Most companies are in a constant race to the top, but some races end up in a mad clamber for the bottom, with contenders vying for a place as the world’s worst. When it comes to fast food in America, there are some real winners, and some real stinkers, and junk food aficionados throughout the world love to argue about who belongs where in the standings. Nobody expects gourmet food when they walk into one of these places, but people do have standards, and for whatever reason, these chains have appealed least to consumers, especially when it comes to overall taste, freshness of product, and customer experience. It’s hard to know why some of these restaurant chains exist at all, except to fill out the category of lowest common denominator in the junk food market, and to satisfy the basest of fast food cravings, so a race for the worst is inevitable. To help you choose more wisely the next time you seek out a quick grease fix, here is the definitive list of 10 Fast Food Chains that are by far the worst in the country.
10. HARDEE’S / CARL’S JR
Hardee’s was always a straggler, forever coming up behind competing burger chains in customer satisfaction surveys. Their burgers have been described as dry and flavorless, spongy, and without recognizable beef flavor, which are not exactly qualities anyone is looking for when seeking out a fast food burger. Depending on where you are in the country, you might recognize this chain as Carl’s Jr, seeing as the two companies joined forces in the 90’s, but the food is the same mediocre quality no matter which coast you reside on, despite several attempts at rebranding, which seem to always flare out before lift-off. It can’t be because of the company’s racy advertising, but oddly enough it seems to be a popular destination for senior citizens. Then again, maybe it is the advertising, or they are just looking for somewhere to hang out on a Tuesday afternoon.
9. PAPA JOHN’S
Papa John’s is yet another pizza chain in the running for serving the worst fast food in America, mainly because they have failed the cardinal test in pizza making: actually making good pizza. For some reason or another Papa John’s is still around, so clearly something is working – they have over 5000 stores all over the country, and have enjoyed decades of success as an alternative to Pizza Hut and Domino’s, which is more a testament to how badly people need their pizza fix, rather than the quality of their food. But for the rest of us, we’re just hoping the madness ends sooner than later. Papa John’s was never, and will never be that good, and it regularly turns up on lists of the worst pizza chains in America, losing points among customers for lack of freshness, and general lack of taste, as well as poor customer service and the drab, impersonal interiors of their restaurants. Sorry Papa John’s, maybe you can boast about quantity, but sometimes it’s quality that counts.
8. PANDA EXPRESS
Chinese food is usually delicious and renowned for its variety of taste sensations, but you would never know it by eating at Panda Express. At a time when US-China relations have sunk to a new low, some suspect that Panda Express might have had something to do with it, seeing as the food this chain offers is the culinary equivalent of a diplomatic slap in the face. It’s a one-stop-shop for factory-line, overly sweet and MSG doused stateside Chinese food, featuring all the generic favorites: General Tso’s, stir fries, lo mein and egg rolls, but even these classics have been reduced to such a low standard of quality that it’s probably a disservice to call it Chinese food. Famous as a food court staple, Panda Express has diminished in popularity over the years as customers seek out healthier, fresher food to chow on, and there have been a litany of complaints of poor food quality and high prices, but it’s fair to say that this panda has never had far to climb down from in the first place.
7. SONIC DRIVE-IN
Sonic is a cult favorite throughout the US for their retro 50’s throwback look, drive-in eating concept and wait staff who, at many establishments, cheerfully deliver your food to you on roller skates. So for the sheer audacity of an immersive junk food experience, Sonic has always scored points. But then when you go ahead and take a bite into the food, Sonic leaves a lot to the imagination. More like a nightmare of previously frozen, deep fried proportion, Sonic excels at serving up some of the unhealthiest, tasteless fast food available, with customers complaining about their food’s lack of freshness, and the unappetizing way everything ends up as a sore lump in pit of their stomachs. And of course it’s likely you will start to experience a diminishing sense of self respect after eating a week’s worth of calories, fat and carbohydrates in one sitting.
Admittedly, Quiznos had a promising start as an alternative to sandwich chain Subway, only with healthier, fresher options. Early on in their reign, Quiznos offered customers a choice of fresh herbs and toppings, along with fresher ingredients in an attempt to out-shine their competition, but they gradually started scaling back this nonsense when they realized that people weren’t terribly adventurous when it came to their sandwich choices. Now Quiznos is more known as a mediocre rest-stop plan B, serving basic and overpriced sandwiches, which has sent the company down a financial black hole they have yet to recover from. In recent years, they have been forced to close thousands of their restaurants across the country, which, if you know your math, is a lot of restaurants. Maybe the trick is to adapt, or to be able to offer your customers something they can’t easily make at home. But putting some cold cuts on bread with cheese and mayo and toasting it is as easy as it gets. It might be time for Quiznos to start re-evaluating their reason for existing at all.
5. RED ROBIN
This burger chain, known for offering customers a pit of bottomless fries as a bribe just to eat there, ended up last place in the full-service restaurant category on the American Customer Satisfaction Index. This Colorado-based chain’s overall score has diminished precipitously over the years, with complaints of noise and dirtiness aplenty – and notoriously long wait times. And that’s not to mention the general mediocre quality of their food, made all the more infuriating since they advertise their burgers as gourmet. Or is it gour-meh? By now Americans know a good burger. It is a classic item that often can be put together superbly, but Red Robin struggles at the basic level, and their financial struggle tells the tale. Operating at a massive loss, in part due to their prominence in fading American shopping malls, Red Robin has tried to keep optimistic, but the numbers aren’t on their side. Blurring the lines between full-service and fast food is not what customers necessarily are after these days, since who wants to wait twenty minutes for a table and then even longer for the food to come out when we are talking about a burger? So Red Robin attempted to fix this by dispensing with their bus-boys, and utilizing flashy high-tech kitchen displays in a bid to save time, but people weren’t having it. The technology was iffy, and supremely confusing to customers who just wanted their burger, like, now. Add to this some egregious marketing stumbles – like a commercial in which a character blasted vegetarianism, likening it to a teenage-girl phase – and you have the kind of nosedive you can only sit back and watch in horror. Or amazement.
4. JACK IN THE BOX
Jack in the Box lives up to its name by offering food that at first glance scares you, then makes you laugh at the random obscenity of it all. Take into consideration that this chain sells burgers, pitas, Teriyaki bowls and tacos all in one big culturally appropriated mash-up, with enough trans fat and sodium content to last you days on end after sitting for a single meal. Actually, if you eat here, you’re better off fasting the next three days. Case in point: the stacked grilled cheese munchie meal, which comes with not one but two tacos, a massive stacked grilled cheese burger concoction, and curly fries almost hits the 2000 calorie mark, but that’s okay since potatoes are vegetables, right? The good stewards at the American Heart Association have probably suffered major heart palpitations just by glancing the menu, as they’ve previously called out Jack in the Box as one of the worst trans-fat offenders among all fast food chains – and the munchie meal in question is something that basically no American should ever be feasting on. Ever. Not even in your greasiest dreams, please. Jack in the Box is also notorious for a lethal food poisoning scandal that sickened 700 people around the country, which is not usually the kind of thing one can climb back from, but Jack has proven to be as resilient as the scariest halloween monsters. They just keep coming back from the grave, which isn’t really something any company should be proud of.
Sbarro has been referred to as the least essential restaurant chain in America, and that’s probably not far from the truth. If your company has to file for bankruptcy once, you know there might be some problems afoot, but if you have to declare bankruptcy twice in three years, it might be a sign from above that it’s time to just stop. Sbarro, however, just keeps chugging, despite a reputation for peddling some of the greasiest, least-fresh pizza in the US, and stands as an insult to even the simplest New York slice, which it claims to be styling itself after. Ubiquitous in rest-stops around the country, dingy corners of airport terminals, and many hundreds of random food courts, Sbarro is very well known, and for a time was quite popular among people who needed a fill-up while on the run, but these days with so many better pizza options available, Sbarro comes across as a mess. Cardboard-pizza crust, assembly-line processed cheese toppings and tomato sauce that tastes like imitation baby food, Sbarro just doesn’t cut it anymore in a world already saturated with decent pizza and pasta. It also doesn’t help that this chain sells incredibly unhealthy fare. A single slice of Sbarro’s pepperoni pizza will dose you with double the amount of recommended daily sodium, so you should eat only half a slice, and call it quits. But who does that?
2. LONG JOHN SILVER’S
Industrially farmed, deep fried from frozen seafood was something that regular Americans tolerated as a dinner option in the past, but these days, with so many people’s tastes shifting and so much healthier grub available, Long John Silver’s comes up lagging. This old Kentucky pirate still counts as a fairly ubiquitous restaurant chain, with strongholds throughout the US, but one taste of their menu items and you might understand why so many people have abandoned ship. Greasy, indiscernible seafood is a unique market to try and conquer, and Long John Silver’s has spent many decades in a mad attempt to corner it. This chain has won some accolades, but not in the way they might have wanted: the Center for Science and Public Interest has recently declared that Long John Silver’s belongs in a watery grave, singling out their ‘Big Catch’ menu item – a giant hunk of deep fried Haddock, fried hush puppies and fried onion rings – for containing a ton of calories, and even more sodium. And further investigation into their culinary practices uncovered far more unhealthy fat and calorie content attached to the meals than the company’s listed nutritional information has indicated, which led the franchise to formally ban trans fat in 2014. This is surely a bright spot, but it hasn’t exactly made the food any healthier. Long John Silver’s still proudly serves cracklings as a secret menu item, their term for excess fried batter which you can eat as a completely nutrition-less meal in itself. Fortunately for this chain, the only way to go from here is up, if only they can manage to scrape themselves off the ocean floor first.
Beloved by late night revelers, college students, and anybody else who is wandering the streets at 2am, Krystal absolutely fills a much-needed niche among late night junk food eateries. It’s the kind of place that you wake up the next day from in a daze, surrounded by miniature empty burger boxes, trying to remember what exactly happened the night before. And, to be fair, they do manage to offer something comfortingly consistent: tiny burger sliders which on first glance are so small, they trick your mind into thinking you can eat a dozen and still walk afterwards. No, the only suitable course of action after devouring a box full of these is to dive straight into bed with a heart monitor attached. Krystal is a grease-addicts pit of despair, and their burgers tend to lean more on the side of reused frying oil and white bread than any meat product you might be familiar with. For such a small chain, with only three hundred and fifty stores in the U.S., Krystal has gained a notoriety as the dark cousin of the more benevolent White Castle, another mini-burger slider chain, but one which at least pays homage to a quaint retro aesthetic, and is the oldest fast food chain in America. Krystal makes no such attempt to evoke a customer’s nostalgia, and aims instead for more of an all-out direct grease-hit assault on the senses. If there was ever a need for rehab from fast food, Krystal just might be the reason. There is one tidbit of Krytal Burger lore which is worth noting, and might be this chain’s crowning achievement: no one was more of a fan than the king himself, Elvis Presley, who reportedly would order hundreds of Krystal sliders at a time to feast on after shows or in the studio. We’re not blaming Krystal, but we all know how that ended up.