (79 compared to 83 for full service). Food variety is at the lower end of the spectrum, steady at 81. Fast food website satisfaction, unchanged at 82, is close to that of full-service restaurants (83).

Restaurants that are getting it right

Among both full-service and fast-food restaurants, several brands improved significantly over the last year. That can be attributed at least in part to the various improvements they undertook, many of which cater to millennial tastes.

Red Robin jumped 8 percent to an ACSI score of 79. In the last year, it rolled out a veggie burger. It tested a new delivery-only concept that operates without a traditional storefront in downtown Chicago. It embraced digital ordering, allowing customers to place orders with a specific pick-up time, prepay, and customize burgers just as they would at a physical Red Robin location.

TGI Friday’s, up 4 percent year over year to a score of 79, is taking delivery to a new level by delivering alcohol as well as food—a new concept for restaurants. It also partnered with Beyond Meat to offer its plant-based Beyond Burger. It has invested heavily in technology, from Alexa skills to virtual bartenders.

On the fast food side, Pizza Hut, which jumped 5 percent to a score of 80, is also testing beer and wine delivery, and might soon deliver pizzas with autonomous delivery trucks. It also rolled out a new loyalty program that rewards online orders.

Millennials have been blamed for ruining everything from running to napkins. Their preferences are certainly reshaping industries. But, at least in the case of restaurants, their desire for choice and customization; fresh, quality ingredients; and a better ordering experience on websites and mobile apps is moving both full-service and fast food restaurants in a positive direction.

Fast Food Patrons Find Less to Love at McDonald’s

When it comes to dining out, choosing a big-name venue may result in big disappointment. McDonald’s is a prime example that number one in sales does not always add up to number one in customer satisfaction. In fact, fast food Goliath Mickey D’s has been serving up less satisfaction to its patrons than any other competing chain for 20 years. Consistency may be good in some cases, but not when it involves being an industry customer satisfaction laggard.

Since the ACSI’s inception in 1994, McDonald’s has earned the lowest ACSI score among a dozen major fast food chains such as Pizza Hut, Wendy’s, Subway, and more. The ACSI also measures smaller chains and independent restaurants in aggregate (shown in the chart as “all others”). In stark contrast to McDonald’s, these smaller chains—including the rapidly growing fast casual brands Panera and Chipotle—have always been just above or much higher than the industry average for customer satisfaction. This year, small chains are on top with an industry-leading ACSI score of 84 (scale of 0 to 100). This is a whopping 13 points ahead of last-place McDonald’s at 71.

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A possible silver lining for McDonald’s is that it no longer scores in the 60s, as it did for many years. With a large and diverse customer base, maintaining a higher level of satisfaction may always be challenging for the company. In 2014, McDonald’s declines 3%, down from a peak score of 73 in 2013. Smaller chains, in contrast, improve 2% and set a new record high for the industry at large.

View more fast food ACSI scores »

United Press International: Americans Are Not ‘Lovin’ McDonald’s That Much Anymore »

Business Insider: America’s Favorite Fast Food Chains »

USA TODAY: Not-So-Happy Meal: McDonald’s Satisfaction Lags »

Chicago Tribune: McDonald’s Ranks Last in Customer Satisfaction »

24/7 Wall St: Poor Wages Given as Reason for Poor McDonald’s Service Rating »

Is Fast Food No Longer Just Fast?

On average, U.S. households dined at either full-service or fast food restaurants about twice per week in 2012, a rate expected to continue in 2013. Fast food shows an edge in being chosen somewhat more frequently, and its customer experience is looking surprisingly good in side-by-side comparison with full-service dining.fullservicefastfood

Customers are mostly pleased with their sit-down dining experiences. Restaurants have good layout and cleanliness (87). Staff are courteous, helpful (87), and accurate with orders (89). Benchmarks for menu variety, food quality, and beverage quality range from 86 to 87. Even the websites of full-service restaurants score significantly higher than the average for all restaurants (78.3). The weakest link in customer’s appraisal of their actual dining experience is the speed of service (83).

For fast food, order accuracy (85) and beverage quality (84) receive the highest marks. Layout and cleanliness, along with speed of check-out or delivery, score fairly high at 83. Courtesy and helpfulness of the staff is relatively satisfactory (82), as is satisfaction with websites (82). The lowest scores are for food and beverage variety and food quality, all 81.

While customers are somewhat happier with their experiences at full-service restaurants compared to fast food outlets, overall customer satisfaction between the two has been very close for the last two years. For 2013, the full-service category scores 81 (on a 0-100 scale), while fast food is stable at 80 for a second year. Because low cost continues to be a pull for many consumers, the relatively strong overall performance of fast food may be too close to comfort for full-service chains.