Beyond the dollar menu: Fast food diners value quality over price

Fast food customers increasingly demand that food be better tasting, healthier, and sustainable, which is changing the landscape of the fast food industry. 

Robert F. Bukaty/AP/File
Customer douses her french fries with ketchup at the concession stand before the start of the movies at the Saco Drive-In in Saco, Maine. A growing number of fast food customers now prioritize quality over price, according to a recent survey from Consumer Reports.

The fast-food landscape is changing in response to the growing demand that food be better tasting, healthier, and sustainable. In the latest Consumer Reports analysis of the fast-food industry, including the burgeoning fast-casual market, customers indicated that the “quality of the food has become more important in their dining decisions.” The same survey, which evaluated 65 restaurants, both regional and national, found that fast-food behemoths such as McDonalds, Taco Bell, and KFC, were rated the worst dining options due to taste and freshness.  

What is working for consumers are chains such as Chipotle Mexican Grill and Panera Bread Company, both of which were ranked as top restaurant choices. What else do these two chains have in common? They both have recently made headlines by stating their commitment to “clean food.”

In a statement issued last month, Panera Bread Company announced that they would eliminate all artificial ingredients by 2016. Already an industry leader for the past decade through the purchase of antibiotic-free chicken, Panera’s newest Food Policycontinues the tradition of focusing on high quality food. The policy centers around three key objectives: “clean ingredients, transparent menu, and positive impact.”

“What started as a visit to a Pennsylvania chicken farm had developed into a new business strategy—one with dedication to quality built on greater awareness of production methods,” explains Scott Davis Executive Vice President & Chief Concept & Innovation Officer at Panera Bread, “After seeing the difference between conventional and antibiotic-free chicken, Panera became compelled to witness production methods of all ingredients, not just chicken.”

In a similar vein, Chipotle’s Food with Integrity takes a holistic approach towards food that is “raised with respect for the animals, the environment and the farmers.” Since the opening of its first location in 1993, Chipotle has taken a critical look at the food it serves. Among other initiatives, the chain has moved to use only naturally raise pork, chicken, and beef products. Steve Ells, founder of Chipotle, has also testified before Congress about the use of antibiotics in agriculture saying, “It’s going to take restaurants like Chipotle creating more of a demand, but also it’s going to take more work here to call for change in legislation.” 

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