For all the new and exploratory topics driving the future of casual dining, the classics—quality, service, and atmosphere—remain king with consumers.
Market Force Information’s annual casual dining consumer preferences and trends study, which polls more than 8,000 consumers, crowned Bonefish Grill as America’s favorite chain. Across all seven categories surveyed (general menu, pizza, Italian, breakfast, buffet, steakhouse, and seafood), Bonefish stood out for its top score on Market Force’s Composite Loyalty Index with a 68 percent mark. Guests said the Bloomin’ Brands chain has the highest quality food, friendliest service, and most inviting atmosphere of all casual dining brands. Sixty-three percent of people gave Bonefish credit for food quality; 60 percent for friendly service; and 60 percent for inviting atmosphere.
In the overall category, Maggiano’s Little Italy was second, scoring a 60 percent on Market Force’s Composite Loyalty Index. Pappadeaux was third (58 percent), Texas Roadhouse fourth (57 percent), and Carrabba’s Italian Grill fifth (56 percent).
Market Force broke down the data in several categories.
Some details that jump to the surface: Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen, which is now under the Darden umbrella of restaurants, was found to offer the best value among top-ranked brands. Maggiano’s stood out for delivering an experience, not just a transaction. Sweet Tomatoes, which reported the fastest service, ranked lowest for friendly service.
Pappadeaux, Pizza Ranch, and Carrabba’s earned top-three rankings in one or more of the categories.
Pappadeaux was second in food quality (54 percent) and third in experience (35 percent). Pizza Ranch was second in fast service (53 percent). Carrabba’s finished third in friendly service (58 percent), fast service (38 percent), and fourth in experience (33 percent).
Here are the full rankings for overall casual dining chains.
- Texas Roadhouse
- Pizza Ranch
- Longhorn Steakhouse
- Sweet Tomatoes
- BJ’s Brewhouse
- Olive Garden
- Logan’s Roadhouse
- Cracker Barrel
- Village Inn
- Outback Steakhouse
- Red Lobster
In the category of “General Menu Chains,” Cheddar’s ranked No. 1 for the second consecutive year with a score of 54 percent. And again, the Texas-based chain edged Cracker Barrel (46 percent) for the honor. BJ’s Brewhouse, The Cheesecake Factory, and Ruby Tuesday tied for fourth, with Red Robin coming in the fifth spot.
In that category, Cheddar’s excelled across the board, winning in food quality, value, friendly service, atmosphere, and overall experience. Ruby Tuesday narrowly topped Cheddar’s for fast service. Cracker Barrel was second in value, atmosphere, and delivering an experience.
The full ranking for General Menu Chains looked like this:
- Cracker Barrel
- BJ’s Brewhouse
- The Cheesecake Factory
- Ruby Tuesday
- Red Robin
- Buffalo Wild Wings
- TGI Fridays
- Chili’s Grill & Bar
The next topic was the pizza category. BJ’s Brewhouse (50 percent) took the top spot away from last year’s leader, Pizza Ranch. Old Chicago (44 percent) ranked second and California Pizza Kitchen (40 percent) rounded out the top three, dropping 10 percentage points from last year.
Here are the full pizza rankings:
- BJ’s Brewhouse
- Old Chicago
- California Pizza Kitchen
- Round Table Pizza
- Pizza Hut
For the fourth consecutive year, Maggiano’s earned the title of America’s favorite Italian chain, earning a 60 percent score. Carrabba’s (56 percent) stayed steady in second, while Olive Garden was third (47 percent).
Breakfast chains were next. Bob Evans took the top spots in five of the 11 categories, including food quality, atmosphere, and healthy food choice. Village Inn was tops for menu variety and friendly service. Waffle House was No. 1 for value, fast service, and delivering an experience.
Here are the complete breakfast rankings:
- Village Inn
- Bob Evans
- Waffle House
On the category of buffet chains, Sweet Tomatoes came out on top in five categories, including food quality and healthy choices. Pizza Ranch recorded the best atmosphere and friendliest service. Golden Corral was No. 1 for menu variety. Cici’s came ahead as the value leader.
Texas Roadhouse and Longhorn went shoulder-to-shoulder for nearly all of the categories in the steakhouse rankings. Texas Roadhouse was No. 1 in value, friendly service, and experience. Longhorn led in food quality, atmosphere, and promotions. Sizzler recorded the fastest service and healthiest food options. Logan’s Roadhouse and Outback ranked three and four, respectively, behind Texas Roadhouse and Longhorn overall. Sizzler rounded out the top five.
Naturally, Bonefish topped the seafood chains category. Pappadeaux and Red Lobster followed.
Market Force also dove into the effectiveness and prevalence of technology. It found that more tablets are being found at casual dining chains around the country, but the experience is falling flat.
The data showed that 58 percent of the guests surveyed were provided with a tablet during their most recent visit, a 21 percent boost over last year, Eighty-seven percent of those who received one used it. The most popular activity on the table was paying the bill and viewing the menu. Very few people, however, used the tablet to learn more about the brand or buy a gift card. Only 17 percent said the tablets improve the dining experience, which is actually down from 20 percent in 2016. Nearly double that number said they help entertain kids.
Here’s how it broke down:
- Pay bill at table, split checks, tips, receipts (72 percent)
- Browse regular menu items (52 percent)
- Entertainment (35 percent)
- Place meal order (34 percent)
- Browse special offers, happy hour menus (33 percent)
- Reorder more drinks, menu items (27 percent)
- Take a survey (26 percent)
- Use rewards (23 percent)
- Sign up for a loyalty program, rewards (22 percent)
- Provide feedback (14 percent)
- Learn nutritional information or dietary restrictions (7 percent)
- Post feedback to social media (3 percent)
- Learn more about the brand (2 percent)
- Purchased gift card (1 percent)
The data found that restaurant mobile app adoption is growing, with 45 percent of diners indicating they’ve downloaded one, up 4 percent form last year. They are mainly used to view menus, find discounts, and find locations. Yelp remained the most downloaded restaurant app, followed by TripAdvisor, and OpenTable.
Yelp also replaced TripAdvisor as the app that wields the strongest influence over diners’ choices. Forty-two percent said Yelp ratings impact their restaurant choices, and just 40 percent said the same about TripAdvisor. Also, diners indicated that they’re more likely to leave a positive review on TripAdvisor than on other apps. On Yelp, they are as likely to leave a negative review as they are to leave a positive review.