The Italian brand just edged out Texas Roadhouse.
Much has been written about whether or not casual dining is witnessing a resurgence. The sales figures reflect that to a degree. This past year, according to TDn2K’s Black Box data, fast casual and casual dining turned in the best same-store sales growth of any segment. But there’s no denying part of that boost came from what TDn2K called “a previous year of abysmal results.” Those segments were also the worst performers in 2017. So the fact casual dining had soft comparisons to build on definitely didn’t hurt the general “comeback” storyline.
Not withstanding, though, casual dining turned in a promising 2018 from a variety of angles. At least compared to where it was headed—2017's results didn’t really suggest things were going to improve. Innovation needed to unfold, especially for legacy players, and, across the board, it mostly did thanks to tech improvements, simpler and more defined menus, loyalty pushes, and additional, incremental channels. Moving forward, declining traffic and increased labor costs are going to challenge even the most efficient brands and lead some restaurants to the brink, as you’re seeing with the increased rate of bankruptcies. But those who figure it out, relatively speaking, are going to thrive. Brands that can “hire, train, and retain frontline employees to bring their brands to life are going to win,” Darden CEO Lee said earlier in the year. Higher prices and additional sales outlets, such as to-go and delivery, helped drive results. Meanwhile, with average check growth sub-2 percent (during the previous three years, average guest check growth never topped 2.5 percent, according to TDn2K), larger restaurant brands upped ad spend as they became more value and promotional focused, and aggressive in price, which is something smaller restaurants couldn’t compete with on scale.
And what about the less measurable vitals? Market Force Information’s annual study—one of the most cited in the industry—showed customer satisfaction levels are on the rise across casual dining, in nearly every category. Additionally, innovative chains are putting serious heat on larger brands. You could argue that’s one of the reasons bigger chains are generating better guest scores—they are reacting to up-and-comers and micro-chains, kind of like how fast casual spun the quality wheel for fast food a few years back.
“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,” Brad Christian, chief customer officer for Market Force, said in a statement. “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 [quick-serves]. 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.”
The study polls more than 6,700 consumers to reveal America’s favorite casual brands in seven categories, including menu, pizza, breakfast, steakhouse, Italian, and seafood.
Let’s dive into the results.