Call it a cult or just a simple concept that works: In-N-Out Burger won the hearts of diners in this year’s Consumer Picks ranking of Limited-Service chains, taking the top spot overall among the segment’s 100 contenders.
The Irvine, Calif.-based burger chain climbed the ranks from the No. 3 spot last year. Compared with other burger brands, In-N-Out once again scored highest in almost all attributes, including those most important to Limited-Service consumers: Food Quality, Cleanliness and Value. The 281-unit In-N-Out also beat all Limited-Service concepts on Service and Reputation.
Other burger brands beat In-N-Out only on Menu Variety and Atmosphere, which is not surprising given the quick-service chain’s longtime commitment to sticking to what it does best: burgers, fries and milk shakes — mostly served through a car window.
“In-N-Out is one of the rare brands that understands its purpose in its guests’ lives and delivers it consistently,” said Fred LeFranc, founding partner of consulting firm Results Thru Strategy.
“They have always had high standards and have never compromised them,” he added. “They have woven themselves into the cultural fabric of the communities they serve.”
Carl Van Fleet, In-N-Out spokesman, said customer service has always been emphasized at the burger chain.
“In fact, our mission statement contains these words: ‘The customer is our most important asset,’” he said. “We hire friendly, hardworking associates who are committed to making sure that every time a customer visits one of our 281 restaurants, the customer enjoys a great experience.”
Taking the No. 2 spot in this year’s overall list for Limited-Service is Cold Stone Creamery, which climbed up from No. 7 last year. Cold Stone scored well on one of the attributes consumers consider key for Limited-Service brands: Craveability.
In the past year the 1,600-unit chain, a Scottsdale, Ariz.-based subsidiary of Kahala Corp., launched a catering program designed to bring frozen treats to weddings, birthday parties, school carnivals and corporate events.
On the catering menu are decadent ice cream cupcakes, miniature cones and cakes, cake pops, and canapés made with Oreo cookies and ice cream — along with layered ice cream cakes, pies and sundae bars.
In addition, Cold Stone has rolled out during the past year a new frozen yogurt line to better compete with the growing number of soft-serve frozen yogurt players.
Cold Stone’s yogurt is hard-packed and scooped from the freezer case. Like the ice creams, Cold Stone’s frozen yogurt can be mixed with toppings ranging from fruit to peanut butter cups. New in the line this year is a pre-designed yogurt creation: Banana Bread Batter Crunch, or Banana Bread frozen yogurt with bananas and pecans mixed in.
The chain also has been expanding its line of Hot Stone products, like warm cookies topped with ice cream and whipped topping.
“That’s been successful for the colder winter months,” said Kate Unger, Cold Stone’s senior vice president of marketing.
Ranking third overall among Limited-Service consumers this year is Papa Murphy’s Take ‘N’ Bake Pizza, which slipped from the No. 2 spot last year.
Ken Calwell, Papa Murphy’s chief executive, said the Vancouver, Wash.-based chain saw its highest two-year sales growth ever in 2011 and 2012, and that increased volume challenged the chain’s efforts to maintain consistency.
To address that, in September the company rolled out a new merit program designed to ensure top-level restaurant performance and drive repeat business.
In the survey Papa Murphy’s scored the highest on three attributes: Value, Likely to Recommend and Likely to Return, indicating that customers like what they get for their dollar at the bake-at-home pizza concept.
Among its offerings, the chain introduced in December a line of $5 Faves, featuring standard toppings such as cheese and pepperoni, to please value-oriented customers.
Papa Murphy’s also has been working to broaden its audience, introducing new pizzas and new ingredients.
A new line of premium pizzas, for example, is being tested at 315 of the chain’s 1,352 locations, including Goat Cheese & Fennel Sausage, with creamy garlic sauce, pepperoni, spinach and mushrooms; Fennel Sausage & Sun-dried Tomato, with red sauce, pepperoni, green onions, black olives and feta; and Prosciutto & Arugula Delite, with red sauce and fresh mozzarella.
The premium pizzas start at $15, while more traditional pizzas cost $12 to $13.
While most players in the pizza world have been competing on price in recent years, Papa Murphy’s has been focused on quality, said Calwell.
“I know the economy is challenging,” he said. “But we think, occasionally, people want to splurge, and they want a quality product.”
More on Limited Service:
Full segment rankings and brand scores
Limited-Service demographic snapshot
Top brands and why consumers love them
Charts represent the five chains with the highest Overall Scores among each demographic
Brands most popular among consumers with respective highest levels of education completed