A new report looked at which restaurants people went to out of a true desire to eat there, as opposed to simple convenience.
in-n-out customer loyalty tops the charts
Credit: Robert Lachman / Getty Images

Sometimes we eat because we want to, and sometimes we eat because we have to. It’s part of that whole needing-food-to-live thing. Sometimes you make a grilled cheese with artisan bread and the finest fromages because you know it’ll be delicious, and other times you grill a single of American between two slices of white because you have to run out the door. Same goes for restaurants. Sometimes you go out of your way to swing by your favorite burger joint and other times you eat at Roy Rogers because they seem to have a monopoly on the turnpike. It’s the classic battle of desires versus convenience, and a new list attempts to rank restaurant chains based on this very factor.

To determine the restaurant chains with the highest levels of customer loyalty, Nation’s Restaurant News took a devilishly simple approach. “Survey respondents were asked if their last visit to each chain was driven by convenience or by a true desire to experience that brand,” explained the publication. “The resulting True Loyalty score is the percentage of visits that were motivated by the brand and not by circumstance.” Like any methodology, determining loyalty this way has its limitations. For instance, the more locations a chain has, the more likely people are to choose it out of convenience for the simple fact that more locations is more convenient. Still, the resulting snapshot of the 126 brands that Nation’s Restaurant News asked about is revealing.

Topping the list was In-N-Out, the burger chain known for its cult-like devotees. 62 percent of respondents said their last visit was motivated by the brand and not convenience. Take-and-bake pizza joint Papa Murphy’s came in second with a 60 percent score. Rounding out the top ten was Red Lobster, Texas Roadhouse, Raising Cane’s, Cracker Barrel, Panera Bread, Captain D’s, Chick-fil-A and Krispy Kreme – all of which had a score between 54 and 50 percent and were the only ten chains where convenience wasn’t the majority motivator.

Dead last on the list was McDonald’s, with only 28 percent of people saying they were driven primarily by a desire to actually eat MickeyD’s. Working from the bottom up, the ten lowest on the list were Johnny Rockets, Jack in the Box, Carl’s Jr., Burger King, Buffalo Wild Wings, TGI Fridays, Sbarro, Jimmy John’s and Hooters. Though clearly scoring low on a customer loyalty metric doesn’t look good, there is something to be said about the strengths of a restaurant that people are willing to go to even when they don’t really want to go there.

Along those lines, Nation’s Restaurant News simultaneously released another new survey asking customers which restaurant brands they think of first when asked about different food items. The fast-food restaurant that topped that list for burgers, chicken sandwiches, French fries, breakfast, lunch and dinner… McDonald's. Maybe being the first brand people think about is more important than being the restaurant people actually want?