An Everyman's Guide: Zagat Ranks Fast Feeders

Restaurant-Review Brand Also Judges Casual Chains as It Goes Beyond Gourmet

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How Zagat Became an Empire
CHICAGO ( -- Can a restaurant guide originally created for Manhattan's discerning diners have the same effect on Wendy's it does on Wolfgang Puck?

The Zagat Survey, best known for its citizen reviews of eateries for the power-lunch set, recently published its first ratings for chain restaurants. The results were revealing in more ways than one.
Zagat rates fast fod
Source: Zagat
For the first time, the Zagat Survey has rated chain restaurants, rankling some owners of high-end eateries such as Le Bernardin in New York.

Panera Bread Co. topped all 24 quick-service chains rated, while Outback Steakhouse reigned supreme over 21 casual-dining chains. Wendy's scored the highest among "mega chains" (those with more than 5,000 units) and topped the list for burgers. Country-kitsch Cracker Barrel took top honors in facilities among full-service chains.

Perhaps most surprising: Pizza Hut and Dairy Queen ranked third and fourth, respectively, ahead of McDonald's among mega chains.

Like other Zagat restaurant ratings, 5,535 volunteer participants rated each chain on its food, facilities and service on a 30-point scale for each. They also rated other issues including healthful options, with 45% of those surveyed saying they were very concerned about fat and calorie content. Among the surveyors, 61% were women and 39% were men. Their average age was 43. These demographics, generally speaking, don't fit the typical fast- food consumer.

Which may be why the ratings seem to defy the (recent) sales results of many chains. Panera's same-store sales were flat for the first quarter, while No.-3-overall Chipotle's comparable sales grew 8.3%. Similarly, first-quarter same-store sales for Outback fell 0.5%, while McDonald's, which rated fifth among mega chains, paced its peers with a 4.4% same-store sales gain.

Amid the continuing brouhaha over trans-fat-free cooking oils, McDonald's won the crowns for best fries and favorite mascot in the Zagat survey. Subway's Jared came in second, followed by Jack in the Box's Jack Box and Burger King's creepy king.

High- and lowbrow dining
Although the inclusion of fast-food joints has raised some eyebrows among highbrow diners, Tim Zagat, who with his wife, Nina, founded the survey in 1979 as a distraction from their lawyer day jobs, sees no conflict. If restaurants do take offense for being rated by the same guide as McDonald's, "I would say they're being arrogant, and, fortunately, that's not our style," said Mr. Zagat. "The fact is everybody has kids who go to all these places. No matter if you're a Le Bernardin person, you have children that go to McDonald's. It's not one or the other for most people; it's both."

"It's two different things," said Maguy Le Coze, owner of Le Bernardin, Zagat's top-rated restaurant last year. Asked if she ever visits fast-food chains, she responded in a thick French accent, "No, never."

At the very least, the results offer fast feeders new bragging rights. Wendy's put on its internal website a banner that reads "best mega chain with the best hamburger." CKE Restaurants' Carl's Jr. and Hardee's posted press releases trumpeting their scores.

Subway "in all likelihood" will post the reviews in stores, according to Tony Pace, chief marketing officer for Subway's Franchisee Advertising Fund Trust. Top dog Panera most likely won't. "We tend not to display those kinds of things in stores," said Michael Markowitz, senior VP-chief brand officer. Having used the guidebooks regularly for his own dining choices, he is pleased. "We would find that, historically, the Zagat respondent base is a discerning, knowledgeable base of consumers, and they take food very, very seriously."

The tally points to a sea change in the way consumers view restaurant choices in an increasingly homogenized informal dining space. No longer can McDonald's limit its competition to other burger chains. Consumers don't categorize restaurants as quick-service, fast-casual, or midscale, as the restaurant industry does, and the Zagat Survey seems to prove that point.
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