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Survey: Full-service restaurants lag behind quick service

For first time in 10 years, consumers prefer quick service over dine-in concepts, American Customer Satisfaction Index finds

Consumers prefer fast food these days, according to a recent survey.  

Quick-service restaurants fared better than full-service concepts in the latest American Customer Satisfaction Index, released on Tuesday, marking the first time that has happened in the 10 years that the annual survey has measured both segments.  

The results serve more bad news to a beleaguered casual-dining segment, struggling to generate sales as consumers opt for less expensive, more convenient food.

“They’ve been neck and neck for a while, but it’s always been fast food lagging behind full service,” said David VanAmburg, managing director at ACSI. “It was not for anything fast food has been doing better. It was more because of a drop-off in full-service business.”

To be sure, the scores were close. Full-service restaurants scored 78 on a 100-point scale, a 3.7-percent decline from a year ago. It was the lowest score for full-service restaurants in 10 years. By comparison, quick-service restaurants scored 79, which was unchanged from a year ago.

Essentially, consumers have grown dissatisfied with sit-down restaurants over the past year, and now indicate a preference for quick service. The results also help explain long-term trends toward quick-service and fast-casual chains that have been more specialized and offer higher quality items.

“The rising quality and diversity of quick-service options” is drawing customers, VanAmburg said. “Quick service is not just about McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s and KFC. There are so many fast-casual chains popping up.”

Customer service plays a strong role in sales, he said, and casual-dining chains have been losing market share to limited-service concepts over the past 10 years. That’s especially true today, given the intense competition restaurants face from inside and outside the industry.

“There are so many choices,” VanAmburg said. “There are dozens and dozens of choices depending on your mood. It’s very easy to defect to another restaurant if you’re not satisfied with one.”

The results are based on 5,557 customer surveys collected between June 2016 and May 2017. ACSI has been measuring quick-service restaurants since 1994, and full-service concepts since 2007.

Chick-fil-A was the best-performing concept overall, finishing with a score of 87 that equaled its performance a year ago. McDonald’s Corp. was last, with a score of 69. VanAmburg said it was a sign that consumers want restaurant chains to specialize.

“The story behind Chick-fil-A, they have focused in on that niche menu of chicken,” he said. “The chicken is the focus, and they put it in a variety of forms. They do that one thing and they do it well.

“The opposite of that is McDonald’s. They’ve got some new menu items. One is a chicken sandwich that has guacamole on it. That’s one menu item. How much guacamole are they going through in a day? Are you stretching yourselves too thin? The risk is not doing any of it particularly well.”

The same holds true for full service, he said, where chains like Applebee’s, Ruby Tuesday, Chili’s and TGI Fridays underperformed more specialized concepts like Texas Roadhouse, Olive Garden and Red Lobster.

“To many people, they’re virtually indistinguishable,” VanAmburg said of the bar-and-grill chains. “It’s not just the menu, either. They look the same. To many, one is the same as the other, and none stand out.”

Cracker Barrel Old Country Store Inc. was the best-performing full-service restaurant, with a score of 84, rising from 83 a year ago, followed closely by Texas Roadhouse, which scored 82.

The biggest decline came from Red Robin Gourmet Burgers Inc., whose score fell to 73, from 80. LongHorn Steakhouse saw its score fall from 82 to 77, and TGI Fridays’ score declined from 78 to 76.

Small chains and independents didn’t fare much better. The “all others” category declined from 81 to 78.

But independents and small, limited-service chains fared better. Their score increased from 81 to 82.

Panera Bread Co. finished with the same score, as did Papa John’s.

“Those that satisfy more customers are going to attract more customers,” VanAmburg said. “Those that are not are going to find customers fleeing to competitors with more satisfactory experiences.”

Contact Jonathan Maze at [email protected]

Follow him on Twitter: @jonathanmaze

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