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Food Service Industry Updates

Restaurants of All Kinds Have Room to Improve Their Customer Satisfaction Scores


In the full-service restaurant sector, LongHorn Steakhouse had the top score.

Customer satisfaction with both full-service and limited-service (fast food) restaurants declined from April 2019 through March 2020, dropping 1.3% to a score of 77.9 (out of 100) from the previous year, according to the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) Restaurant Report 2019-2020.

Restaurants, of course, have been hammered by the pandemic — losing $120 billion from March through May due to lockdowns and social distancing. But the pandemic may have given the restaurant industry a swift kick in the behind to adopt new technological measures to improve customer satisfaction.

“Even before COVID-19, delivery was fast becoming the name of the game with consumers increasingly looking for alternative delivery options,” said David VanAmburg, managing director at the ACSI, an Ann Arbor, Mich.-based company that measures and analyzes customer satisfaction with more than 400 companies in 46 industries and 10 economic sectors. “Millennials drove the ship, and the rise of third-party delivery services like Grubhub, DoorDash, Postmates and Uber Eats offered consumers more choices and convenience. But the pandemic has since hammered the point home: Tech innovation remains a key to success for both fast food and full-service chains, and engaging with customers digitally, especially through reliable mobile apps, is critical.”

In the full-service restaurant sector, customer satisfaction dipped below 80 for just the second time in ACSI history, tumbling 2.5% to 79, from April 2019 through March 2020. Among 12 major full-service chains, there were seven post-customer satisfaction declines with only one chain receiving higher marks, indicating that sit-down chains overall were struggling to please customers leading up to the pandemic.

Also, the full-service restaurant industry is less satisfying when it comes to the now-critical components of takeout and delivery: Customers are the happiest when dining in (78) over carryout (75) or delivery (77), according to ACSI.

LongHorn Steakhouse had the top score in the segment with an ACSI score of 81, which was unchanged from the previous year. Meanwhile, last year’s industry leader Texas Roadhouse, fell 4% to 80, tying a group of smaller restaurants (down 1%) for second place.

After holding second place in 2019, Cracker Barrel fell 4% to 79. Both Texas Roadhouse and Cracker Barrel now sit at their lowest ACSI scores. Two full-service chains tied Cracker Barrel for the industry average: Olive Garden (unchanged) and Red Lobster (up 1%), the latter being the only full-service restaurant to improve its score.

The remaining full-service restaurants all scored below the industry average. Outback Steakhouse (down 1%) and TGI Fridays (unchanged) both scored 78. Applebee’s came in at 77.

At the low end of the industry, Denny’s (down 1%), Red Robin (down 4%), and Ruby Tuesday (down 3%) all scored 76. Chili’s tumbled 4% to 75.

In the limited-service (fast food) segment, customer satisfaction dipped 1.3% to 78, its lowest ACSI score since 2015.

Among the 18 brands measured a year ago, 11 experienced slides in customer satisfaction, but most of the changes are 2% or less. ACSI said the fast-food segment is positioned to fare better than sit-down restaurants in the COVID-19-impacted market thanks to a business model that already includes low-contact drive-thru lanes and delivery.

Despite a 2% drop, Chick-fil-A remains the industry leader at 84. This is the sixth-straight year Chick-fil-A has been number one across both restaurant segments.

A group of smaller fast-food outlets slid 2% to 80, tying with Chipotle Mexican Grill (unchanged). Six chains tied for third place with an ACSI score of 79: Panera Bread (down 2%), Arby’s (down 1%), Domino’s (unchanged), Subway (unchanged), Dunkin’ (up 1%) and KFC (up 1%).

As Domino’s became the new pizza segment leader, three other major pizza competitors lost ground. For the first time since 2009, Domino’s beat Papa John’s, which retreated 3% to 78. This marks Papa John’s lowest ACSI score since 2015. Pizza Hut dropped even further, plummeting 4% to 77. Little Caesars slipped just 1% but remains in last place among the pizza chains at 76.

Taco Bell fell 1% to 74. ACSI newcomer Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen premiered with a score of 74, placing it in the bottom five for customer satisfaction.

Among burger chains, Wendy’s dropped 1% to tie with a stable Burger King at 76. Sonic Drive-In lost ground, fading 3% to 74. Jack in the Box scored worse, declining 3% to 73.

McDonald’s anchored the bottom of the fast-food category with an ACSI score of 70. Yet, with its 1% climb, the chain broke out of the 60s — a rare occurrence, according to ACSI.

The ACSI Restaurant Report 2019-2020 on full-service and limited-service (fast food) dining chains is based on interviews with 23,312 customers. Download the full report here.