Which fast food chains have the most loyal customers?

Foursquare's QSR Loyalty Index report reveals which restaurants customers return to most often.

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Sign for KFC fried chicken sandwich fast food meal at drive-thru
Photo: Scott Olson (Getty Images)

The fast food industry is one driven by hard data. Since the wheels of change turn so slowly within a global business valued at billions of dollars, quick service restaurants, or QSRs, have to crunch the numbers to make sure its every move is worth making. (Case in point: Wendy’s has very meticulous data on who’s ordering the most bacon.) One way QSRs do this is with mobile apps, which can track consumer spending to determine which items are selling best. Another valuable piece of data is location tracking—and this is the information used by the popular location data platform Foursquare to determine which restaurants have the most loyal customers, according to its annual QSR Loyalty Index.

Each year, the QSR Loyalty Index is compiled based on four different factors that are weighed against each other to determine a “loyalty” rating. Those four factors are:

  • Average number of visits per customer (if you’re a frequent visitor, you must really like it!)
  • How much market penetration the chain has wherever it’s located (this means that a regional brand like In-N-Out Burger doesn’t automatically get a lower loyalty score just because a large portion of the country can’t visit it)
  • “Share of wallet,” or the proportion of a user’s fast food visits that were made to a single QSR
  • “Fanaticism Threshold,” or how much a customer would have to visit a particular fast food chain to be considered a top 1% patron of that chain
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This year’s data looked at the period from July 1, 2020 to June 30, 2021, a time entirely situated within the pandemic. Though this is an atypical period of consumer behavior to be analyzing, the Foursquare data had a lot to reveal about how we interact with QSRs on a daily basis.

“Despite the ever-changing landscape, our foot traffic analysis is proof positive that it’s possible to build a dedicated fan base amidst times of great uncertainty,” reads the report in part. So, what were its findings?

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The fast food chains with the most loyal customers

Though McDonald’s is the top restaurant chain in America based on sales figures, it comes in third place in terms of customer loyalty. (Apparently all that branded swag couldn’t get them to number one.) The QSR with the most loyal customers turns out to be—drumroll, please—Chick-fil-A, which you might have guessed based on the chain’s persistent desire to be the one you think about most fondly as you drift off to sleep at night, visions of chicken sandwiches dancing in your head.

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“By late March 2020, [Chick-fil-A] had closed all of its dining rooms and seamlessly shifted gears to capitalize on its drive-thru service,” reads the Foursquare report. “To drive penetration amidst the COVID-19 crisis, the brand erected drive-thru tents and multi-lane setups that managed to deliver a quality guest experience (including cow-themed face coverings). Within weeks of the lockdown, there were consistent lines of cars waiting at Chick-fil-A locations across the country.”

Drive-thru lanes were, and continue to be, a nearly universal success story for QSRs during the pandemic. If you nail down your drive-thru process, you win. Just ask Taco Bell.

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Could you guess which chain is following hot on the heels of Chick-fil-A in terms of customer loyalty? The answer isn’t sexy, but it sure makes a lot of sense: it’s Dunkin’, which Foursquare notes has always had speedy drive-thru service and consistent convenience and efficiency. Think about it: It’s easier to push cars through the line when you’re more likely to be handing off a ready-made doughnut rather than waiting on a sandwich assembly. That association with frictionless service will, in turn, keep customers coming back. Way to go, Dunkin’!

Though McDonald’s was number three on the list, Foursquare notes that it had the highest penetration of any QSR in the nation: 68.3% of U.S. consumers made a trip to McDonald’s across the yearlong period analyzed. (Does this describe you? I know I picked up a McCafe for breakfast on at least a few road trips last year. I guess that means I’m loyal, not just undercaffeinated.)

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The fast food chains with the least loyal following

So, what brought up the rear of Foursquare’s QSR Loyalty Index? No, it wasn’t Subway, which actually made a really impressive showing at number four on the list thanks in part to a recent brand overhaul that includes new menu items, a better mobile ordering system, and other improvements to the overall operation. Number 50 on the list is Tropical Smoothie Cafe. 

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Though being at the bottom of the list sounds like a bummer, being on the top 50 list at all is probably great news for Tropical Smoothie Cafe, because it points to the brand’s aggressive plans to expand. Additionally, the menu is well-suited for the fast food breakfast wars that Foursquare forecasts among the nation’s top QSRs. I had personally never heard of Tropical Smoothie Cafe until a new location opened in my neighborhood, and now I grab a smoothie there every few weeks. It’s an easy sort of place to plug into your daily routine if you’re looking to spend under $10 on lunch.

Here are the top 10 QSRs in the loyalty index:

1. Chick-fil-A

2. Dunkin’

3. McDonald’s

4. Subway

5. Starbucks

6. Sonic Drive-In

7. Domino’s Pizza

8. Whataburger

9. Pizza Hut

10. Papa John’s Pizza

Readers, start your arguments!