Panera Bread topped the list of Americans' favorite sandwich chains, according to a national study from customer intelligence solution provider Market Force. Panera was voted No. 1 in a restaurant industry survey of more than 7,600 consumers.
Jason's Deli and McAlister's Deli were ranked second and third, followed by Firehouse Subs, Quiznos, Jimmy John's and Subway.
The study, conducted in August, was designed to uncover which sandwich chains consumers like most and why they prefer one to another. Market Force calculated the favorites based on total votes, and then factored in the number of locations for each chain for a more level view of the results.
Of the 14 major national and region sandwich/wrap chains studied, Subway garnered the most total votes, which can be credited to the fact that it's one of the largest franchises. However, when viewed as a calculation of favorite votes per location, smaller chain Panera, with 1,600 locations across North America, took the top spot among the top eight brands.
According to Market Force's research, Panera's appeal comes largely from its loyalty program that allows the company to capture customer behavior and use that information for its menu and marketing strategies.
Jason's Deli differentiates itself with a menu focused on healthier food. Both Jason's Deli and third-ranking McAlister's Deli also saw sales and unit growth in 2011.
Market Force also analyzed the results geographically to see which sandwich chains are most popular in the four regions of the country – the Northeast, Midwest, South and West.
Panera was the crowd favorite in all regions except the Midwest, where Jason's Deli had the highest ranking. The top four in the Northeast included large chains such as Quiznos and Arby's, which didn't make the cut in any of the other regions.
Finally, Market Force asked consumers to rank the sandwich chains based on attributes including food quality/taste, customer service, cleanliness, atmosphere and overall value.
Jason's Deli was No. 1 in the food and value categories, as well as in cleanliness. Respondents lauded Jimmy John's for providing the best service, and recognized Panera for its atmosphere. McAlister's performed consistently well in all areas.
"We're seeing a shift in the sandwich industry, where now the customer experience is just as important as the convenience factor," said Janet Eden-Harris, chief marketing officer for Market Force. "Brands like Panera and Jason's Deli are differentiating in areas like atmosphere and health-conscious food, and that's drawing customers in the door and making them return visitors."
Read more about trends and statistics.