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Consumers rank favorite restaurant chains

Best brands focus most on experience, convenience

The nation’s most popular casual-dining chains — including The Cheesecake Factory, which was the runaway favorite in a recent customer survey — will stand to benefit from more optimistic consumer sentiment if they focus on the experience provided, convenience and food quality.

According to a Market Force survey, a customer experience management firm based in Boulder, Colo., one in four consumers plans to eat out more in the coming months and they are driven to brands showcasing strong customer service elements. The survey, which was conducted in May and June and is based on results from 5,000 of the firm’s 300,000 independent mystery shoppers, found that 8 percent of respondents said they planned to cut back on restaurant spending. Just six months ago, a similar survey from the same firm found that half of the respondents said they would eat out less.

As consumers plan to eat out more, the way to entice guests is to take care of the essential customer service elements, Market Force said. Of the consumers polled in the latest survey, 52 percent said they eat at casual- or family-dining restaurants just to have time with family and friends, and 37 percent cited celebrating special occasions as a reason to visit.

Convenience also plays into dining decisions, as 41 percent of respondents said they eat at casual and family chains when they are too tired to cook, and 23 percent said they go when they’re pressed for time. But 38 percent said a key reason for dining out is because they want a great-tasting meal, meaning food quality can’t be ignored, Market Force said.


Favorite casual and family restaurant chains


Weighted by number of locations



Percent respondents


The Cheesecake Factory



Texas Roadhouse



Red Robin Gourmet Burgers



Olive Garden



Ruby Tuesday



Red Lobster



P.F. Chang's China Bistro



Longhorn Steakhouse



Outback Steakhouse



Cracker Barrel



T.G.I. Friday's



Golden Corral



Applebee's Neighborhood Grill & Bar








Source: Market Force Information survey based on 5,000 mystery shoppers, May-June 2010
























One of the casual-dining chains that survey respondents identified as a clear No. 1 favorite brand was The Cheesecake Factory, which earned 6 percent of the favorite-restaurant vote from consumers and scored a category best 13 percent of respondent votes when the votes were indexed to the number of locations for each chain.

The Calabasas Hills, Calif.-based brand also scored the highest rankings in six out of 10 characteristic ratings of the more than 60 restaurants included in the survey. Ratings were granted against characteristics including food taste and quality, atmosphere, and cleanliness. Red Robin Gourmet Burgers, which placed second in the favorite-restaurant vote, when indexed to system size, scored the highest for kid friendliness and speed of service, the survey said.

Based on system size, Texas Roadhouse also had an 8-percent favorite vote among respondents, while Olive Garden and Ruby Tuesday followed with 5 percent and Red Lobster and P.F. Chang’s came next with 4 percent of the vote. The highest-scoring family-dining chains by that metric were Golden Corral and Cracker Barrel.

By total number of favorite votes, Olive Garden and Applebee’s led the way with 9 percent of all votes, while Red Lobster garnered 7 percent of all tallies. Texas Roadhouse, Cheesecake Factory, Chili’s and Outback Steakhouse came next with 6 percent of the vote. Cracker Barrel was the most popular family chain by total number of votes, at 4 percent.

Market Force also found that, while 72 percent of respondents said they visited a casual-dining or family restaurant for dinner, another 24 percent visited a dinnerhouse for a snack, compared with 3 percent for breakfast and 1 percent for lunch.

Several chains have recently announced menu development moves to capitalize on those opportunities at lunch and at snack time. Segment standout Buffalo Wild Wings, for example, talked up its late-night menu, with shareable $3 appetizers, as a sales driver in a recent earnings conference call. The chain also disclosed that it will test an express-lunch option in a little more than 60 locations as a way to build mid-day sales.

Several bar and grill chains have had some form of an express lunch for some time, as at Chili’s where the Bottomless Express Lunch combines soup and salad with unlimited chips and salsa, similar to Olive Garden’s unlimited servings of the Soup, Salad and Breadsticks Lunch. Chili’s also is testing a reduced-price menu of appetizers and bites after 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday.

The Cheesecake Factory, long known for its giant entrée portions, also diversified its menu slightly in the past few years to include a Small Bites and Snacks lineup to grow sales at off-peak times.

Market Force said the 5,000 respondents to the May and June survey ranged in age from 18 to 72 years old. More than 60 percent reported income levels of more than $50,000 per year, and half said they have children at home. Seventy-six percent of the consumers surveyed were women.

Contact Mark Brandau at [email protected].


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