The casual dining sector appears to be rebounding, with higher customer satisfaction levels in nearly every category, and innovative chains putting serious heat on larger brands, according to a new restaurant industry study by customer experience management firm Market Force Information.
The annual study of more than 6,700 consumers also reveals America’s favorite casual dining restaurants in seven categories, including general menu, pizza, breakfast, steakhouse, Italian and seafood.
Maggiano’s Takes First Overall
Across all categories studied, Maggiano’s received the highest score on Market Force’s Composite Loyalty Index (CLI) with 64 percent. Texas Roadhouse was a close second with 63 percent, First Watch and Cracker Barrel tied for third with 58 percent, and Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen was fourth with 57 percent. Last year’s winner, Bonefish Grill, fell four spots to tie for fifth alongside Longhorn Steakhouse and Blaze Pizza.
General Menu Chain Visits Up, Cracker Barrel Leads Category
General menu restaurants are bringing more repeat guests through the door, an aspiration for most casual dining chains looking to boost sales. Eighty-six percent of those polled had dined at a general menu restaurant in the past 90 days, up from 79 percent who did so in 2017, the largest increase of any category.
For the most part, every chain in this category is succeeding at delighting guests. Satisfaction scores for nearly all of the general menu chains studied went up significantly over the previous year. Cracker Barrel gained a sizable 12 percentage points to overtake Cheddar’s for the No. 1 spot, and it ranked first for friendly service and atmosphere. Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen ranked second on the CLI and led in food quality, fast service and value. BJ’s Brewhouse, which saw an 11 percentage-point lift, ranked third. Hooter’s also stood out for increasing its score by 12 percentage points over 2017, and ranking highest for delivering an experience, rather than just a transaction.
“Stats show that casual dining hasn’t suffered the same sales slump as the fast casual sector, but they’re not completely out of the woods,” said Brad Christian, chief customer officer for Market Force. “To continue same-store sales growth, casual dining chains rely on repeat visits from loyal guests, particularly since they’re more expensive than fast casual and QSR. These brands should be looking at options such as third-party delivery services, additional promotions and simplifying the ordering process with tablets to continue their strong returns.”
Could Breakfast Be Casual Dining’s New Darling?
Breakfast and daytime-only restaurant chains are enjoying growing popularity, and First Watch is a prime example. The chain, which boasts fresh, custom-made foods appeared in Market Force’s study for the first time, and captured the top spot in the breakfast category with a CLI score of 58 percent. It dominated in areas such as quality and healthy food, although it ranked last for value. Bob Evans landed in second place with 51 percent, and Waffle House was third with 49 percent. Meanwhile, Village Inn, the 2017 category leader, dropped eight percentage points on the CLI to rank sixth and barely edge out last-ranked Denny’s.
Blaze Pizza on Fire, Mellow Mushroom Pysched
Pizza is another category that saw a shake-up in the 2018 study, with Blaze Pizza and Mellow Mushroom both joining the rankings for the first time and taking the No. 1 and No. 2 spots, respectively. The newcomers bested third-place Pizza Hut and fourth-place California Pizza Kitchen. Blaze Pizza, which has a made-to-order approach and saw its sales skyrocket to $279 million in 2017, dominated in important areas such as fast service, value and healthy options.
Texas Roadhouse Wins Battle of Beef
For the fourth consecutive year, Texas Roadhouse has been named America’s favorite steakhouse chain, earning a 63 percent score, up from 57 percent in 2017. Longhorn Steakhouse received a 56 percent to again land in second place, while Outback Steakhouse ranked third with 50 percent and Logan’s Roadhouse ranked fourth with 47 percent. Texas Roadhouse had generous leads in value and service, while Outback was found to offer the healthiest choices.
Maggiano’s Five-Peats in Italian Category
Overall CLI winner Maggiano’s also scored first in the Italian category for the fifth year running with a score of 64 percent, a four percentage-point increase from the previous study. Carrabba’s ranked second with 54 percent and Olive Garden was third with 50 percent. Maggiano’s was found to have the best food and best value, which can be a difficult but critical balance to achieve in casual dining segment.
Golden Corral Lassoes Lead Among Buffet Chains
Growth in the buffet sector has been stagnant, with just 24 percent of respondents dining at a buffet chain in the past 90 days—the same as in 2017. Golden Corral was the clear leader among the three chains studied, followed by Cici’s Pizza and Pizza Hut. Additionally, Golden Corral led by a large margin in categories such as variety and healthy options, although Cici’s was found to be the value leader.
Seafood Remains Sluggish
Seafood restaurants also failed to increase visitors over the previous year and, in fact, has the fewest visits of any category in this study. Bonefish Grill managed to eek out a first place finish with a CLI score of 56 percent, despite dropping 12 percentage points from the previous study. It barely edged out Pappadeaux, which earned 55 percent, and Red Lobster came in third with 48 percent. Bonefish Grill scored exceptionally high for its atmosphere and cleanliness, as well as for food, an area where Red Lobster trailed considerably.
Apps Gaining Influence, While Tablets Falling Short
The number of restaurant apps continues to grow, as does adoption among all age groups. In 2018, 54 percent said they downloaded a restaurant app, a 13 percent increase from 2016 when just 41 percent had done so. Restaurant-branded apps are the most downloaded, followed by Groupon, Yelp and Grubhub. Two-thirds of consumers polled are using them to view the menu, 59 percent to find discounts and just 54 percent to place orders
Of the top apps, Yelp is most likely to impact restaurant choice, although Grubhub and UberEATS is where consumers go most frequently to post positive or negative comments about their dining experience.
The study also found that between seven to 12 percent of consumers are consulting social media reviews before dining at a specific restaurant—those dining at breakfast and Italian chains are checking them less often, while general menu diners are checking them most often. Yelp and Facebook are far and away the most popular social channels for reading reviews prior to dining.
Tabletop tablet adoption in casual dining restaurants remains lackluster, despite guests’ willingness to use them. Fifty-four percent (a drop from 58 percent in 2017) said they were given a restaurant-owned tablet while dining in 2018, and 90 percent of those used it. However, just one-fifth said using tablets made the dining experience more enjoyable. The majority are using tablets to pay the bill, look at the menu or play games, and few are using them to place an order.
For the favorite rankings, Market Force asked participants to rate their satisfaction with their last experience at a casual dining chain, and their likelihood to recommend it to others. That data was averaged to rate each brand on an aggregation of the two measures—a Composite Loyalty Index. Only brands that received 100 or more reviews were included in the rankings.
The survey was conducted online in November 2018 across the United States. The pool of 6,724 respondents represented a cross-section of the four Census regions and reflected a broad spectrum of income levels, with 56% reporting household incomes of more than $50,000 a year. Respondents’ ages ranged from 18 to over 65. Approximately 74% were female, 25% were male and 1% preferred not to answer.