In the battle of the burritos, Chipotle takes the prize, according to a national study from Market Force, a leader in customer intelligence solutions. Chipotle was voted America's favorite fast casual Mexican chain in a restaurant industry survey of more than 7,600 consumers. Baja Fresh and Moe's Southwest Grill were ranked No. 2 and No. 3. Taco Cabana, Qdoba, El Pollo Loco, Taco John's and Taco Bell also made it onto the list of favorites.
The study, conducted in August, was designed to uncover which fast casual Mexican chains consumers like most and why they prefer one over another. Market Force first calculated the favorites based on the total number of votes, and then factored in the number of locations for each chain for a more level view of the results.
Denver-based Chipotle – known for its large burritos, assembly-line production and use of natural ingredients – has seen remarkable growth and gathered a loyal customer following over the past two decades. However, newer chains like Moe's Southwest Grill are hoping to eat into that market share with aggressive plans to double its location count by 2015.
Market Force also analyzed the results geographically to see which fast casual Mexican chains are most popular in four regions of the country – the Northeast, Midwest, South and West.
Chipotle was tops in the Northeast and Midwest, Baja Fresh in the South and Taco Cabana reigned supreme in the West. The location of the chains' headquarters didn't seem to significantly sway the votes. For instance, Irvine, Calif.-based Baja Fresh ranked fourth in the Western region, yet stole the first place spot in the South from Atlanta-based Moe's Southwest Grill.
Qdoba, Chipotle and Moe's outdo others in key attributes
Market Force also asked consumers to rank the Mexican food chains based on various attributes such as food quality/taste, customer service, cleanliness, atmosphere and overall value. Chipotle and Qdoba tied for first place in food quality/taste and cleanliness, and also rated high for service. Moe's Southwest Grill had a similarly strong showing, ranking first two critical categories – customer service and value. Meanwhile, Baja Fresh, which ranked No. 2 overall in the study, received high marks for food and cleanliness. El Pollo Loco performed well in the value category, scoring in second place, and was third in food quality/taste.
"The fast casual Mexican food phenomenon shows no signs of slowing down, but our research suggests that it's no longer enough to just offer the lowest prices or largest number of menu options," said Janet Eden-Harris, chief marketing officer for Market Force. "Instead, we're seeing chains that are satisfying consumers' taste for fresh ingredients, friendly service and a comfortable setting are emerging as the category leaders."
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