What fast casual restaurants do diners rate the best? Number one shakes its feathers loudly and proudly

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Smaller, emerging brands score even higher satisfaction ratings

By 2027, Americans will spend more time eating at a “fast casual” restaurant than ever before. Analysts forecast fast casual’s trajectory to have grown 67% from 2019-2027, completely dominating the dining scene. 

It’s a wide-ranging slugfest, too. There’s Panera Bread, Chick-fil-A, Olive Garden, Chipotle Mexican Grill, Blaze Pizza, Shake Shack, Jersey Mike’s, and all sorts of burger, pizza, chicken, Asian-inspired, and barbecue places. They are all trying to prove that not only can they provide good food, but a better overall experience than the guy down the street.

And overall experience is indeed the difference maker. Using data from customer ratings, reviews, and comments across sites collected by Merchant Centric, the Nation’s Restaurant News’ (NRN) Happy Customer Index found that out of the three key themes it focused on — food, price/value and loyalty/referral — Chicken Salad Chick emerged as the winner when it comes to guest satisfaction ratings among the top established brands.

It’s taken 15 years to rule the roost, but the chicken salad concept’s 225 locations scored 7.7 for food, 1.8 for price/value and 4.4 for loyalty/referral. NRN said Chicken Salad Chick’s food scores received nearly eight times as much praise as complaints and likely drove a high score for loyalty and referral.

The other restaurants in the Top 5 fast-casual list are: 

  • Cheba Hut, a Fort Collins, Colorado-based toasted sub concept that scored a category-leading 8.2 on food

  • Clean Eatz, a healthy food franchise founded in North Carolina. The analysts said that the chain is notable in that it was one of four established fast-casual brands that increased its customer satisfaction scores by double digits in the last year.

  • Velvet Taco, a Dallas-based concept 

  • D’Angelo Grilled Sandwiches, a Massachusetts-based sandwich concept 

Rounding out the Top 10 were Skyline Chili, Maple Street Biscuit Company, Biscuitville, Muscle Maker Grill, and Greek’s Pizzeria, an Indiana-based pizza concept dating back to 1969 that now counts more than 140 restaurants on its roster. 

The up-and-comers

The analysts said that it should come as no surprise that the Top 25 emerging brands — ones with fewer than 20 locations — scored higher in guest satisfaction than their established peers, mostly because they have fewer locations to manage, allowing for more focus on such fundamentals.

“We’ve seen some very impressive food scores from these brands, which are driving off-the-charts loyalty scores in many cases,” Adam Leff, cofounder of Merchant Centric, said.

Who should diners keep an eye out for among emerging brands? NRN’s Index counted these chains as the the Top 10, in no particular order:  

  • Yats Cajun Creole – billed as a “local New Orleans-style joint” but actually out of Indianapolis. This concept scored a staggering 13.9 on food, 6.3 on price/value and 7.7 on loyalty/referral.
  • Gandolfo’s Deli – a New York-style deli first opened in Salt Lake City.
  • Bellagreen – a Texas-based American bistro founded that prides itself on its Certified Green ingredients.
  • Flatbread Company – a wood-fired pizza concept.
  • The Melt – coming out of California, The Melt focuses on grilled cheese, mac and cheese and burgers.
  • Mark’s Feed Store – a barbecue concept was founded in 1988 in Louisville, Kentucky, and now includes six locations.
  • Joella’s Hot Chicken – another Louisville-based concept that has grown to nearly 15 locations in the last eight years. 
  • Wildflower Bread – an Arizona-based restaurant and artisan bakery
  • The Great Greek Mediterranean Grill – a 12-year-old brand founded in Nevada 
  • Taco Bus – a Mexican concept that began as a food truck around the Tampa FL market but expanded into five brick-and-mortar locations.

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