CR Readers Aren't Loving McDonald's, Say 'No Mas' to Taco Bell

disappointed businessman eating ...
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Sometimes you really do get what you pay for, especially when it comes to fast food restaurants.

A new survey by Consumer Reports finds industry giants McDonald's (MCD), Taco Bell (YUM) and KFC are at or near the bottom of the rankings, based on food quality, value and service. The magazine's rankings, from on a survey of more than 32,000 subscribers, placed McDonald's burgers as the worst-tasting of all the major chains.

Fast food restaurants originally boomed because of the convenience and low prices. But that's no longer good enough. Consumers are increasingly demanding better quality food. Consumer Reports says young adults, in particular, are more likely to go out of their way to get a better quality meal.

Younger Diners Want More

"The big guys leave a lot to be desired," said Tod Marks, senior projects editor at Consumer Reports. "They're not delivering" in terms of food quality, value and service. "A lot of young diners go out of their way for a tastier meal," he added. They are willing to spend a bit more by eating out less frequently. He said dining out, even at fast food restaurants, has become more of a social experience for younger people.

This might explain why McDonald's and many leading chains have struggled mightily of late to improve sales, especially in the U.S. McDonald's ranked last among the 21 burger joints on the list. Jack in the Box (JACK) and Burger King (BKW) were just slightly better.

At the top of the list were The Habit Burger Grill, In-N-Out Burger, Five Guy Burgers and Smashburgers. Those and other regional chains have found the right recipe to meet the increasingly demanding tastes of fast food customers. In-N-Out Burger, Jason's Deli, Papa Murphy's Take-N-Bake Pizza (FRSH) and Portillo's Hot Dogs are among the top rated chains.

"People are far more interested in the quality of food" than they were in Consumer Reports' previous fast food survey in 2001, according to Marks.

Chicken, Subs, Calories, Fat and Salt

In the chicken category, KFC might as well stand for Kan't Find Consumer satisfaction. It ranked last in the group. Chick-fil-A was cooked to perfection. Consumers like its food, even though its politics remain controversial. The company and its fonder have taken a strong stance against gay marriage, which has stirred up plenty of ill will (though not enough to stop it from overtaking KFC to become the No. 1 chicken chain in the country). El Pollo Loco came in second in the chicken coop rankings.

%VIRTUAL-article-sponsoredlinks%For sandwiches and subs, size also doesn't matter. Subway is the world's largest chain, with more than 40,000 restaurants worldwide. Still, it was second-to-last in the group, ahead of only Au Bon Pain. The best sandwich ratings went to Portillo's Hot Dogs, Firehouse Subs and Schlotzsky's.

Despite its low rankings for taste, consumers did favor Subway for offering healthful choices. The company says it has lowered the sodium content in its low-fat sandwiches by an average of 28 percent over the past three years. And if health is a consideration, skip White Castle, Little Caesars and Five Guys Burgers. They had the worst ratings for healthy options.

Consumer Reports found that most people are not concerned about dieting when they eat at fast food restaurants, so maybe these final numbers aren't surprising. The worst diet-busting meal is Firehouse Subs' large Sweet Thai Chili Pork Sub, which has 1,541 calories, 95 grams of fat and 3,458 milligrams of sodium. That's more fat and sodium than the recommended daily allowance for the average adult. Hardee's Monster Thickburger also has 95 grams of fat, and Burger King's Triple Whopper tips the scale with 1,160 calories.