Cheesecake Factory is the nation’s favorite casual-dining restaurant, according to an annual consumer survey conducted by Market Force Information.

This is the second consecutive year the popular U.S. chain has landed in the survey’s No. 1 spot. 
More than 4,500 consumers across North America participated in the survey, which was conducted in August 2011. It examined which casual-dining restaurants consumers prefer and which attributes are the most important to them.

Market Force first calculated the favorites based on pure number of votes, and then factored in the number of locations for each chain to effectively measure which chain garnered the most votes per restaurant.
When the consumers were shown a list of the country’s 51 top casual-dining restaurants and asked to select their single favorite, Olive Garden earned the most raw votes (for the second consecutive year), followed by Applebee’s (which tied for first place with Olive Garden in 2010), then Red Lobster, Chili’s, and Outback Steakhouse.

Cheesecake Factory Hits Sweet Spot as Nation’s Favorite
However, the top vote-getters are not necessarily the consumer favorites. Since consumers are only likely to vote for restaurants they patronize and that are located in their area, Market Force indexed the results to account for the number of restaurant locations per chain.

When the votes were weighted, Cheesecake Factory was the first choice among consumers by a wide margin, earning 7.3 percent of the vote share, more than double the 3.2 percent earned by the second-place finisher Texas Roadhouse.

Olive Garden came in third in the study with 2.8 percent, and P.F. Chang’s and Carrabba’s Italian Grill followed in fourth and fifth place. Sixteen chains made it to the top of the rankings, each collecting 0.2 percent or more of the vote. 
This is the second year in a row that Cheesecake Factory, Texas Roadhouse, and Olive Garden took the top three spots. In Market Force’s 2010 restaurant chain survey, Cheesecake Factory ranked No. 1, Texas Roadhouse and Red Robin tied for second, and Olive Garden came in third. 
On the flip side, restaurants that are not tickling as many tastebuds this year include Denny’s, IHOP, and Ruby Tuesday. While in the top 16 overall, all three landed on the bottom of these rankings with one-half percent or less of the vote. 

Which Restaurants Reigned Supreme by Attribute?
Market Force attempted to uncover why respondents prefer one casual-dining restaurant over another by asking those who selected a given brand as a favorite to rate them by attributes such as food quality, taste, speed of service, cleanliness, and value. The categories with the greatest variance in consumer ratings were value and speed of service.

Consumer favorite Cheesecake Factory did not excel on any one attribute, but it fared well across all of them, particularly in the important areas of food quality and taste. Golden Corral scored highest on value – a category showing quite a bit of differentiation – as well as on speed of service, which is logical given it offers a self-service buffet. 

Ruby Tuesday Differentiates Through Healthy Choices, IHOP Through Its Green Practices
Market Force also looked at how the chains differentiate by other noteworthy attributes, such as healthy choices, accommodating children, atmosphere and green/sustainable practices.

Ruby Tuesday was called out for having the healthiest menu choices, Golden Corral was the most kid-friendly, Carrabba’s rated highest for atmosphere and IHOP led in sustainable/green practices, a category where several restaurant chains received zero votes.

Meanwhile, Red Robin ranked lowest in both the atmosphere and healthy choices categories, and P.F. Chang’s was at the bottom for accommodating children. See Graph 4

The pool of survey respondents ranged in age from 18 to more than 70 and reflected a broad spectrum of income levels, with 62 percent reporting incomes of more than $50,000 a year. Seventy six percent were women, the primary household consumer purchasers.

Half of the participants said they have children at home.  

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