Culture

The 7 Most Overrated Fast Food Restaurants

French fries sizzling in hot oil. Fresh (at least at some point) hamburger searing on the flat top grill. Squeaky-voiced teen messing up our order and saying he’ll have to ask his manager. This is the fast food experience Americans are all familiar with. When we walk into a fast food restaurant we all have a certain set of expectations about the food and service based on our previous experiences. That’s why we continue to go back — no matter where in the country we are, we expect the same McDonald’s or Taco Bell meal.

However, it seems to be increasingly evident that fast food restaurants are trying new gimmicks marketing techniques to change both our expectations and perceptions of what they’re serving and how they’re serving it.  If my business was being endlessly attacked by nanny-staters that want to dictate what I can and can’t serve my customers, I’d probably try almost anything to keep them coming in the door. But when you try to create the perception of better food and better value instead of actually giving it to your customers, you become a prime candidate for today’s list.

7. Wendy’s

Wendy’s is the least offensive of the restaurants on this list.

I’ve had plenty of food from Wendy’s that I have enjoyed, and can see to some degree why people want to duck in for a square burger and Frosty. However, Wendy’s definitely has some issues bubbling underneath the surface.

Despite the fact that Wendy’s often views itself as superior among the likes of competitors like McDonald’s and Burger King, the qualities they tout are mostly a façade. Take, for example, their new Natural-Cut Fries. They were obviously trying to take advantage of the fact that those restaurants that are doing fresh-cut, skin-on fries are doing well because people can taste a difference. But while Wendy’s fries have the skin-on appearance, they are the same frozen matchsticks shipped on a truck that they always were. Truthfully, with every new “fresh” item they roll out they are really just justifying their higher prices (compared to other burger chains) without really delivering a hell of a lot more in the quality department.

On a more anecdotal note, I seem to have many more service issues at the various Wendy’s I go to than at other burger joints. This includes forgotten drive-thru items, cash register operators who are bad enough at math to apply for a job as Treasury secretary in the Obama administration, and the fact that they still refuse to have a self-serve soda fountain. If refills are indeed free and I want more Diet Coke, don’t make me have to interrupt someone who is “working” in order to get it.

6. Panda Express

Aside from the ridiculous name that only serves to disappoint those of us who were hoping Panda was actually on the menu, Panda Express is also the second worst Chinese restaurant. (PF Chang’s is #1. A discussion for another day.)

The food is expensive, pedestrian, and bland. Even if you like Panda, stop for just one second and ask yourself: “Is Panda Express’ food better than what I can get at my local hole-in-the-wall Chinese take-out restaurant?” If you’re being honest with yourself, and you’re enough of a fan of Chinese that you’ve done some exploring of the local places, the answer will inevitably be no.  The neighborhood take-out joint will have food that is fresher (made to order instead of sitting on a steam table), more flavorful, and definitely cheaper. Yes, at your local place you may have to wait a bit for your food to be made, but that’s a good thing. Also, I’ve never been to a Chinese restaurant that wouldn’t let you call in your order for pickup later.

5. Fazoli’s

I can hear some of you right now: “Brent,” you say, “why is Fazoli’s on your list? Don’t most people have enough brainpower to agree that Fazoli’s sucks?”

Well, dear reader, it certainly seems that way and that is mostly the reason it makes the list here. Fazoli’s is a restaurant that for all intents and purposes should be defunct by now.  The quality of the food has dropped dramatically since when I was a kid, and the people who bring around the all-you-can-eat breadsticks are a fading memory. In addition, the prices per entrée seem to creep ever higher.

I was floored by how much I had to pay for cheap pasta and a drink the last time I visited the location closest to my office. Despite all of this, people still come in and Fazoli’s stays while other restaurants and chains have come and gone. The only redeeming quality of Fazoli’s is their pizza. I was surprised how much I enjoyed it when coworkers brought one in recently — an underrated dish at a largely overrated chain.

Pretentious and cliche rolled into one!

4. Chipotle

I realize that I might be drawing some real fire with this one. Some people just love this place. I even admit that when Chipotle was fresh on the scene I counted myself amongst that flock. However, the problem is that they are no longer the newest kid on the block, and Chipotle has not made the changes to remain competitive.

The Qdoba restaurant chain does everything that Chipotle does and more — also, they do it better. The Qdoba burritos have all the basic fresh ingredients — cilantro rice, black or pinto beans, choice of meat and salsa, cheese and sour cream — but Qdoba also has several varieties of sauces or grill peppers you can add to your burritos, tacos, quesadillas, or nachos. This really bring them to a new level; the same item at Chipotle is dry and bland by comparison.

The appeals to elitist food culture like the ad above might make inroads among the “my car is powered by my own sense of self satisfaction” set, but most people just want big, bold flavors. With both restaurants having basically the same price point, there is simply no reason to stick with Chipotle any longer.

3. Arby’s

If there is one thing I hate in any arena it is too much self-satisfaction. That is what Arby’s has in spades.

I mean, have you seen the “Good Mood Food” ads? Any company that thinks people will come in and buy their product despite an ad campaign that is annoying to the point of provoking blind rage is incredibly full of itself.

This also comes across in Arby’s prices. When I tried their new Smokin’ Chipotle Chicken Sandwich a few weeks ago, I had a coupon for a free drink and fry with purchase. It was a good thing I had that coupon because without it a combo would have been almost $9. NINE DOLLARS! You can practically order everything on the frickin’ menu at Taco Bell for 9 bucks!

I’ll give you one guess how the food was. Yeah, it was completely underwhelming. I can name two other fast food places off the top of my head that do a better chicken sandwich than that on their worst day. Watch for any restaurant that throws out those “good” food buzzwords like “angus” and “chipotle.” Arby’s does this constantly, and it almost always means the marketing is better than the actual product.

2. KFC

Oh, how the mighty have fallen.

Kentucky Fried Chicken at one point in time had legendary food and a quaint, humble, all-American history. Colonel Harland Sanders was an absolute task master about the quality of food his restaurants served. Obviously, that was some time ago. These days we have a restaurant more intent on serving overpriced food usually coupled with some new, less-than-spectacular menu offering. Kentucky Grilled Chicken, anyone? Yeah, I thought not.

I’ve also had repeated service issues at various KFCs I’ve visited. One time I was told — after my order was already placed! — that they were out of the type of chicken that I ordered. Yes, they were out of CHICKEN! Chicken is in the damn name!

I would love it if KFC decided to go back to basics, improve the quality of their sides and biscuits, and focus more on chicken. Maybe take a cue from Popeyes and grant me the privilege to choose a spicier offering.

Truthfully I don’t expect much from KFC anymore. Their most recent commercial for their Popcorn Chicken asks the question (in deriding competitors who have stolen market share I’m sure): what part of a chicken is a “nugget”?  Let’s answer that question with a question. Hey KFC, what part of a chicken is popcorn?
1. Subway

Ok, so this one might draw more hate than Chipotle.

People seem to love Subway as much as Subway Jared used to love cake. And that’s the point, isn’t it?  Subway is that one fast food restaurant where you can eat and still feel good about yourself. It’s healthy right?

I mean you saw that dude hold up his old giant pants. The fact of the matter is that Subway does have some healthier options, but that doesn’t mean that it’s a good restaurant. The amount of meat that you get on a Subway sandwich is so small it’s depressing.

Subway gets away with this kind of garbage because they assume you will want to put all sorts of (much cheaper) toppings on your sandwich making it look like you actually paid your money for something of substance. What a joke. Also a joke is the concept of the 5 dollar foot long. That’s roughly the price for a combo at most other fast food places, but at Subway the 5 dollar foot long is a special and it does not include side or drink.

Also, the quality of the ingredients is poor in comparison to competitors like Jimmy John’s, Jason’s Deli, Jersey Mike’s, and Penn Station. Subway realizes this too and pitifully tries to compensate with new gimmicks like toasted subs and breakfast service. The last toasted Subway sub I had was just plain awful. You can tell it was never really meant to be a part of the process.  The Subway breakfast sandwiches are something that almost anyone could make better for less money at home. Although, serving crap you could just make at home seems to be Subway’s overall M.O.

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After thinking about all of this you might end up asking yourself if all fast food chains are ripping us off or serving us crap while we take it with a smile on our face. Without question many are, but I think it’s important to point out that there are several that are putting out good product coupled with good service. It’s not a matter of whether you should spend your money on fast food. If you want to, by all means go ahead. It’s your right to spend your money on the food of your choosing. But when you do spend that money just give some thought to where you’re spending it and what you’re actually getting for your hard-earned dollar. Because we can complain as much as we want about lousy service and pathetic new products at fast food restaurants, but they’re only going to listen to us if we vote with our wallets and stop rewarding the mediocre.

Editor’s Note: Be sure and check out more of Brent’s food blogging at his site Random Dude Eats Random Food.