Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen is America’s favorite general menu casual dining chain, according to a new study by Market Force Information. More than 9,200 consumers were polled for the study, which ranks casual dining restaurant chains in seven categories: general menu, pizza, Italian, breakfast, buffet, steakhouse, and seafood. This is the first time that Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen has earned enough votes to be included in the rankings. 

Read How a Name Change Made All the Difference at Cheddar's

The nationwide study also found that in-restaurant tablet use is up, TripAdvisor is the most influential mobile app among casual dining guests, and restaurant-branded apps are suffering from an awareness problem.

Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen Edges out Cracker Barrel

Texas-based Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen, which has 160 locations nationwide and is known for its made-from-scratch meals, ranked first among general menu restaurants with a score of 52 percent. Cracker Barrel, which led in the previous study, ranked second with 50 percent. BJ’s Brewhouse, O’Charley’s and Cheesecake Factory rounded out the top five.. Interestingly, Cheesecake Factory dropped 11 percentage points this time around.

Cheddar’s Wins on Food and Value, Hooters on Friendly Service

Why are Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen’s guests so satisfied and loyal? Market Force asked respondents to rate the top 12 chains by various attributes and found that Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen leads in two key areas—quality food and value—and tied for first in atmosphere and addressing allergens. O’Charley’s has the fastest service, while Cheesecake Factory stood out for its menu variety, and Ruby Tuesday for its healthy options. Hooters led in friendly service and delivering an experience, an increasingly important category in the casual dining sector.  

“Casual dining restaurants face fierce competition from fast casual brands. This research shows that consumers are questioning the value proposition of casual dining because they are not seeing the increase in food quality given the higher price—and a full service seems to matter less. Fast casual can be on par with food quality and offer a lower price-point. ” says Cheryl Flink, Market Force’s chief strategy officer. “Still, diners are seeking an experience when they go out for a casual dining meal, so that’s an area that these chains can exploit to pull ahead of this new competition.”

Pizza Chains

In the hotly debated pizza category, Pizza Ranch took the pie with a score of 55 percent, with California Pizza Kitchen ranking second at 50 percent and Old Chicago nabbing the third-place spot with 43 percent. Others on the list included Cici’s, Round Table Pizza, Pizza Hut, and Chuck E. Cheese.

Pizza Ranch, which offers a buffet-style service, was top rated for its menu variety and friendly service, and ranked in the top three in most other categories. California Pizza Kitchen earned the highest marks for quality food and healthy food options. Cici’s dominated in the value category and ranked first for fast service. Chuck E. Cheese was far and away the favorite for delivering an experience, rather than just a transaction.

Italian Chains

For the third time in a row, Maggiano’s has been named America’s favorite Italian chain, earning a 61 percent score. Carrabba’s Italian Grill received a 56 percent to again land in second place, while Olive Garden ranked third, and Romano’s Macaroni Grill was fourth.

Maggiano’s led in most of the categories, receiving first-place scores for every category except fast service, receiving particularly strong marks for value, menu variety, experience and atmosphere, and tying for first alongside Carrabba’s for quality food and friendly service. Carrabba’s also led in fast service and healthy food options.

Breakfast Chains

Bob Evans Restaurants continue to delight diners who are looking to eat breakfast at any time of day. The Ohio-based chain once again ranked first among casual dining breakfast options, and Waffle House, and Mimi’s tied for second. Village Inn ranked third, IHOP and Perkins tied for fourth and Denny’s was fifth.

Bob Evans took the top spots for menu variety and healthy food options, but Mimi’s Café won when it came to high-quality food. Waffle House was lauded for having the best value and fastest service. It also tied for delivering an experience, but the experience scores in the breakfast category were overall very low and tightly clustered, with no one brand standing out.

Buffet Chains

Market Force also looked at which buffet chains are leaving guests the most satisfied, and found that Pizza Ranch is a clear leader with 55 percent. Golden Corral overtook Hometown Buffet to rank second with 40 percent, and Cici’s Pizza ranked third with 35 percent. Hometown Buffet and Old Country Buffet rounded out the top five.

Pizza Ranch was found to have the best food, friendliest service and most inviting atmosphere. Golden Corral ranked No. 1 for menu variety and healthy options, and tied with Hometown Buffet for delivering an experience. Cici’s Pizza was the value leader.

Steakhouse Chains

In the battle of the beef, Texas Roadhouse was the winner for the second consecutive time. It earned 58 percent to surpass second-place Longhorn Steakhouse, which received a 59 percent. Outback Steakhouse trailed with 48 percent and was followed by Logan’s Roadhouse and Sizzler.

Not surprisingly, Texas Roadhouse was the top scorer in nearly all of the categories that are most important to diners, such as quality food, value, friendly service, atmosphere, experience and variety. Sizzler was lauded for its fast service and array of healthy choices. Longhorn Steakhouse performed wall across the board, landing in the top three of every attribute studied.

Seafood Chains

Market Force received enough viable data to include a seafood category this year, after leaving it out of previous studies. Pappadeaux, which recently celebrated its 30th anniversary, led the pack with 62 percent. Bonefish Grill earned 55 percent, placing it second, while Joe’s Crab Shack was third with 49 percent, and Red Lobster was fourth with 47 percent.

Pappadeaux secured the highest scores in key food and service categories, including quality food, menu variety and fast service. Joe’s Crab Shack tied with Pappadeaux for friendly service and experience, and slightly edged it out for value. Bonefish Grill had a strong showing in the food-related areas, ranking first for healthy options and second for quality food and menu variety.

Casual Dining Frequency and New Trials

Market Force also looked how often consumers are patronizing casual dining restaurants, as well as which brands they’re trying for the first time. General menu and breakfast chains are the most frequented types of restaurants—83 percent said they’d visited a general menu restaurant in the previous 90 days, and 54 percent had dined at a breakfast restaurant. Seafood and buffet chains had the highest number of first-time visitors among all restaurant sectors that were studied.

Tech Trends Taking Hold (and Not) in Casual Dining

Casual dining guests are more frequently using tablets in-restaurant, but do they value them? Market Force found that 37 percent had been provided with a tablet during their recent visit and, of those, 87 percent had used it. The most popular activities were paying the bill and viewing the menu, while few used them to look up nutritional information and provide feedback. However, guests failed to give tablets high ratings for improving their experience—only one-fifth said they make the experience more enjoyable, allow them to control their experience or reduce wait times.

The number of people who are downloading restaurant apps remains steady at 41 percent, and they’re mainly using them mainly to view menus, read reviews and find locations. Yelp is the most downloaded restaurant app, although TripAdvisor and have gained serious momentum, with adoption rates that grew from 1 percent to 35 percent and 25 percent, respectively, since the previous study.

TripAdvisor is also wielding strong influence over diners’ choices. Nearly half—a 48 percent—said that TripAdvisor ratings impact their restaurant choices, which is higher than Yelp’s 41 percent. Also, more indicated that they’re likely to leave a positive or negative review on TripAdvisor than they are on Yelp or other restaurant apps.

Survey Demographics

The survey was conducted online in October 2016 across the U.S. The pool of 9,216 respondents represented a cross-section of the four U.S. census regions, and reflected a broad spectrum of income levels, with 53 percent reporting household incomes of more than $50,000 a year. Respondents’ ages ranged from 18 to over 65. Approximately 74 percent were female and 25% were male.


For each category, study participants were asked to select which casual dining restaurant they visited most recently from a list of restaurants with at least 100 U.S. locations. Only those restaurant brands that were selected by at least 2 percent of participants in each category were ranked and analyzed.

Market Force calculates its Composite Loyalty Index by averaging the percentage of guests who said, on a scale of 1 to 5, that they would recommend the brand, and the percentage of those who said, on a scale of 1 to 5, that they were satisfied with the brand.   

Casual Dining, Chain Restaurants, Industry News