5 Fast-Casual Chains With the Most Food Quality Complaints
Unlike their fast-food brethren, fast-casual chains are known to rank higher in the court of public opinion when it comes to food quality. Typically offering fresher food, albeit a bit pricier, these counter-service restaurants changed the way Americans dine—merging traditional restaurant fare with fast-food's speed and pricing.
This winning combo has seen its popularity explode over the last few decades. In 2009, there were about 17,300 fast-casuals in the U.S. By 2018, fast-casuals had more than doubled their footprint to almost 35,000 locations, according to The Washington Post. And the market is still trending up.
But like any other restaurant chain, sometimes they've gotten exposed doing some questionable behind-the-scenes moves, cutting corners, or simply getting a flair-up of bad publicity.
Whatever the reason, fast-casual restaurants—just like fast-food—are still capable of bad food. Here are the chains with some of the best-documented customer complaints.
While most American-Chinese food isn't exactly considered a healthy choice, fast-casual giant Panda Express has seen its fair share of criticism when it comes to its ingredient quality.
Once found mostly in malls and airports, Panda Express has expanded its reach since its inception in 1983. And being around that long, it made a significant impact on the cuisine—having actually invented orange chicken 35 years ago. While the dish has significantly changed Chinese menus in America (for the better some would say) it has also been called out for using dubious ingredients.
In 2018, rival Pei Wei dealt Panda Express a dirty blow (and an all-out social media war) when it publicly called out the eatery for its menu transparency—particularly with its orange chicken dish. The "challenge" included Pei Wei listing its recipe for its dish and asking Panda Express to "come clean" with its version. Needless to say, it didn't.
And then when it didn't respond, Pei Wei actually went dumpster diving behind its rival's restaurant and uploaded a picture of a used orange chicken package from its factory on Twitter, exposing the brand for its laundry list of preservatives.
Wild brand wars aside, customers have taken issue with the quick-service chain as well. A recent Reddit discussion on the downsides of the chain's food reached 3,000 upvotes and nearly 800 comments, showing customers have a lot to say on the topic.
Additionally, the chain was voted as one of America's "least trusted food chains" by the ACSI customer satisfaction score last year.
However, while it depends on the dish, Panda Express has some healthy choices available. Perhaps just not the orange chicken.
When the St. Louis Bread Company first opened in 1987 in Kirkwood, Mo., there was no indication of how big it would get. But that first sourdough starter would soon find its way around the country.
In its heyday, Panera Bread filled a soup and sandwich void that America didn't know it had. More recently, however, complaints have been piling up that the once-beloved bread chain has been going downhill. We've been noticing customer grievances rolling in about Panera "skimping" and increasing its prices so much so that they don't match its quality anymore.
Some people just lament about the "good old days" when the restaurant featured warm pasta and an extra baguette didn't cost an exorbitant amount. In fact, customers have gotten so displeased with Panera, a Twitter trend was born last year calling the chain "high-quality hospital food."
If that wasn't enough bad exposure on social media, the brand came under fire last year when an ex-employee posted a video on TikTok showing her boiling the macaroni and cheese in a bag to warm it up. After the viral video got slammed with comments regarding how cheap the prep appeared, the worker was fired.
The chain did respond to the video, stating that it is done that way because "it is shipped frozen to our bakery-cafes—this allows us to avoid using preservatives which do not meet our cleanliness standards." Only, the chain was sued in 2020 for marketing its food as "clean" when it allegedly has preservatives. Whatever the case, Panera may have more explaining to do.
When Americans are craving chicken wings, they're likely heading to Wingstop—one of the biggest wing purveyors in the country. But the chicken chain has plenty of baggage when it comes to its questionable, and sometimes disgusting, history. Especially behind closed doors.
In 2016, an employee gained some unwanted press for the chain when she put her face into a bucket of raw chicken at a Colorado location, causing more than a few raised eyebrows across the nation. Then, last year, another video emerged showing yet another worker handling food without gloves on camera.
If poor kitchen practices weren't enough, Business Insider broke the news that Wingstop's "boneless wings" are not actual 'wings' at all, just chicken nuggets made using breast meat.
And for all the controversial video footage and food allegations, many customers are saying that the restaurant is far overpriced. "Paid $14 bucks for 10 wings drenched in grease with cold seasoned fries," said one unhappy Reddit customer.
However, for those that do seek out wings for lunch or dinner, it might be best to stick to them. Across Twitter, reports indicate Wingstop's fries are a disappointment, often described as limp, gross, and old.
Chipotle has done a lot to rectify its image after the 2015 catastrophe that sickened over 1,000 people and cost the burrito brand a $25 million federal fine. While the outbreak will forever stain the company's reputation, Chipotle has made strides in winning customers back in light of it—now exceeding revenue expectations the past few years running.
While Chipotle may have cleaned up its act, the brand isn't without fault. Over the past few years, a series of failed menu experiments have had customers wondering what the Tex-Mex fast casual is thinking.
Last year's smoked brisket got many complaints that the beef was more akin to jerky than pulled meat. Then the 2017 big queso rollout had customers wondering how cheese could be so chalky. Noticing that "like chalk" wasn't the flavor comparison they were going for, Chipotle redid its queso and debuted it again in 2019, only to get complaints that the lumpy cheese dip was congealed.
So, if the "new" menu items weren't hitting, at least its staples still shined, right? Unfortunately, no. For many customers, the consensus is that Chipotle's overall quality has gone downhill. Social media posts beg questions like, "What has happened to this chain?" and "Does anyone notice an extreme decline in Chipotle?"
Some suggest the decline was due to the change of leadership to CEO Brian Niccol in 2018, who was formally the CEO of Taco Bell—which is also not exactly known for its high standards of quality.
Five Guys was at one point the darling burger chain of the Millennial crowd—who couldn't get enough of the huge portions of fries and burgers stacked with toppings. However, more recently, it has been on the receiving end of plenty of customer complaints.
One recurring grievance customers have expressed about the brand has been about its recent surge in prices. Reddit has taken to calling the burger joint an "absolute rip-off," and Twitter has been after the chain saying, "when you pay $20 for a burger and fries . . . you expect it to at least be ok."
If the quality reports of Five Guys haven't indicated people aren't mad enough, the ingredients have been found to be sub-par as well. A report produced by a handful of agencies in 2018 gave Five Guys an F grade for failure to source any of their beef from antibiotic-free farms, according to a report by CBS News.
Additionally, Time Magazine has ranked its large fries as one of the "Top 10 Worst Fast-Food Meals."