Study: Smaller Restaurant Chains Fare Better than Big Brands

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Americans went out to eat an average of four times a week in 2013 and, overall, were more impressed with smaller chains than they were with the largest brands, says a survey from Ann Arbor-based American Customer Satisfaction Index.

Each of the five largest full-service brands — Darden’s Olive Garden and Red Lobster, Outback Steakhouse, Applebee’s, and Chili’s — saw dips in customer satisfaction last year. While Olive Garden and Outback led the pack with an ACSI score of 80 (Chili’s fell behind at 74), customer satisfaction for smaller restaurant chains grew 2 percent to an ACSI score of 83, the best in the full-service category.

“In a weaker economy, consumers respond to price, but as the economy improves, quality becomes more important to restaurant customers,” says Claes Fornell, chairman and founder of the ACSI. “This is good news for smaller chains and individual restaurants, which customers associate with higher quality food and better service.”

The report also found that customer satisfaction with fast food and fast casual chains maintained their highest-ever level of customer satisfaction score of 80 ACSI for the third year in a row.

“This is a considerable transformation for an industry that posted scores in the 60s throughout the 1990s and never exceeded an ACSI score of 70 until 2001,” says David VanAmburg, director of ACSI. “Price has always been a strong point for fast food, but fast casual restaurants have been improving quality and service at such a brisk pace that customer satisfaction with fast food is nearly as high as dine-in restaurants.”

Smaller is better for quick-service restaurants too, and the aggregate ACSI score of these restaurants climbed 2 percent to 84. The group of smaller chains — including the rapidly growing fast casual segment with brands like Panera and Chipotle — now has a higher level of satisfaction than any of the major fast food operators.

Among the biggest restaurants, pizza dominates, with all four of the largest pizza chains topping the category. Papa John’s (unchanged) and Pizza Hut (up 3 percent) share the lead at 82, with Detroit-based Little Caesar (down 2 percent) and Ann Arbor-based Domino’s Pizza (down 1 percent) not far behind at 80.

The full report, visit theACSI.org.

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