Small Restaurant Chains See Satisfaction Gains

Small restaurant chains have made gains in customer satisfaction ratings over last year, while most of the largest chains have lost ground, according to the 2014 restaurant report from the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI). 

The 2014 restaurant report is based on interviews with 4,572 customers, chosen at random and contacted via telephone and email between January 13 and March 11, 2014. Customers were asked to evaluate their recent purchase and consumption experiences with the largest companies by market share, plus an aggregate of all other smaller brands not measured individually by name in the ACSI. The highest possible score on the ACSI satisfaction scale is 100. 

Full-Service Format Results

Within the full-service restaurant sector (where the average ACSI score has never fallen below 80), overall satisfaction rose by 1.2% to 82 in 2014. However, that was driven by a 2% improvement in satisfaction rankings for the small/"all other" full-service chains, which achieved an average score of 83. 

In contrast, all five of the highest-ranked large full-service chains nevertheless saw declines versus a year ago. Olive Garden and Outback Steakhouse are now tied for top score at 81, but Olive Garden's score is down from 83 (-4%) last year, and Outback's is down from 81 (-1%).  Red Lobster's score declined to 78 from 83 (-6%); Applebee's' declined from 82 to 78 (-5%); and Chili's' declined from 78 to 74 (-5%).

Limited-Service Format Results

Meanwhile, limited-service restaurant chains (including QSRs and fast-casual formats) as a whole held steady for the third consecutive year, with an ACSI average score of 80 -- the segment's highest-ever level of satisfaction.

“This is a considerable transformation for an industry that posted scores in the 60s throughout the 1990s and never exceeded an ACSI score of 70 until 2001,” points out ACSI director David VanAmburg. Price has always been a strong point for fast food, but fast-casual restaurants in particular have been improving quality and service at such a brisk pace that customer satisfaction with limited service formats is nearly as high as with dine-in restaurants, he points out. Furthermore, as the economy improves, consumers tend to shift some emphasis from price to quality, the report notes.

Again, however, the smaller/"all other" chains (which, according to ACSI, include fast-casual brands like Panera Bread and Chipotle Mexican Grill) ranked higher. These smaller limited-service chains saw a 2% improvement to a score of 84, meaning that they not only outranked limited service chains overall, but outranked even small full-service chains. 

Among the biggest limited-service brands, pizza chains grabbed the top four ranking slots. Papa John’s (unchanged) and Pizza Hut (+3%) share the lead at 82, with Little Caesar's (-2%) and Domino’s Pizza (-1%) tied for second place, at 80. 

Subway (-6%) fell out of the top spot to tie with Wendy’s (-1%) at 78.

Burger King (unchanged) is tied with Starbucks (-5%) at 76, followed closely by Dunkin’ Donuts (-6%) at 75. KFC declined the most: -9%, to 74. Taco Bell declined 3%, to 72, while McDonald’s dipped 3%, to 71. 

Across all restaurant formats, satisfaction averaged 78.5, -0.9% versus 2013.

ACSI's 2014 consumer survey found Americans reporting that on average, they ate four meals per week outside the home. That's up 60% from the average reported at the end of the recession. 

"People in restaurant holding the menu" photo from Shutterstock.

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