Cracker Barrel edged out Cheesecake Factory as America’s overall favorite casual-dining chain, according to a new study by Market Force Information (Market Force). More than 6,700 consumers were polled for the study, which ranked major restaurant chains in five categories: general menu, Italian, steakhouse, breakfast, and buffet.
To attain the rankings, Market Force asked participants to rate their satisfaction with their most recent casual-dining restaurant experience on a scale of 1-5, as well as their likelihood to refer that restaurant brand to others. The results were averaged and plotted on a Composite Loyalty Index.
Tennessee-based Cracker Barrel, which recently added a more health-conscious Wholesome Fixin’s menu and entered the grocery channel, ranked highest in the general menu category with a score of 59 percent. Cheesecake Factory, which ranked No. 1 in Market Force’s 2014 study, was a close second with 55 percent. Red Robin, TGI Fridays, and RubyTuesday rounded out the top five.
Market Force asked respondents to rate the top eight general menu chains by various attributes and found that Cracker Barrel leads in three key areas—value, friendly service, and fast service. Cheesecake Factory scored highest in many of the food-related attributes, including quality food, healthy food choices, offering alternative ingredients like gluten free choices, delivering an experience and menu variety. Ruby Tuesday ranked second for healthy choices and for value, and Red Robin and TGI Fridays also performed well in many of the areas studied. Overall, the brands were closely clustered with little differentiation in the service-oriented attributes, while there was much more disparity in areas such as menu variety and addressing allergens.
“The casual dining segment is facing a new wave of threats to its growth. More fast-casual concepts are luring away their guests by offering similar quality meals in less time and at a more affordable price-point, and Millennials are bypassing chains in favor of more unique, independent restaurants,” says Cheryl Flink, Market Force’s chief strategy officer. “To remain relevant and sustain growth, casual dining chains must find new ways to differentiate, whether it’s creating enriching guest experiences or offering innovative and high quality food options.”

Italian cuisine is an American staple, and study participants named Maggiano’s its favorite Italian chain for the second time in a row. Maggiano’s ranked first on the Composite Loyalty Index with 68 percent, outpacing Carrabba’s Italian Grill, which received 61 percent to again land in second place. A mix of “Other” options took third place, Olive Garden was fourth and Romano’s Macaroni Grill was fifth.
Maggiano’s led in every key attribute but one, with particularly strong scores for value, high-quality food, menu variety, addressing allergens, and delivering an experience. Carrabba’s Italian Grill bested Maggiano’s in the friendly service category, and ranked second for high-quality food, atmosphere, and menu variety. Olive Garden secured a top-three ranking across all categories, including second-place spots for value, healthy choices, addressing allergens, and fast service. 

The battle of the best steakhouse went to Texas Roadhouse. With 63 percent, it narrowly beat out Longhorn Steakhouse (59 percent). Outback Steakhouse, Logan’s Roadhouse, and Sizzler also scored well enough to make the list. Brands such as The Capital Grille and The Keg fell off the latest Index, while Sizzler was visited by enough study participants to make the cut. 
The attributes rankings were more splintered in the steakhouse category than others. Longhorn Steakhouse received the highest marks for quality food, followed by Texas Roadhouse and Outback Steakhouse. Longhorn also excelled in atmosphere and menu variety, while Sizzler was lauded for its healthy options. 

Known for its “breakfast served all day” theme and sausage products, Bob Evans ranked No. 1 in the breakfast category, overtaking Mimi’s Café, which led in the 2014 casual dining restaurant study. Mimi’s ranked second, followed by Waffle House, Perkins, IHOP, and Denny’s.  

Bob Evans was a food favorite, taking the top spots for high-quality food and healthy choices. Mimi’s Café won for its inviting atmosphere and friendly service. Waffle House dominated in the fast service and value categories—both key facets in the breakfast segment—yet scored lowest among the group for atmosphere and healthy menu options. None of the brands stood out for delivering an exceptional experience to diners.

Market Force also looked at consumers’ dining habits, including how often they’re patronizing casual dining restaurants, as well as which brands they’re trying for the first time.

  • General Menu—91 percent dined at one in the previous 90 days. Brands most frequently tried for first time were Cheesecake Factory, Red Robin, and Buffalo Wild Wings.
  • Italian Chains—40 percent dined at one in previous 90 days. Brands most frequently tried for first time were Maggiano’s, Carrabba’s, and Romano’s.
  • Steakhouse Chains—45 percent dined at one in previous 90 days. Brands most frequently tried for first time were Logan’s Roadhouse, Longhorn Steakhouse, and Texas Roadhouse.
  • Breakfast Chains—51 percent dined at one in previous 90 days. Brands most frequently tried for first time were Waffle House, IHOP, and Mimi’s Café.

The pool of 6,730 respondents reflected a broad spectrum of income levels, with nearly 56 percent reporting household incomes of more than $50,000 a year. Respondents’ ages ranged from 18 to over 65. Around 62 percent were women and 38 percent were men. 
The survey was conducted via email in November 2015 across the U.S. For each category, study participants were asked to select which casual-dining restaurant they visited most recently from a list of pre-set options of restaurants with a minimum of 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 1-5, that they would recommend the brand, and the percentage of those who said, on a scale of 1-5, that they were satisfied with the brand.   

Casual Dining, Chain Restaurants, Industry News, Cracker Barrel