The Worst Fast-Casual Restaurants, Ranked

By Milo B. JenkinsLast Updated Apr 18, 2020 9:25:01 PM ET
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Photo Courtesy: Frederick M. Brown/Stringer/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

Fast-casual restaurants caught on in the ‘90s as healthier, tastier alternatives to traditional fast food. They don't offer full table service, but they tend to offer better ingredients than most over-processed drive-thru meals.

However, a study by Nation's Restaurant News compared 126 popular restaurants and found that several fast-casual joints earned low marks in customer loyalty. Check out how the worst fast-casual restaurants stack up against each other, and learn which one is the worst of them all.

30. Hungry Howie’s

Hungry Howie's is the 11th largest pizza chain in the United States, with more than 550 locations. The chain is most commonly known for its Flavored Crust Pizza, with options ranging from Butter Cheese to Sesame and Garlic Herb.

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The pizza place ranked 29th out of the 126 restaurants in the Nation's Restaurant News poll. It's an impressive position for the pizza place. With 46% of people surveyed claiming loyalty to the restaurant, Hungry Howie’s may be worth a visit if you really like pizza.

29. Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen

Popeyes enjoyed a resurgence in popularity in 2019, thanks to the introduction of its tasty fried chicken sandwich. The first restaurant, which opened in 1972 in Louisiana, attempted to compete with fast-food giant KFC. The brand has since carved out its own lane with its signature Cajun spices and less focus on fast food.

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46% of people claimed brand loyalty to Popeyes in the NRN poll, and the restaurant ranked 32nd out of 126 restaurants. It’s possible even more people will flock to Popeyes once the sold-out fried chicken sandwich returns.

28. Blimpie

Blimpie is a successful sandwich chain that started with three high school friends from Jersey City. They referred to their sandwiches as "blimps" because they didn't call sandwiches "subs." The original store was a hit, and now you can find a Blimpie in 25 countries.

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Blimpie ranked 33rd in the NRN's restaurant loyalty ranking. With a 45% loyalty score, Blimpie’s sandwiches soar over the sandwiches of competitors. In hindsight, maybe it was a wise choice to name their sandwiches after something light as opposed to clunky, ocean-dwelling tanks.

27. Firehouse Subs

Firehouse Subs first opened in 1994 in Florida by brothers and former firefighters Robin and Chris Sorensen. They've expanded their empire to more than 1,100 sandwich shops across the country. In 2005, the owners created the Firehouse Subs Public Safety Foundation to provide aid to public safety organizations.

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The heroic duo's good-natured business model helped them expand to become the 39th most popular restaurant in the country. The chain has a 45% customer loyalty rating, which could use some improvement. Perhaps staffing the restaurants with firemen could help boost foot traffic?

26. Togo’s

Togo's first started in a tiny shack in Beverly, Massachusetts. The restaurant was so small that only four people could fit inside at one time. The sign outside read "Sandwiches To Go" with "To Go" being the largest words on the sign.

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Togo's clocked in 45th on NRN's restaurant popularity contest, with 45% customer loyalty. This ranking out of 126 restaurant chains isn't half bad, but it isn't half good, either. It seems like a lot of people would prefer not to go to Togo's.

25. McAlister’s Deli

McAlister's Deli is a sandwich restaurant with more than 400 locations throughout the country. Besides sandwiches, McAlister's is also known for "Texas-size" baked potatoes and boxed lunches. You can wash down the deli’s meals with their Famous Sweet Teas, available by the glass or by the gallon.

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The deli chain placed 49th in the Nation's Restaurant News' ranking. With a 44% consumer loyalty rating, the numbers could be better. Perhaps the gallon-sized sweet teas may turn people away from their doors? That's a lot of sugar that doesn't always sweeten the deal.

24. Zaxby’s

It’s time to step away from sandwiches and head into the chicken coop for some Southern cooking. With more than 900 locations in the Southern United States, Zaxby's is the place to go for fried chicken. The restaurant is best known for chicken fingers and dipping sauces with names like "nuclear" and "insane."

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Zaxby's ranked 53rd on NRN's restaurant popularity list, and only 44% of people polled called themselves loyal customers. It appears the rest of the diners would rather leave the coop for greener, healthier pastures.

23. Baja Fresh

Baja Fresh is fast-casual's answer to Tex Mex. Each restaurant features a signature self-serve salsa bar with fresh ingredients. Their commitment to freshness helped them open up stores from California to Singapore and the United Arab Emirates.

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Baja Fresh ranked 54th on the NRN list, with a 43% customer loyalty rating. The restaurant has achieved international success with only 162 locations as of 2016. Perhaps the low loyalty percentage is because not enough people have heard of Baja Fresh — yet.

22. Boston Market

Boston Market first opened in 1984 and sold rotisserie chickens with big side dishes. The concept caught on quickly, and the restaurant expanded its menu as it opened more stores. The popular chain currently has more than 460 stores and offers all sorts of deli favorites.

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Boston Market ranked 55th on NRN's restaurant popularity list, with a lackluster 43% loyalty percentage. Curious why their homestyle meals don't encourage a lot of loyalty? Maybe it’s because people don't want remedial Thanksgiving dinners more than once a year.

21. Charley’s Philly Steaks

Charleys Philly Steaks first opened in 1986 on campus at Ohio State University. The juicy cheesesteaks have bizarre ingredients, including pepperoni, jalapeños and lots of bacon. With 600 locations in 17 countries, Charley’s claims to be "the #1 Philly cheesesteak in the world!"

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Charley's Philly Steaks ranked 54th on NRN's list, with 43% customer loyalty, so the claim might be debatable. On the other hand, maybe not everyone gets excited about cheesesteaks, and that shows in their ranking. The menu doesn't offer much outside of meaty sandwiches, so maybe it wouldn’t hurt to expand the menu as well.

20. Golden Corral

If you're hungry, but you're not sure what you actually want to eat, you should head to Golden Corral. They serve breakfast, lunch and dinner in an all-you-can-eat buffet format. You can literally serve yourself all three meals at once if you've got the appetite for it!

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Golden Corral ranked 60th on NRN's popular restaurants list, with a 43% customer loyalty rating. The restaurant chain has had several servings of setbacks over the years. There was a salmonella outbreak in 2003, a norovirus outbreak in 2012 and a health inspection viral video in 2013 that damaged the company’s reputation.

19. Potbelly Sandwich Shop

Potbelly Sandwich Shop has been selling sandwiches and other meals for more than 42 years. The signature sandwich, A Wreck, comes with salami, roast beef, turkey, ham, cheese and mayo. You know, the perfect ingredients to give you that signature potbelly.

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Potbelly Sandwich Shop ranked 61st on NRN's popular restaurants list, with a 43% rating for customer loyalty. With a name like Potbelly, it's no wonder some people don't want to visit the sandwich shops. Who wants to be reminded the food will give you a potbelly of your own?

18. TCBY

Did you know TCBY stands for "The Country's Best Yogurt?" We didn't either. The frozen yogurt chain first opened in 1981 in Little Rock, Arkansas, but has since expanded to more than 470 locations, making it one of the largest frozen yogurt chains in the country.

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TCBY ranked 63rd on NRN's popular restaurants list, with a 43% score for customer loyalty. The chain also serves cakes and pies to further capitalize on the dessert-loving crowd. Unfortunately, it doesn't look like everyone has a sweet tooth.

17. Which Wich

Which Wich specializes in sandwiches and salads. Their ordering system separates them slightly from the other fast-casual restaurants on this list. Customers use red Sharpie markers to select their meals on pre-printed sandwich bags. If you draw something unique enough on your sandwich bag, it could get hung up on the wall of fame!

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Which Wich ranked 64th on the NRN's popular restaurants list, with 43% customer loyalty. Unfortunately, no matter which 'wich you choose, it doesn't seem to generate much customer loyalty.

16. Corner Bakery Cafe

Corner Bakery Cafe knows how to separate itself from fast-food restaurants. Their shops all look like upscale bakeries with checkered floors and comfortable seating. They also provide various healthy food options for all your breakfast and lunch cravings.

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The cafe and bakery chain sadly ranked 66th in the Nation's Restaurant News' countdown. With a 42% consumer loyalty, it seems to be lacking return customers. Even though the cafe seems to offer meals for most occasions, it can't seem to find the right crowd.

15. Noodles & Company

Noodles & Company serves pasta dishes with recipes from across the globe. The Italian options include pesto cavatappi while the Asian options include Korean beef noodles. With more than 450 locations and a wide array of noodle dishes, you would think the chain knows the recipe for success.

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Unfortunately, Noodles & Company ranked 69th on NRN's list, with only 42% customer loyalty. They must know they need to keep up with the times, as the newest dishes appeal to the trendy vegetable noodle crowd.

14. Smashburger

Smashburger first opened in 2007, making it one of the newest restaurant chains on the list. In only 12 years, the burger chain has expanded to more than 370 locations across the country. Why the interesting name? Smashburger comes from the way they "smash" the never-frozen patties on flat-top grills.

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Smashburger ranked 71st on NRN's list, with a 42% customer loyalty rating. It's not quite a "smash" hit with a ranking like that, but "Mehburger" just doesn't have the same ring to it as Smashburger.

13. Subway

Subway came from humble beginnings in 1965. It started out as Pete's Super Submarines but changed its name to Subway a few years later. As of June 2017, there are approximately 42,000 locations in more than 100 countries.

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However, Subway ranked 72nd on NRN's list, with a mediocre 42% customer loyalty rating. For a juggernaut like Subway to rank so low, it says a lot about people's perceptions of the restaurant. For one thing, no other restaurant smells like a Subway. And the smell is far from appetizing.

12. Au Bon Pain

Au Bon Pain, which means "At the Good Bread" in French, is a café and bakery owned by Panera Bread. It offers all sorts of baked goods and pastries that are perfect for your morning commute. The chain currently has more than 200 locations throughout the United States, India and Thailand.

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The upscale bakery ranked 73rd in Nation's Restaurant News' popularity countdown. With a 41% consumer loyalty rating, the café doesn't appear to look as "Bon" to customers as it would like. The prices aren't too egregious, so the ranking is quite the "mystère."

11. Domino’s

The first Domino's Pizza served up pizza pies back in December 1960. Through the years, the monster chain has expanded to more than 16,000 Domino's locations, thanks in large part to a smart business strategy. The company sells pizza out of brick-and-mortar locations but also relies on speedy home deliveries to boost sales.

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Domino's ranked 74th on NRN's list, with a 41% customer loyalty rating. People don’t seem to be very loyal to the pizza place, even with their signature speedy service. A 30-minute delivery time is fast, but perhaps they should focus on quality and flavor instead.

10. Taco John’s

Taco John's first opened in Cheyenne, Wyoming, in 1969. 50 years later, the "West-Mex" restaurant operates in 27 states with almost 400 locations. The signature dish isn’t what you might think. Potato Olés, which are deep-fried potato nuggets smothered with various toppings, are the main crowd pleaser.

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Taco John's ranked 78th on NRN's popularity list, with an unimpressive 41% customer loyalty rating. Let's face it, big name powerhouses like Chipotle dominate the Mexican food market. If the company wants to compete with the big dogs, it will have to start offering some healthier menu options.

9. Del Taco

Del Taco sells American-style Mexican food — along with burgers, fries and shakes. By offering two different menu styles, the chain capitalizes on both markets in the Western United States. It's a solid business strategy that helped them expand to more than 550 restaurants.

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Although the restaurant offers a wide array of food, Del Taco still only ranked 81st on NRN's list and only achieved a 40% customer loyalty rating. We're approaching the bottom of the fast-casual list, so Del Taco may want to revisit its menu and strategy soon.

8. Baskin Robbins

Baskin Robbins is one of the longest-running ice cream shops in America. Founded in 1945 by Burt Baskin and Irv Robbins, the chain currently operates in nearly 50 countries. They're most known for offering 31 flavors of ice cream, so you could have a different flavor every day of any month.

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Even though the ice cream shop offers enough flavors to please most customers, it only has a 39% loyalty rating. The frozen treat empire ranked 85th in NRN's popularity poll, which sounds like two scoops of bad luck.

7. Panda Express

With more than 2,000 locations spread across the country, Panda Express is the largest Chinese-American chain. The restaurant is most known for signature combo meals, where you can combine a noodle or rice with other Chinese-inspired cuisines. The company takes in $3 billion a year and employs almost 40,000 workers.

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Despite what sounds like success, Panda Express ranked 91st on NRN's popularity list, with a low 39% customer loyalty rating. In fact, it's the lowest-rated Asian chain restaurant on the list, which is a pretty depressing fortune to find inside the company’s fortune cookie.

6. Church’s Chicken

Church's Chicken started from humble beginnings in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1952. The restaurant initially only sold chicken but slowly added more items as the business grew. The menu now includes items like fried okra, jalapeño poppers and honey biscuits.

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Church's Chicken ranked 93rd on NRN's popularity list, with a low customer loyalty rating of 38%. The company has more than 1,000 locations across four continents but can’t seem to consistently woo customers into returning. Perhaps the chain needs to say a little prayer to bring folks back to Church's.

5. Little Caesars

Little Caesars is the third-largest pizza chain in the United States and offers two different kinds of pizza menus: HOT-N-READY and specialty. The HOT-N-READY items are available for immediate take-out — a cheap, popular concept — while specialty items include the "ExtraMostBestest" products. Grammar is clearly not their forte.

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Little Caesars landed 100th on NRN's popularity list, with a 37% rating for customer loyalty. With options like "Bacon Wrapped Deep!Deep! Dish" and "Soft Pretzel Crust," the brand certainly know how to experiment with their pizzas. It appears they don't yet know how to keep loyal customers.

4. Steak ‘n Shake

Steak 'n Shake opened 85 years ago in Normal, Illinois. The 24-hour restaurant is famous for its steakburgers, which are made of T-bone, sirloin and round steaks. With round-the-clock hours, the restaurant offers a menu with breakfast, lunch and dinner items.

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Steak 'n Shake ranked 111th on NRN's popularity list, with 36% in customer loyalty. Approaching the bottom of the barrel of popularity, the restaurant better shake up its strategy because numbers like these don't add up at the bank.

3. Quizno’s Subs

Quizno's is a sandwich shop that specializes in toasted subs. Its founder, Jimmy Lambatos, was an experienced chef who styled his subs like the oven-baked sandwiches he grew up eating back in New York. According to Lambatos, "Heating the sandwich brings out the flavors."

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Hot and flavorful or not, Quizno's ranked 114th on NRN's restaurant popularity list, with only 35% of customers saying they are loyal to the brand. Lambatos' toasted sandwiches may be full of flavors, but are they the wrong flavors? It appears most people aren't interested in heated sandwiches.

2. Jimmy John’s

Jimmy John's is a restaurant chain that offers quick service and delivery options. The menu is stacked with 20 creative sandwich choices, including the Gargantuan, which consists of five kinds of meat. The chain first found success when the owner hand-delivered orders to students at Eastern Illinois University.

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Jimmy John's ranked 118th on NRN's restaurant popularity list, with a 34% customer loyalty rating. It's a perplexing placement when you consider the company was #1 on Entrepreneur’s 2016 Franchise 500 ranking. The sandwich maker also has high brand loyalty among millennials, but other generations seem to not care as much.

1. Sbarro

Ah, Sbarro. Home of the Original XL NY Pizza. Most people think of Sbarro as "the last pizza choice in a mall's food court." To be fair, the chain has also dominated fast-casual dining in airports, college campuses and casinos.

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Sadly, NRN ranked Sbarro 119th on its restaurant popularity list, with only 34% customer loyalty. That makes it worst-ranked fast-casual restaurant chain, but it's really not a surprise. How often do you crave a last resort option for Italian dining? Sbarro is the pizza punch line of chain restaurants, and this ranking proves it.