The unintended side effect being that loyal customers—some who frequented a certain restaurant for decades, sharing through generations—walked into their regular spot and found it unrecognizable. It morphed into just another restaurant chain. And now, the aforementioned battle with independents progressed to critical levels. Because whether or not an iconic chain had 500 or 2,000 locations, it typically got there by following its North Star brand positioning, market-by-market. It was differentiated on day one. Then you toss in a challenged economic climate and other, common restaurant issues, and chain operators quick-reacted, tossing aside their tried-and-true playbooks instead of latching on to brand strengths. Losing grip on their core, in other terms.
This issue has reversed pretty dramatically recently. And what many chains discovered is that their original DNA was actually more appealing to millennials than they thought. IHOP, for one, reported that 51 percent of its customers were aged 34 and below at the start of last year.
Yet, no matter how you look at it, one of the biggest issues with brand drift is that it spreads restaurants thin and gets them away from the basics: Quality, service. Brands that try to stand for everything typically aren’t great at anything. It’s a formula that just doesn’t work today when guests are more discerning than ever.
Market Force Information’s annual casual-dining study—one of the most cited in the industry—surveyed 6,598 U.S. customers on their eating habits, brand preference, visit frequency, brand engagement, customer experience, meal delivery, and social media usage. The goal: Take the pulse of one of the restaurant world’s most-fluid categories and see where the opportunity lies.
“It has been our observation through the last five years of this study that success in casual dining more than other restaurant segments really relies on two key factors; the first is the quality of the front-line staff in the restaurants and how trained and engaged they are and the second is making the meal more than just a transaction,” says Brad Christian, chief customer officer at Market Force. “Creating a differentiated experience still matters. Those brands that execute consistently on their brand promise outperform their peers.”
Here are how this year’s rankings sorted out, measured by the company’s Composite Loyalty Index metric (the average of percentage recommended plus percentage of satisfaction at the brand level). It includes restaurants across multiple sectors.
- 1. First Watch: 68 percent
- 2. Pappadeaux: 64 percent
- 3. Texas Roadhouse: 61 percent
- 4. MOD Pizza (fast casual): 60 percent
- 4. Mellow Mushroom: 60 percent
- 5. LongHorn Steakhouse: 58 percent
- 5. Cracker Barrel: 58 percent
- 6. Bonefish Grill: 56 percent
- 6. Maggiano’s: 56 percent
- 7. Carrabba’s Italian Grill: 55 percent
- 7. Blaze Pizza (fast casual): 55 percent
- 8. Sweet Tomatoes (fast casual): 54 percent
- 8. Cracker Barrel (for its general menu, not just breakfast): 54 percent
- 8. Marco’s Pizza (quick service): 54 percent
- 9. California Pizza Kitchen: 53 percent
- 10. Bob Evans: 50 percent
- 10. Olive Garden: 50 percent
- 11. Red Lobster: 49 percent
- 11. Outback Steakhouse: 49 percent
- 11. Waffle House: 49 percent
- 12. Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen: 48 percent
- 12. BJ’s Restaurants: 48 percent
- 13. Logan’s Roadhouse: 46 percent
- 14. Cheesecake Factory: 45 percent
- 15. Pizza Hut (buffet category): 44 percent
- 16. Red Robin: 43 percent
- 17. Cici’s Pizza (buffet): 42 percent
- 17. Pizza Hut (not buffet): 42 percent
- 18. Chili’s: 41 percent
- 19. Denny’s: 40 percent
- 19. IHOP: 40 percent
- 19. Golden Corral: 40 percent
- 20. Ruby Tuesday: 38 percent
- 21. Applebee’s: 37 percent
- 21. TGI Fridays: 37 percent
- 22. Buffalo Wild Wings: 35 percent
Speaking to the initial, independents point, here’s an interesting data set that emerged from Market Force’s study. Only two of the seven food categories studied (breakfast, buffet, general menu, Italian, pizza, seafood, and steakhouse) favored casual-dining restaurants over locally owned spots for the question, “If given the opportunity, which type of casual-dining restaurant would you choose?”
Breakfast was one: 58 percent said they’d go chain over locally owned. General menu was the other at 61 versus 39 percent.
You can see the full results below.