This is part of NRN’s 2012 Consumer Picks special report, produced in partnership with WD Partners. The study rates top restaurant chains based on customer preferences. Visit Consumer Picks on NRN.com for more information. For the full report, including detailed rankings on the more than 100 chains, see the Aug. 6 issue of Nation’s Restaurant News.
It may not shock casual-dining operators that customers choose to visit them for their food quality, cleanliness and menu variety, but they may be surprised to learn that having a reputation for value doesn’t cinch their status as a consumer favorite either. Consider The Cheesecake Factory, which emerged as the most preferred casual-dining brand in the Varied-Menu subcategory despite tying for the lowest rating for Value. Although the chain fell short on Value, it nearly swept the rest of the survey’s attribute ratings.
1. The Cheesecake Factory
In the past year, Calabasas Hills, Calif.-based The Cheesecake Factory has revamped its menu to include new low-calorie, more healthful menu items. The chain also announced its first venture in the international market with a franchise deal in the Middle East.
• Number of units: 156
• U.S. systemwide sales: $1.5 billion
• Survey strengths: Food Quality, Reputation, Cleanliness
• Last year’s rank: 4
2. P.F. Chang's
P.F. Chang's China Bistro had a busy year, selling to private equity firm Centerbridge Partners for $1.1 billion and debuting Pei Wei Asian Market, a fast-casual spin-off of Pei Wei Asian Diner. The Scottsdale, Ariz.-based company's CEO Richard L. Federico was also named the 2012 Norman Award winner for leadership.
• Number of units: 206
• U.S. systemwide sales: $930.4 million
• Survey strengths: Service
• Last year’s rank: 3
3. Bonefish Grill
This year, John Cooper, president of Tampa-based Bonefish Grill, was named one of Nation's Restaurant News' Golden Chain honorees. The chain, known for its market-fresh seafood, also demonstrated its ability to effectively use social media to engage and retain customers, signficantly increasing its Restaurant Social Media Index score in the first quarter.
• Number of units: 158
• U.S. systemwide sales: $459 million
• Survey strengths: Food Quality, Cleanliness, Reputation
• Last year’s rank: 2
4. Olive Garden
Olive Garden has made an effort to shift its focus to value amid struggles with sales. The subsidiary of Orlando, Fla.-based Darden Restaurants Inc. has introduced promotions like "Create Your Own" lunch and the "two for $25" deal in order to meet an "elevated need for affordability" going into 2013, said Drew Madsen, Darden's president and chief operating officer.
• Number of units: 784
• U.S. systemwide sales: $3.6 billion
• Survey strengths: Reputation, Menu Variety, Value
• Last year’s rank: 8
5. Carrabba's Italian Grill
The Tampa, Fla.-based chain continues to feature seasonal, hand-prepared Italian food, with most dishes made from scratch in its restaurants. Most recently, Johnny Carrabba, cofounder of the chain, opened a fast-casual concept in Houston called Mia's Table.
• Number of units: 232
• U.S. systemwide sales: $686 million
• Survey strengths: Food Quality, Service
• Last year’s rank: 5
Editor's note: Company sales and unit data was derived from the 2012 Nation Restaurant News Top 200 report, except where noted.
Correction: An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect U.S. systemwide sales for Olive Garden.