Being enthusiastic about a restaurant is not the same as being loyal to it. I had an absolute blast the last time I dined at Applebee’s, and I fondly recount the pulled pork nachos to anyone who will listen. But am I loyal to Applebee’s? No. I haven’t set foot in an Applebee’s in 12 years. Consumer loyalty is a hard thing to measure, but market research firm Datassential decided to put the question to consumers themselves, asking the definitive question: Which restaurants do you go out of your way to patronize, even when they’re not the most convenient options? Using that data, Nation’s Restaurant News has compiled the top 24 chains with the most loyal customers.
What’s notable about this list isn’t just the two dozen restaurants that comprise the rankings, but the chains that have fallen off the list since last year. NRN notes that Five Guys, Starbucks, and even Chipotle failed to make the list in 2022. This makes a kind of sense, since the most habitual customers of those chains are most likely to be in a dense urban area where convenience and frequency of use are evenly matched. It’s the stuff you have to make a trek for that demonstrates greater overall loyalty.
Here are the top five most beloved chains, by Datassential’s metrics, and the percentage of consumers that reported being loyal to each:
5. In-N-Out Burger (58%)
4. Culver’s (58%)
3. Jet’s Pizza (59%)
2. Chick-fil-A (60%)
1. Papa Murphy’s Pizza (61%)
Some other heavy-hitters rounded out the top 10, including Jersey Mike’s (America’s fastest-growing restaurant chain), Red Lobster (home of the Endless Shrimp), and Whataburger (purveyor of the best ketchup).
While you might have expected something with more obvious name recognition to take the number-one spot, the dominance of Papa Murphy’s Pizza isn’t actually all that surprising. Pizza is, after all, a crowded landscape, and the big four chains—Domino’s, Pizza Hut, Little Caesars, and Papa Johns—offer only a slightly differing product. A brand that sets itself apart can really endear itself to its customer base, and Papa Murphy’s take-and-bake pizzas are a differentiator in the market. (Consumer loyalty toward Jet’s Pizza only underlines this point, since it’s the one chain known for the unique Detroit-style pizza.)
If the top five loyalty-inducing chains demonstrate everything, it’s that having a signature menu item is integral to staying top of mind for consumers, even when they’re not in the immediate vicinity. Culver’s is home of custard and ButterBurgers. In-N-Out is all about Animal-Style. Chick-fil-A? It goes without saying. The point is, none of these restaurants are trying to be everything to everyone. Loyalty is something that’s built up over time, and offering a curated menu that never loses sight of its core customers is the way to get there.
Damn, I really should go back to Applebee’s.