While I often rail against the horrors of fast food, it would be naive of me to believe that one can stay entirely away from it. Whether it's a long road trip, an unforeseen airport delay, or just a long week at work, fast food occasionally has to be consumed. The trick is making sure the fast food you're choosing isn't all bad.
And so, I'm going to rank the top ten fast food chains in the country. This list is, of course, indisputable.
Before we get started, a little bit about methodology. To be considered, a chain has to be one of the top fifty fast food chains in North America according to their QSR rating, minus Canada's Tim Horton's and any chains that essentially just deal in desserts (like, Krispy Kreme and Baskin Robbins). Take those out, and there's 39 left. For each of those, I broke them into five categories: Worker Pay, Environmental Considerations, Food Sourcing, Calorie Bombs, and Taste. Each category received a mark of 1, 2, or 3 points.
Worker Pay is just what it says: How much do their entry level employees earn? Anything below $8.50 got a 1, between $8.50 and $10 got a 2, and $10 and up got a 3. (Spoiler: Almost everyone received a 1.)
Environmental Considerations is about the practices used in terms of packaging and sustainability. The standard point score was 1, but if the company made an announcement in the past few years to change their ways, they got a 2. If they actually followed through with those promises, they received a 3.
Food Sourcing is about where the chain gets their food. The nature of the fast food industry dictates a model where cheap factory-farmed products must be used. However, not everyone does this.
The Calorie Bombs category has to do with the number of items that are listed at over 750 calories. While this gets tricky with places like Chipotle and Subway (who make customization part of their ordering process) and pizza chains (who believe a single slice is an actual "serving size"), I used editorial judgment when necessary. Speaking of editorial judgment:
Taste is just about my own taste buds. If I like it, it's a 3. If I don't, it's a 1. If I never tried it or believe it's average, it's a 2.
So, then. Let's get to the list!
10. (tie) Five Guys
Five Guys seems to be taking a page from In-N-Out, but without using the same strict standards. (Which, in turn, allows them to spread far across the country instead of staying confined to a tight radius.) One place they don't share business philosophies with In-N-Out is with their employee salaries: They only start workers at $7.94 an hour.
10. (tie) Culver's
The beloved Midwest-based chain scores high in most categories; their lone big problem is their multitudinous offerings of Calorie Bombs. That's how it goes when you offer insane ice cream creations.
10. (tie) Jason's Deli
While the chain's generous high-calorie muffaletta sandwiches keep them from being considered the "healthy" side of the spectrum, they have been making concerted efforts to change their ways; they're one of the first chains to eliminate trans fat, get rid of MSG entirely, and offer gluten-free options.
10. (tie) Long John Silver's
The biggest shocker on this list -- because, you know, "seafood chain" and "quality" just don't go together -- the fact that they've recently made attempts to sustainably fish is good enough to tie them for 10th. Perhaps more than anything it's indicative of the sad state of the entire fast food industry.
6. Boston Market
Full disclosure: I spent two years in high school working at a Boston Market. It was the best job I ever had, and probably will ever have. And after knowing all the ins and outs of what goes on behind the scenes, I'd still eat there. Which may be the biggest endorsement possible.
If a company's politics was a category, Chick-Fil-A would be scraping the bottom of the barrel. But their sourcing is strong, their pay is decent in comparison to their peers, and their product is, frankly, delicious.
4. Panera Bread
No doubt Panera Bread was going to find a place in the top five due to their healthy dishes and because they start employees at a decent-ish wage ($8.21 an hour), but the recent news that they're getting rid of all additives by 2015 bumps them up a bit.
They continue their goal of world domination by sourcing from solid places, paying attention to how their business affects the environment, and starting their workers off at the second-highest hourly pay ($8.79) of any top-50 chain.
Not only do they source their food from worthwhile farms, and keep their calorie bomb offerings up to the creative whims of their customers, they also pay the third highest for an entry level position. Unfortunately, that's still only $8.69.
Not only do they far outpace the rest of the fast food world in terms of employee pay (almost $2 more than their closest competition), but they offer no official calorie bombs, maintain a fresh product through their strict policy of only opening stores within driving radius of their plants, and have the tastiest burger around. The only downside may be that their drive-thrus are never empty. But, even then, it never takes as long as you'd think. There's really no comparison.
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