A new study released this month found that, for many, eating fast food is becoming less about the "fast" and more about the "food."
Consumer Reports asked more than 30,000 of its subscribers to rank the food of different regional and national fast food chains, in addition to their politeness, speed of service, value and cleanliness. It found that smaller, non-drive-thru restaurants such as the Habit, Chipotle and Qdoba generally fared better. Larger chains -- such as Taco Bell, McDonald's, Subway and KFC -- came in toward the bottom of the rankings.
According to Tod Marks, an editor at Consumer Reports, the results suggest that food quality at fast food restaurants has become increasingly more important to customers, while convenience has become less so.
The rankings specifically tend to favor "fast casual" places like Chipotle and Panera, which lack a drive-thru and emphasize fresh ingredients, unlike traditional fast food chains. Consumer Reports says that customers are now more willing to go the extra distance and pay a little more for a fast casual meal.
"For consumers, the quality of the ingredients and the higher price point lead to a more satisfactory experience altogether," said Marks of fast casual chains. "Not only is the food better, but they do a better job in cleanliness, service, and value — you get more bang for your buck."
Experts say that the trend is especially strong among young people. According to the National Restaurant Assn., the restaurant industry's share of the food dollar in the U.S. went from 25% in 1955 to 47% in 2014. Going out to eat was more commonplace for millennials growing up than it was for previous generations.
As a result, Marks says, young people now choose to spend less at restaurants in order to dine out more frequently. And among their choice of affordable restaurants, fast casual places stand out.
"Some of these chains have a social consciousness," said Marks. "More and more chains are serving meat without antibiotics in the feed — those kinds of decisions and their environmental friendliness make those companies stand out and resonate with the younger audience in particular."
Among the 65 chains surveyed, dishes from the Habit, Chick-fil-A, Chipotle and Portillo's Hot Dogs topped the taste charts while food from McDonald's, Au Bon Pain, KFC and Taco Bell did the worst in each of their categories.