Americans spend nearly half their family food budget on dining out. Total restaurant sales are projected to reach $863 billion this year, a year-over-year increase of 3%, at the more than 1 million U.S. restaurants, employing about 10% of the total U.S. workforce. Just over half (51%) of Americans’ outlays on food occurs in restaurants.
Restaurant spending in 2019 is forecast to be about 3% higher than in 2018, though customer satisfaction with dining out has dipped, according to the latest report on the restaurant industry from the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI). On a scale of 1 to 100, overall U.S. customer satisfaction with restaurants slipped from 79.5 to 78.9 year over year.
Foot traffic to restaurants is falling, according to ACSI, and restaurants are raising prices to offset the drop caused by the increasing availability of prepared food for sale in grocery and convenience stores. In such an environment, remaining profitable means providing outstanding service to the customers who do come through the door. According to a separate survey, in more bad news for restaurants, customers don’t want to eat there anymore.
Millennials continue to drive both food preferences and technological innovation. Plant-based burgers, fresh foods, local sourcing and ethnic food are all high on the list of what restaurant goers are looking for. Mobile apps that offer delivery service, along with dedicated pick-up or drive-thru areas, are just some examples of tech innovations that consumers like.
The researchers looked at two restaurant groupings: full-service restaurants and limited-service stores. Familiar names in the full-service group are Texas Roadhouse, Outback Steakhouse and Olive Garden. In the limited-service group are such stalwarts as McDonald’s, Pizza Hut and Starbucks.
The overall index score for limited-service restaurants fell by a point year over year to 79. This fast-food segment is stumbling according to ACSI: “Overall, the fast food customer experience shows some deterioration as major operators focus on technology and menu upgrades to meet changing consumer preferences. Fast food customers tend to be more price sensitive as well, and the industry sees a weakening of guest perceptions of value.”
Among the fast-food restaurants, Chick-fil-A remained the top performer with a score of 86, one point lower than a year ago. Panera Bread posted an index score of 81, unchanged year over year, to rank second, and four chains ranked third with scores of 80: Arby’s, Chipotle Mexican Grill, Papa John’s and Pizza Hut. Of the 18 fast-food chains included in this year’s survey, McDonald’s posted the lowest rating (69), unchanged from its 2018 score, which was also the lowest among all fast-food operators.
In the full-service group, the average index score was 81, unchanged year over year, and only two restaurant chains, Texas Roadhouse (83) and Cracker Barrel (82), topped that average. The other 12 chains in the group posted customer satisfaction index scores from 81 (Longhorn Steakhouse) to 77 (Applebee’s and Denny’s).
ACSI noted, “[Our] data show that for the full-service [restaurant] segment, diners who order food for delivery are far more satisfied (83) than those who dine in (79). As such, catering and delivery spaces are likely to become even more competitive.”
Only Cracker Barrel posted a higher score year over year, and that by just a single point. Four chains fell by a point (Olive Garden, Red Lobster, TGI Fridays and Applebee’s) year over year. The remaining eight chains posted identical scores in both the 2018 and 2019 reviews.
While the ratings for both full-service and fast-food restaurants may seem low, David VanAmburg, managing director at the ACSI, commented: “These are mature industries that have been doing what they’re doing for a long time and they’ve been successful. To have these scores from a service industry is proof that the two restaurant categories are good at what they do.” Some, however, are still doing better than others — these are America’s favorite regional fast food chains.