Burgers and fries may be iconic fast-food items, but it turns out that Americans are looking for something fresher when they go out to eat these days.
The $228 billion fast-food industry exists to serve the whims of consumers, many of whom grew up hearing slogans like Wendy's "Where's the beef?" and McDonald's "You deserve a break today." Yet today, Americans are more likely to snub the all-beef patty and look for a break from older fast-fast chains.
That may be why some of the country's most storied fast-food restaurants are at or near the bottom of a new ranking from the American Consumer Satisfaction Index, which surveyed 4,786 customers about their experiences at fast-food restaurants. The competition from newer upstarts is pushing older chains like McDonald's (MCD) to up their game with better quality food and new dishes.
"A few years ago, the burger chains seemed a bit tired in the eyes of a lot of consumers," said ACSI director David VanAmburg. "The perceptions were they weren't places. I'm going to get something new and exciting."
While McDonald's has improved its standing with consumers since last year, it still lands at the bottom of ACSI's list. The chain earned an ASCI score of 69, better than last year's 67, but the lowest of the group and far below the industry average of 79. McDonald's appears to be in the midst of a turnaround under CEO Steve Easterbrook, who introduced all-day breakfast last year.
"McDonald's has always been at or near the bottom," VanAmburg said. "This year one would certainly point to adding Egg McMuffins to their all-day menus to providing a little boost."
Likewise, Jack in the Box (JACK), Wendy's (WEN) and Burger King (QSR) also scored below the average.
Read on to learn about America's nine favorite fast-food restaurants.
Decades ago, the chain gained fans for its promise of delivering within 30 minutes or the pizza would be free. Even though that pledge is long gone (it was dropped in 1993 after several payouts to victims of speeding delivery drivers), Domino's (DPZ) continues to win over hungry stomachs and even critics.
The food site Epicurious proclaimed Domino's as having the best pizza among several chains in 2014. While Domino's doesn't score as highly in the survey as some rival pizza chains, it holds its own with an ACSI score of 78.
The Mexican-themed restaurant has had a tough year, reflected in the fact that its ACSI score dropped from 83 points last year to 78 points in 2016. The slide represents a fallout from Chipotle's (CMG) outbreaks of E. coli and norovirus at several of its locations last year.
In order to win back customers, it has expanded its menu and spent more on advertising, even offering free guacamole and chips to get people back in the door. Last year, Chipotle ranked No. 2 on the ACSI survey.
"It's a sizable drop," VanAmburg said. "They started from a fairly high level, and their reputation had been strong, so it it may make it easier for them to come back from this."
Subway represents another chain that had a tough year, although it wasn't tied to its food quality. Last year, the company's pitchman, Jared Fogle, was convicted of child pornography and sex crime charges and sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Despite the scrutiny of its former spokesperson, the sandwich shop actually gained in customer's estimation. Subway earned an ACSI score of 80 this year, compared with 77 in 2015.
After the scandal, Subway hired former Coca-Cola (KO) marketing chief Joseph Tripodi to oversee its marketing efforts. It also vowed to stop using meat raised with antibiotics, which may have won over some consumers.
6. Dunkin’ Donuts
America apparently does like to run on Dunkin' Donuts (DNKN), which saw its ACSI score increase from 78 last year to 80 in 2016.
The company has retooled its offerings to compete with Starbucks (SBUX), offering coffee drinks like iced macchiatos and salted caramel hot chocolate. Starbucks' flub with its loyalty program earlier this year also prompted some consumers to switch their allegiance to Dunkin' Donuts.
Arby's has carved out a niche within the fast-food industry by focusing on slow-cooked meats and curly fries.
It's one of the older chains to score well in the survey, thanks to sandwiches like its smokehouse brisket. Arby's CEO Paul Brown told Business Insider last year that the company had made an effort to stand out from the pack. Arby's score jumped from 74 last year to 80 in this year's ACSI survey.
"We're in a unique position because consumers perceive our food as high-quality, but we are routinely priced below fast-casual competitors," Brown told the publication. "This gives us an expanded base of customers."
4. Panera Bread
Panera Bread (PNRA) has vowed to get rid of "no no" ingredients, and consumers seem to be saying, "Yes, yes."
Last year, the chain promised to eliminate ingredients like artificial smoke flavor and glycerol ester of wood rosin, saying it would be the first national restaurant company to share a list of unacceptable ingredients. Consumers appear to be on board with the changes, pushing up Panera's ACSI score to 81 from 80.
3. Little Caesar’s
The pizza chain may be known for its 1970s-eara "Pizza! Pizza!" catchphrase, but it's keeping up with consumer tastes.
Little Caesars last year grabbed attention with its limited-time "Bacon Wrapped Crust Deep! Deep! Dish" pizza, notable for the 3.5 feet of bacon inside its crust. But the chain gained fans for its "hot-n-ready" pizzas, which don't require preordering. Little Caesars jumped from 74 to 81 ACSI points this year.
2. Papa John’s
Yet another pizza chain scored well on the ACSI survey this year, with Papa John's (PZZA) coming in second place overall. Its score rose from 78 last year to 82 in the 2016 survey.
The improvement comes after the chain said it would spend $100 million a year to eliminate artificial ingredients and other additives. Earlier this year, Papa John's introduced a new guarantee: If a customer doesn't love its pizza, she can tell the chain why and get another one free.
When it comes to customer satisfaction, Chick-fil-A has something to crow about. The restaurant ranks as consumers' favorite, earning an 87 in this year's survey, compared with 86 a year earlier.
"They're doing something fairly limited and doing it extremely well," said VanAmburg. "You'll get chicken in various forms. That's their thing. It's about focusing on a niche, and a certain kind of product."
Aside from the chicken sandwiches, customer rave about the service at Chick-fil-A outlets. Fast Company noted that its servers end their transactions with "My pleasure," which it termed "distinctive and classy."