When it comes to culinary convenience and quality, there’s money in the middle ground. Fast-casual chains, which occupy the sweet spot between fast food and fine dining, are a rare source of growth for a struggling restaurant industry.
Although fast-casual establishments vary considerably, they share some familiar features: They claim higher-caliber ingredients than the typical drive-thru chain and charge slightly more accordingly. You won’t get the luxury (or wait times) of table service, but the atmosphere inside is more conducive to enjoying your meal. Ideally, the result is an appealing mix of speed and satisfaction: good food consumed at the customer’s convenience.
Of course, some chains execute this vision more successfully than others, and diners are the ultimate judges of their efforts. We asked more than 2,200 Americans about their favorite fast-casual cuisine, gathering responses from every state. Our findings reveal the country’s preferred restaurants in several categories, as well as some states’ local favorites. For fast-casual connoisseurs, our results are required reading.
Fast-Casual Supremacy, by State
Despite a string of food safety incidents, Chipotle is the fast-casual chain Americans love best, conquering states from New York to Nevada. Panera was the only brand to come remotely close to Chipotle’s national dominance, claiming the fast-casual title in places like California and Texas (states where consumers need not turn to chains for great Mexican cuisine). Interestingly, men and women gravitated toward different fast-casual establishments, with female respondents preferring Panera and men more devoted to Chipotle. A similar division emerged among generations: Whereas Gen Xers and millennials chose Chipotle, baby boomers picked Panera more often.
Two burger-centric chains claimed places on our map as well. Five Guys ranked first in a handful of states, and Culver’s conquered Wisconsin and North Dakota. We’ll explore these patty purveyors in more detail later, but first another outlier demands attention. Poultry powerhouse Chick-fil-A was the top fast-casual brand in Georgia, the state where the chain got its start.
The company may have started as the Dwarf Grill (later renamed the Dwarf House) in 1946, but Chick-fil-A’s most iconic dish – the chicken sandwich – has enticed Georgians since its invention in 1964. The brand’s draw is more than local, however, and its appeal is based on more than chicken alone. Chick-fil-A has experienced tremendous growth in recent years, surpassing 2,200 locations nationwide. Many analysts credit this success to exceptional customer service, a quality lacking in some of the restaurant’s competitors.
Best Slice in the State
In years past, America’s pizza chains were limited to a few fierce competitors: Pizza Hut, Domino’s, Little Caesars, and Papa John’s dominated. While our results indicate these companies are still formidable, foodies have championed the recent rise of other fast-casual pizza brands, including Blaze and MOD Pizza. The growth of Blaze since its founding in 2012 has led some analysts to call it the “fastest-growing restaurant chain ever.”
Pressure from these insurgent chains may have lead titans like Domino’s and Papa John’s to reconsider their quality: Both chains have executed advertising campaigns in recent years committing to the use of better ingredients. A similarly attentive approach to ingredients may account for the popularity of Papa Gino’s in Massachusetts. The chain claims that its pizza preparation honors the methods of its founders, who established the first Papa Gino’s in Boston in 1961.
A Monopoly on Mexican Food?
There were interesting exceptions to Chipotle’s nationwide reign, however: Moe’s was the top-ranked Mexican option in two states and Washington, D.C. The company has explicitly aimed to cash in on consumer concerns about Chipotle’s food safety and has oriented its business toward online orders. Qdoba ranked first for Mexican in Nevada and North Dakota. But the most interesting underdog appeared in Utah, where Cafe Rio beat all other fast-casual establishments serving Mexican cuisine.
Originally founded 1997 in St. George, Utah, Cafe Rio expanded to six restaurants by 2004. At that time, the chain caught the attention of Bob Nilsen, a Utah resident with executive experience at fast-food giants like Taco Bell, KFC, and Pizza Hut. With his aid, the company has since expanded to 120 locations across the country.
The burger may be a staple of the fast-food genre, but recent years have seen an explosion in fast-casual burger brands promising superior quality. Our data suggest the most dominant of these chains is Five Guys, which experienced rapid expansion after beginning to offer franchises in 2003. The brand was deemed the top burger joint in all but seven states and ranked first among all demographics studied.
In the interest of fairness, not all fast-casual burger chains have sought a truly national presence: In-N-Out Burger, for example, has actively resisted an expansion toward the East Coast. This dynamic creates regional loyalties to burger chains that remain unknown elsewhere. The most interesting brand of this kind may be Culver’s, which reigns supreme in Wisconsin, the state where it was founded in 1984.
Although menu items such as cheese curds reflect its Wisconsin origins, Culver’s locations are sprinkled throughout much of the Midwest. Unfortunately for Northeasterners and West Coast folks eager to try the renown “ButterBurger,” the chain has yet to expand to either region.
Quickness and Quality
Our findings suggest that some fast-casual chains have achieved national dominance, while others succeed on a more limited scale as beloved local favorites. Your own tastes may differ from those revealed in our data, but the prevalence of fast-casual options represents improved choice for all diners. Eating out no longer requires choosing between expensive sit-down dining or rapidly prepared junk food. Across a range of cuisines, the happy medium of fast-casual is here to stay.
If fast-casual dining appeals to your health, cost, or taste sensibilities, don’t neglect to try your local options. Our results certainly indicate that Americans feel strongly about their favorites, but exploring alternatives could reveal healthier and tastier choices. After all, the stakes of experimentation are relatively low: These establishments won’t demand too much of your valuable time and money. You’ll be in and out in no time and could possibly discover a new fast-casual favorite in the process.
We surveyed 2,226 Americans (with at least 26 people per state) on their favorite and least favorite fast-casual restaurants. We asked respondents which dining establishments were the best and worst overall, as well as their favorite fast-casual restaurants for burgers, pizza, and Mexican food. We included language to strongly discourage write-ins of fast-food restaurants like McDonald’s, Taco Bell, and Wendy’s, and omitted these restaurants from the count data. All answers were write-ins, so respondents were free to choose any restaurant they wanted.
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