Fast-food restaurants are serious business in America.
The $208 billion industry caters to the fickle taste buds of consumers, who have grown up in the shadow of McDonald's golden arches. That's created a basic ideal fast-food meal: quick delivery, tasty food and friendly service.
In recent years, however, diners have added to their expectations. They now also want healthy food and quality ingredients, as well as a dining room that offers more than bare-bones chairs and tables.
That's shifted the way Americans view their fast-food outlets. Some of the most iconic names in the industry are suffering, while upstarts are convincing consumers to shift their allegiances to their more innovative menus.
As a result, some of the country's oldest brand names in fast-food are coping with lower sales and troubling trends, such as difficulty in luring Millennial consumers through their doors. Younger chains generally doing a better job of appealing to America's tastebuds, according to a new report from the American Consumer Satisfaction Index.
"Consumers are looking for something newer and fresher," said ACSI director of research Forrest Morgeson. With the economy improving, he added, "consumers will be willing and ready to spend a little more, so they won't go first and foremost with the supplier that gives them the best price. They're willing to spend a little more money for higher quality."
As the economy recovers, fast-food restaurants need to step up their game. During the recession, price alone would get consumers through the door. In better economic times, however, diners tend to prefer quality over price.
The ACSI surveyed 5,023 people earlier this year about their experiences with fast-food restaurants. The chains were rated on a number of factors, including quality of food, courtesy of the staff, speed of delivery and cleanliness of the restaurants.
Read on to learn about the top 5 most loved and hated fast-food brands in America.
Best: No. 5, Papa John's
This pizza chain has a good news/bad news situation. While Papa John's (PZZA) ranked as one of the top pizza chains by consumers (tying it with rival Pizza Hut), its score slipped four points, dropping from 82 to 78 in just a year.
"You don't want to see a decline like that if you are Papa John's," Morgeson said. "They are still in a top position," but the pizza chains were also dinged this year because they competed on price, rather than quality.
Papa John's, whose motto is "Better Ingredients. Better Pizza," announced earlier this month that it's spending $100 million a year to eliminate artificial ingredients and other additives. Last year, it removed MSG from its ranch dressing and trans fats from its garlic sauce, according to Bloomberg News.
Its founder, John Schnatter, told the publication: "It's hard to remove some of these things and still get the flavor and functionality you want."
Best: No. 4, Dunkin' Donuts
America apparently likes running on Dunkin' Donuts (DNKN), which was the only fast-food restaurant to see an increase in customer satisfaction, according to the survey.
Its rating rise to 78 points from 75 in 2014, according to the ACSI. A rebranding has helped the chain compete more effectively with Starbucks (SBUX), according to Morgeson.
Older slogans emphasized donuts, such as "America's Donut Shoppe," but the company's focus now is on beverages such as Dunkacinnos and Coolattas. That's helped lure customers away from higher-priced coffee stores like Starbucks, as well as fast-food rivals like McDonald's (MCD).
Best: No. 3, Panera
While the bakery-cafe chain is new to the ACSI's survey this year, it has clearly already made a big impact on consumers. Panera debuted with a score of 80, putting it ahead of many older and bigger rivals.
The ACSI added Panera (PNRA) because "there's a new category of fast-food restaurants that are stealing market share from the more established players," said Morgeson. Panera "offers a little bit more service."
The chain is also winning fans for its vow to remove "no no" ingredients, such as artificial smoke flavor and glycerol ester of wood rosin, part of its pledge to serve up healthier fast-food dishes.
Best: No. 2, Chipotle
Chipotle Mexican Grill (CMG), another newbie to the ACSI's rankings, is a clear favorite with American diners.
The chain scored an 83 on this year's survey, making it the second most-loved fast-food in the country. The company has high standards for humanely raised meat and premium ingredients, one reason why Americans are increasingly choosing to eat there.
Even though it's more expensive than traditional burger-focused fast-food restaurants, Chipotle has diners swallowing price increases, and they appear to want more. Still, the chain's high standards haven't come without growing pains. When it dropped one of its pork vendors after discovering it wasn't keeping to its guidelines, Chipotle faced a shortage of carnitas, the shredding pork that fills its burritos.
Best: No.1, Chick-fil-A
Forks down, Chick-fil-A is killing it when it comes to customer satisfaction. The chain scored an 86 in the ACSI's survey, the highest of all fast-food restaurants.
"The thing to note with Chick-fil-A is there's the perception that they have much better quality food," Morgeson said. Both Chipotle and Chick-fil-A "focus on a specific type of item on the menu, and they focus on really high quality food. They do it very well, and they don't try to be everything to all people."
Worst: No. 5, KFC
While Chick-fil-A is winning over Americans with its chicken sandwiches, KFC is having a harder time convincing diners that it still has pluck.
The venerable chain even brought back Colonel Sanders as its icon this year, aiming to freshen up its image by tapping nostalgia for its founder. Instead of relying on the actual Col. Harland Sanders, who died in 1980, the chain tapped former "Saturday Night Live" comedian Darrell Hammond to play him.
KFC's goal is to knock Chick-fil-A from its roost, but the chain's problems may go far beyond wooing U.S. diners. Sales in China have suffered amid concerns about food safety, following reports that parent Yum (YUM) had bought meat products that were past their expiration date.
KFC scored 73 points in this year's ACSI survey, down from 74 a year earlier.
Worst: No. 4, Burger King
Sometimes it's not good to be the king. The venerable burger chain slipped to 72 points in this year's survey, down from 76 a year ago.
Like KFC, Burger King (BKW) is bringing back an old mascot in the effort to attract diners back to its flame-broiled patties. The King, a royally strange figure with a grinning plastic face, has returned to the chain's ads.
The chain has also introduced a seasonal BBQ menu this summer, and introduced frozen drinks like a Pina Colada smoothie. Still, Burger King might simply be out of touch with what younger diners want, given the rising fortunes of rivals such as Chipotle and Panera.
Worst: No. 3, Taco Bell
Taco Bell scored 72 points, the same as last year, but that's not much consolation, given that the Yum Brands chain is ranked as America's third most-disliked fast-food chain.
The company has suffered from perceptions about its food quality in recent years. A 2011 lawsuit claimed its beef filling was only 35 percent beef. (The chain later said its filling was 88 percent beef.)
Worst: No. 2, Jack in the Box
Jack in the Box (JACK) is making its first entry on the ACSI's list, coming in with a score of 72, or the country's second least-liked fast-food chain.
Still, the chain is vowing to introduce new offerings to entice customers to give it a try. It introduced the Buttery Jack burger in January, its most successful new product in recent years, according to Nation's Restaurant News. The burger isn't for the faint of heart -- or those with heart problems -- given that its beef patty is topped with melted garlic-herb butter.
In an analysts' call in May, CEO Lenny Comma said the chain was focusing on getting out the message about the taste of its food, rather than competing on price.
Worst: No. 1, McDonald's
The chain that started the industry is America's most disliked fast-food restaurant, according to the ACSI, which noted that its score plunged to 67 points this year, down from 71 in 2014.
That decline comes even as McDonald's has started a turnaround effort, bringing in a new chief executive and tweaking its menu to make it more appealing. The chain even brought back the Hamburglar, the burger thief that was featured in ads during the 1970s and 1980s. But consumers aren't yet taking much notice.
"It felt like they were stacking the deck chairs on the Titanic," said Morgeson. "They are doing small things that they help will incrementally improve the perception of quality, but whether it'll have a desired effect, I'm not sure."
If the problems aren't fixed, Morgeson added, "McDonald's could see a prolonged slide in its market share."