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Balance between frequency and devotion drives traffic

Limited-service restaurant managers often see the same customers several times a week and might be surprised to learn that their operation isn’t the favorite lunch spot of those regulars. 

Likewise, a few of their more infrequent guests may consider the restaurant their No. 1 place to eat, even though they often opt for another, more convenient location.

But as long as a restaurant cultivates its status as both the favorite of some customers and the regular hangout for repeat, although less enthusiastic, guests, it has a chance to be successful, according to a report from CFI Group, an Ann Arbor, Mich.-based research firm whose methodology powers the closely watched American Customer Satisfaction Index. 

CFI notes that consumers have different reasons for either considering a restaurant their favorite or revisiting one repeatedly, and therein lie several opportunities for brands to appeal to different groups.

CFI’s Restaurant Selection Study asked 1,200 consumers what prompted their last visit to a quick-service or fast-casual restaurant. The study found that the top reasons for choosing a specific restaurant brand included “convenient location,” 48 percent; “desired that type of food,” 37 percent; and “low prices,” 32 percent.

Consumers also identified the primary reason for selecting a restaurant, with the top three being “convenient location,” 20 percent; “desired type of food,” 19 percent; and “taste,” 16 percent. 

In addition, brands that stand out with customers in certain niches like healthfulness have opportunities to take advantage with tailored marketing plans, the study’s authors found.

Like the price, love the taste

Once participants identified the restaurant they most recently visited, they were asked to qualify whether they considered the brand their favorite or average, or if they visit frequently or infrequently. CFI’s study found that the reasons consumers identify one restaurant brand as a favorite don’t necessarily motivate them to be frequent visitors of others.

“This is where the data get interesting,” said Chris Denove, senior vice president of CFI. “The way someone feels about the taste of the food is key to determining whether they consider that restaurant to be a favorite. But taste takes somewhat of a backseat to price in determining how frequently someone visits a restaurant.”

That’s not to say price doesn’t factor into consumers’ decision to make one restaurant their favorite; that metric just isn’t cited nearly as often as taste when it comes to a person’s favorite brand, Denove added.

Of the participants who had patronized their favorite limited-service restaurant most recently, 27 percent said the primary reason for visiting was that the food tastes better. But the participants who visited an average restaurant cited tasty food as the primary driver only 6 percent of the time.

By comparison, consumers visiting a favorite restaurant indicated low prices as the main driver 11 percent of the time, while those eating at an average restaurant said they went for lower prices 12 percent of the time. The lack of a significant difference in those figures confirmed that price did not meaningfully factor into whether a restaurant would be considered a favorite, Denove said.

Value adds visits

Conversely, 18 percent of respondents who had just patronized a restaurant where they dine frequently did so primarily due to low prices, while prices were the chief reason for only 8 percent of those surveyed after visiting a restaurant where they seldom dine. That significant difference stands in contrast to the effect of taste, which was cited as a reason for visiting by 13 percent of people at their regular hangout and 13 percent of people at a restaurant where they are infrequent guests.

“If there is a burger place that makes your favorite burger,” Denove said, “but it generally costs you $8 versus $5 at a chain with an aggressive value menu, you are probably going to find yourself visiting the value location more frequently, even though it isn’t your favorite.”

He added that this finding can be seen readily in quick-service restaurants that practice a “barbell” menu strategy, such as McDonald’s, which markets its Dollar Menu alongside premium, higher-price items like the Angus Third Pounders.

“The findings say, ‘Different horses for different courses,’” Denove said. “Some will pay the money for a food item they really like, and value menus are likely to drive the customer that eats there three or four times a week.”

Service has limited effect

Denove said “service” was cited as a reason to visit a limited-service restaurant at a surprisingly low rate: 18 percent of respondents mentioned customer service at all, and only 2 percent said it was the primary reason for picking a certain restaurant.

Low citations for service doesn’t mean that consumers perceive the limited-service sector’s speed, ambience or waitstaff to be poor, he said. But it means that, overall, service is not what makes quick-service or fast-casual brands stand out.

“What we’re seeing about service is based on a selection reason,” said Michael Drago, North American business development vice president at CFI. “Most people are looking at quick-service’s speed of service as standard, and not a big differentiator. If we looked at avoidance behavior, such as ‘I didn’t go to this place because once I sat in their drive-thru for 10 minutes,’ it might be different. But for selection, most people think that service will be similar at any quick-service restaurant.”

A more reliable way for restaurants to attract customers is to identify a niche where they are perceived greater than their peers and build marketing campaigns around it, Drago said.

For example, Subway has reinforced its reputation for healthful food — gained after years of executing its marketing with spokesman Jared Fogle — with commercials featuring professional athletes and a tie-in with NBC’s “The Biggest Loser.” 

As a result, while healthful menu items were mentioned as a reason for choosing a restaurant by only 10 percent of consumers overall, 62 percent of consumers who had eaten at Subway cited healthful food as a motivation, with 31 percent saying it was the primary reason.

Mark Brandau [email protected].

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