According to MCA data, food quality is the single most important factor for consumers in choosing where to eat out. But how are those customers defining quality and which operators are being scored highest on this crucial metric? MCA’s market insight director, Steve Gotham, reveals answers that may surprise many operators.

I have a crucial question for you: what is the embodiment of ‘quality’ in your food business?

This is crucial because food quality/taste is consistently rated the single most important consideration consumers have when they are thinking about where to go – and this applies across all day-parts. Quality might well be remembered long after the price is forgotten, but just what is quality and how is it defined by consumers?

Unhelpfully, quality means different things to different people. For some people visual cues about a product’s look and freshness are most influential, while for others it could be the provenance and authenticity, and for some a product description and/or a price point. At MCA, we will be exploring this in more detail later in the year, but the key takeout is that quality is by no means easy to define in a meaningful way.

So let’s approach this from a different perspective and have a look at which operators are rated highest by consumers for their food quality/taste. Using results from MCA’s Eating Out Panel, across different channels in the foodservice landscape, an insightful assortment of retailers and operators are perceived as the leading purveyors of quality.

Within the grocery sector, and looking only at food to go and the critical day-part of lunch, it is perhaps not too surprising that Marks & Spencer and Waitrose are the joint winners with a rating of 8.5 out of 10. The reputations of both retailers are in large part based on their food sourcing and specialness credentials. So a periodic closer scrutiny of their product offering is time well spent, looking out for the on-pack messaging, the look and feel, and of course, what’s new.

Staying within the retail sector, but moving across to the foodservice side of cafés, then among supermarkets, department stores and garden centres, it would appear that there is not just any retail café … as the operator with the highest score is also M&S. In truth, this is not a part of their business that gets much spotlight, but it should be pointed out that outside of the big three coffee shop chains, M&S is the next largest operator, and also, that it outperforms these players on food quality too.

Competing strongly with the coffee shops and cafés at lunch are the sandwich and bakery chains. Interestingly here, Pret A Manger does not top the leaderboard. Instead, rated in joint first place, both with scores of 8.6, are Greggs and Subway. Greggs is clearly building up a loyal customer following and its freshly made/baked products are hitting a sweet/savoury spot with consumers. Similar strengths also apply to Subway, though here the customisation box is also ticked – which serves to introduce an additional dimension to winning on quality. Interestingly, the weighted average day-part score for Subway would also be the highest quality rating within the branded fast food channel.

However, the highest overall score in the overall fast food channel goes to fish & chip shops. This traditional British staple might well be losing some affection among younger consumers, but there is still high regard held among more mature adults.

Moving onto another great British invention – the pub. Here the honours are split between Greene King’s Farmhouse Inns with its 8.8 score at lunch and M&B’s Toby Carvery with 8.6 at dinner. Given the mass middle-market positioning of both these brands – this is a highly creditable performance. Finally, looking at chain restaurants, though not straying too far from the pub market (or the M&B brand stable), the overall quality score champion is Miller & Carter, with an impressive rating of 8.9. There is a lot of competition among steakhouses, but Miller & Carter is clearly highly regarded. Its steaks are aged for at least 50 days and cooked to the customer’s exact wishes. Dishes are temptingly described on menus and are consistently pleasingly presented on the plate. Importantly, Miller & Carter also performs well on a broader set of supporting success factors that include engaging customer service and attractive environments.

This article set out with the challenge of defining quality. So what has been learnt from the consumer perceptions? We can conclude that food quality is in part in the eye of the beholder, but also in the mouth of the taster and in the mind or experience-set of the customer. Lessons from the assorted quality score winners reaffirm the importance of provenance, freshness, customisation, visual appeal, menu prompts and by no means last, brand coherence. Crucially, it is difficult to escape the holistic conclusion that quality goes far beyond the core food offer itself, to include the customer service and in-store and menu design prompts, that combine to deliver mutually-reinforcing and synergistic benefits. Ultimately, quality is not just a food act, but has to be a holistic habit that is everyone’s responsibility.


MCA’s food quality ratings have been based on annual 2018 Eating Out Panel data that include minimum consumer sample sizes that serve to exclude several smaller operators.