Verb: To like or desire something very much. As in, “Oh my god, I love that restaurant."
We all love our families, our friends, our pets and, come on admit it, our favorite restaurants. I’ve been accused of using the word “love” — often with an added and involuntary high-pitched tone — a bit too much when it comes to restaurants. But I stand by it every time. Just like many consumers out there, I absolutely love certain restaurants. I love Portillo’s. I love Houston’s. I love Brushstroke. I really love L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon.
Our annual Consumer Picks survey measures the love customers have for restaurant brands. We break it down to quantifiable items, of course — ratings of atmosphere, menu variety, service, value or likely to recommend, among others — but it all comes down to love. The restaurant brands that win, and keep customers, build an emotional connection with their guests. The food has to be good, the restaurant has to be clean and the service has to be sufficient, but the feelings customers get when eating out at their favorite restaurants are based on sentiment, not statistics.
Ruth’s Chris Steak House is, for the fifth year running, one of the top restaurant brands loved by consumers. With an Overall Score of 80.4 percent, respondents in the Consumer Picks survey said Ruth’s Chris is tops in food quality, service and reputation. But Mike O’Donnell, Ruth’s Chris president and CEO, knows it’s about a lot more than that:
“We don’t sell steaks … we serve memories on 500-degree sizzling plates,” he said.
That story, that feeling — yes, that love — is what consumers are craving today. It doesn’t need to be steak at a high-priced, fine-dining restaurant, and in most consumers’ day-to-day lives it rarely is. But consumers want to feel an emotion, to be part of a story — and then share that story with friends and family — when they dine out.
That connection is driven only by people. While Consumer Picks measures percentages, people are the real X factor. Each winning brand in this survey — In-N-Out, The Melting Pot, First Watch and Ruth’s Chris — talks about the importance of people working each day and each shift to bring to life the chain’s food, atmosphere and experience. Most brands that score well with consumers understand that today’s guests want something deeper, and most brands that score poorly have relied too long on a promise of food, speed and consistency alone. That is no longer enough.
The restaurant industry is seeing a major shift in consumer sentiment toward food. Restaurant customers want better food, they want to know where it comes from, and they want to understand the story of the brand they are frequenting. Some deny this trend, and some overstate it, but the shift is real. NRN explores this “precipice of a whole new movement,” as Danny Meyer, CEO of Shake Shack and Union Square Hospitality Group, calls it.
Meyer says this change has led to a re-envisioning of casual and fast food brands — and we saw this change contribute to a shuffling of brand ranks in this year’s Consumer Picks. The driving forces, Meyer added, are new, successful restaurant brands borrowing from fine-dining qualities. Those qualities include, he said, “caring about the people who worked there; caring about and restoring people who ate there; caring about the communities in which they did business; caring deeply about their supply chain, and, yes, making more money for their investors as a result.”
Sounds like a mission consumers — and businesses — can love.