A Texas Roadhouse employee gives the thumbs up outside a restaurant.

Texas Roadhouse

Texas Roadhouse continues to earn high marks, including top billing in this year's Harris Poll.

Once Again, Texas Roadhouse Has the Most Satisfied Customers

The full-service industry is holding steady after a downturn two years ago.

Last year, full-service brands enjoyed a solid leap in the American Customer Satisfaction Index’s restaurant report, jumping 3.8 percent and retaking the top spot from quick service. It illustrated a critical inflection point. While most full-serves can’t compete with counter-service chains on speed, convenience, and price, losing on customer service was an unacceptable development. It stirred a disconcerting thought as well: If customers can’t expect a better experience from full-serves, why would they spend the time or pay the price? It made for a pretty leaky value proposition.

READ MORE: Check out the quick-service rankings, where Chick-fil-A reigns supreme.

In a rather quick window, however, full-serves have transformed to meeting a changing consumer. This means healthier menu offerings and digital technologies that complement the experience.

In the latest edition of ACSI’s widely cited study, which polls 23,468 customers, a few positive trends emerged. A year ago, full-service brands improved across nearly every aspect of the customer experience. This time, the industry maintained the ground it won, keeping most key elements stable.

American Customer Satisfaction Index

Food order accuracy came in at a stellar 89 (it was 86 for quick service). Speed of service reported 83, which shows room for improvement but was still a solid figure considering quick-serves clocked 82. But the most promising figure regarded service. Staff being helpful and courteous posted 87. Two years ago, it was 84. It’s something that needs to continue gaining to keep satisfaction rolling given the more convenient—and vast—options available.

Food quality did drop a bit to 85, suggesting whitespace for brands to innovate their menus to best competitors. Measured for the first time this year, mobile apps rated well on reliability (86) and quality (84). Unlike other industries, apps are not considered to be among the best parts of the customer experience, ACSI said. Apps do, however, outperform websites, with satisfaction for the latter sliding to 82.

One really interesting note involved off-premises, projected to account for 37 percent of restaurant industry sales in 2018. ACSI found that diners who order food for delivery from full-service chains are far more satisfied (83) than those who dine in (79). That’s one that would have been tough to predict a few years back.

It seems likely catering and delivery spaces are only going to heat up competition in the coming year.

The figures also reflect what Darden CEO Gene Lee said on the company’s recent conference call to discuss fourth-quarter results. He suggested that a strong dine-in experience creates demand for an off-premises visit. In that case, a guest who heads to Olive Garden for catering—someone who’s fond of eating in the restaurant—will be satisfied because they’ve received a similar experience. It’s why the brand has put money behind delivering a value and service proposition for off-premises similar to its four-wall efforts. Everything is connected.

It’s worth noting, however, Olive Garden isn’t courting delivery. The chain is sticking to catering and to-go as its channels. That’s where some brands might go astray—trying to promote off-premises business without considering the customer experience. Diving into delivery, for instance, without the partners or back-end systems to ensure smooth performance. In that case, customers who order delivery from a brand would end up being dissatisfied and unlikely to try it again. Whether or not they’d return for the dine-in experience is harder to say, but it’s a risk brands don’t want to take. This is especially true of the first-time customer introduced to a sit-down chain via off-premises.

Cracker Barrel

Cracker Barrel's customer satisfaction scores are on the rise.

A steady winner

The restaurant industry continues to face challenges, from added competition to staffing shortages. Traffic is down, but spending is mostly up. So brands are relying on guests to pay more since they’re visiting less. Since the fourth quarter of 2019, guest check growth has accelerated, likely from chains raising their menu prices, among other factors, like kiosks, mobile ordering, and menu constructs that encourage diners to trade up.

The No. 1 chain—once again—is one of those brands raising prices, but keeping its pulse on the customer experience. And it doesn’t seem to be affecting value whatsoever. Texas Roadhouse stayed at 83, topping Cracker Barrel (81).

In the chain’s 5.2 percent same-store sales climb this past quarter—Q1 of fiscal 2019—2.6 percent came from traffic and 2.6 percent came from an increase in average check. The brand took an additional 1.5 percent, on average, in pricing at the beginning of the quarter, to build off last year’s 1.7 percent figure.

Texas Roadhouse didn’t implement this hike unilaterally. Some stores in higher-wage states took as much as 2.5 percent while others were less. That even changed by menu items.

It will be interesting to see if next year’s ACSI reflects any of the changes, but for now, customers remain satisfied by Texas Roadhouse’s menu, price, and service—above the rest of the pack.

American Customer Satisfaction Index

Cracker Barrel is on the upswing. The chain’s 1 percentage point uptick helped it earn back some of last year’s 4 percent slump. Cracker Barrel admitted in 2018 it strayed a bit from its value and service promise—and set out to fix those missteps.

READ MORE: Inside Cracker Barrel’s plan to win back customers.

The key changes were refining some service ticks and embedding daily value into the menu. Additionally, Cracker Barrel rolled out one of its biggest menu changes in recent memory with bone-in fried chicken. While a higher-ticket item, it promotes value through abundance and differentiation. Balanced with the Daily Delights platform, Cracker Barrel is working its way back to a high-low balance customers can count on.

The chain’s mobile app also rated best in class for quality, which suggests some of its millennial-focused initiatives are paying off.

LongHorn stabilized this year after a sharp gain of 5 percent in 2018. The Darden steakhouse trimmed its menu 30 percent and focused on execution, better cuts of steak, and simplified operations that allowed for better guest-facing service. The flat year-over-year change showed customers are still giving the brand credit.

Olive Garden’s slight slip could be related to its trimming of promotional offers in recent quarters. The value proposition isn’t quite as hefty as it once was. But that hasn’t hurt the brand’s top-line performance. And as Lee has said before, Olive Garden could always pulse those deals back into the calendar if need be.

ACSI’s data shows that Ruby Tuesday could gain some ground with mobile quality. TGI Fridays with its app.

Even toward the bottom, Denny’s score is actually its highest in the ACSI to date. The chain revamped menus, remodeled stores, and upgraded technology. Those efforts appear to being resonating, with room still to grow.