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.
Restaurants have always been about the food, but the quality of that food has never been more important, according to the folks who matter most — your customers.
In the 2012 Consumer Picks survey, Food Quality rose to the top as the most important attribute across all three industry segments — Limited Service, Casual and Family — as determined by the 5,346 responses reflected in the survey. In the case of Limited Service and Family, Food Quality ousted Cleanliness, the attribute that had risen to the top for those segments in last year’s survey.
That’s just one of the notable findings to surface in this year’s study — one that Nation’s Restaurant News and WD Partners have strived to make bigger, better and more insightful than our inaugural survey last year.
To that end, this year’s report includes 13 new restaurant chains, bumping the number of represented brands to 152; a new attribute, Craveability; and instructions on how to compare what consumers said about a brand in 2012 with what they said in 2011 — in other words, how to gauge their changing perceptions against a benchmark.
The 2012 survey results are based on 130,000 restaurant visits made in the six months since Dec. 15, 2012. Consumers, who were queried online, were asked to rate brands based on 10 attributes: Atmosphere, Cleanliness, Craveability, Food Quality, Likely to Recommend, Likely to Return, Menu Variety, Reputation, Service and Value. The methodology on the next page has more information about how responses were calculated and presented.
Along with Food Quality, Cleanliness and Service also ranked high in terms of importance to diners. Value only came in at No. 3 for Limited Service and placed as No. 4 for Family and Casual, underscoring again a finding from last year that Value is relatively unimportant compared to other attributes. Indeed, of the top Overall Scorers in each segment — newcomer Marble Slab Creamery in Limited Service, The Cheesecake Factory in Casual and Cracker Barrel Old Country Store in Family — none won the top score for Value, although they all clearly emerged as customer favorites.
Not surprisingly, the more customers pay, the more they expect restaurant brands to execute on all attributes. This is reflected in the average importance rating score, which rises from 57.4 percent for Limited Service to 63.8 percent for Family and 69.6 percent for Casual.
Given higher expectations for more expensive brands, this year we broke Fine Dining out as its own category to further refine the survey process and establish a set of metrics that more fully reflects the similarities and differences among the brands evaluated here.
In last year’s Consumer Picks report, the two Fine-Dining chains — Ruth’s Chris Steak House, based in Heathrow, Fla., and McCormick & Schmick’s in Houston — were incorporated into the Casual-Dining category. But because both are high-ticket brands, the results were somewhat distorted and, consequently, the pair tended to outperform other chains in the category in the eyes of the consumers.
Clearly, when customers shell out more than $30 for an entrée, they form different expectations about the dining experience, particularly where Food Quality, Atmosphere, Service and Craveability are concerned.
The decision to evaluate fine-dining chains apart from casual-dining brands is intended to address this issue more fairly and present more of an “apples to apples” comparison as the category expands in the future.
The survey’s new attribute, Craveability, proved to have a big influence in the Limited-Service segment, where Food Quality and Craveability tended to go hand in hand for those brands ranked highest within their subsegments. Among those rewarded for both by consumers were Panera Bread, Krispy Kreme Doughnuts, In-N-Out Burger, Pei Wei Asian Diner, Souplantation/Sweet Tomatoes, Chick-fil-A and Chipotle Mexican Grill.
In the Casual segment, Menu Variety had the same impact. The brands that scored highest within their subsegments also had the highest score for Menu Variety, suggesting that consumers appreciate options even when they seek out a specialized cuisine such as Italian, Mexican, steak or seafood. Among those subsegment top scorers were Olive Garden, Bonefish Grill, Texas Roadhouse and The Cheesecake Factory.
For the full report, including detailed rankings on the more than 100 chains, see the Aug. 6 issue of Nation’s Restaurant News.
Paul Frumkin contributed to this article.