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Consumer Trends

America's favorite chains

See which restaurants won consumers’ favor — and how they did it.
healthy menu consumer restaurant

Today’s restaurant industry is a cutthroat market, with operators fighting to win over consumers. Getting them in the door—and then keeping them coming back—means understanding what’s important to diners, and then delivering on those key values. Here, based on exclusive data from Chicago research firm Technomic, is our second annual ranking of the restaurant chains that have solved the puzzle, the ones consumers say are their favorites and why. And it’s not the buzzed-about big guns you might think; bringing in the most money doesn’t mean one has  all the answers. In fact, in many instances, it’s smaller regional concepts that consumers prefer. For each winner, we’ve cited one thing it’s doing right, a lesson for others looking to stand out from the pack.


Top Chain: Papa Murphy’s

Once again, Papa Murphy’s  Take ‘N’ Bake Pizza reigns as consumers’ favorite chain. The 1,437-unit take-and-bake pizza concept continues to win over guests with its core belief in value, both in terms of consumers’ time and money. It’s this “make the customer’s life easier” mentality that’s helped the chain maintain not only the top spot in the overall ranking, but dominate also three of five attributes—service and hospitality, convenience and takeout, and value— compared to the other top-ranked brands.

Interestingly, Papa Murphy’s overall score dipped more than three percent, compared to last year’s figure. Two others in the top five, Cracker Barrel Old Country Store and Chick-fil-A, also received scores several percentage points lower than the last ranking. It begs the question: What do these lower scores say about consumers’ wants? Have diners become slightly more critical in their perception of restaurants in general over the last year, since these lower scores still were high enough to maintain a top-five ranking?

One chain that did rise through the ranks this year is Seasons 52, Darden’s upscale-casual concept known for its seasonal menu of healthy fare, replacing quick-service Firehouse Subs to round out the Top 5. The calorie-conscious chain didn’t crack the rankings at all last year, so the jump onto the list may signal a shift in consumer behavior, especially in terms of willingness to spend. While diners obviously prioritize value, that doesn’t always mean cheap prices. After all, Darden undisputedly has had trouble with its lower-priced workhorse Olive Garden (which didn’t make this year’s ranking), yet Seasons 52 has emerged as a preferred consumer brand, even with its higher price point. A sign, perhaps, that post-recession attitudes towards spending are on the upswing. 

Top 5 brands overall

  Overall
score
Service and
hospitality
Unit appearance
and ambiance
Food and
beverage
Convenience
and takeout
Value
1.Papa Murphy's63.5%80%49%56%74%58%
2.Cracker Barrel Old Country Store60.7%70%61%61%58%55%
3.In-N-Out Burger60.5%76%54%53%63%57%
4.Chick-fil-A60.3%75%57%56%65%49%
5.Seasons 5259.7%71%62%60%55%50%

About the research

Technomic’s Consumer Brand Metrics program is a comprehensive, ongoing study that tracks the performance of leading limited- and full-service chains by measuring the consumer experience. This report includes the top 100 restaurant chains operating within the U.S. in terms of sales, plus additional chains to round out certain categories or capture regional data. The data represents responses from approximately 87,000 consumers, with data collection occurring between Oct. 1, 2013 and Sept. 30, 2014. Scores represent the percentage of respondents who strongly agree with the statements, ranked on a scale of 1 to 5. 

Quick Service

Dollars in their pocket don’t necessarily equate to love in consumers’ hearts. McDonald’s, Taco Bell and Starbucks might be the mega chains the industry holds on a pedestal for bringing in big bucks, but they’re noticeably absent from the list of QSR chains consumers prefer. Then, what is the secret that can be revealed from the ranking? While convenience is obviously important in the quick-service segment, all five of consumers’ preferred brands scored high in service and hospitality. So even if a visit is fast and with minimal friction, consumers want a pleasant, friendly interaction.

#1 Papa Murphy’s

Parent: Papa Murphy’s Holdings, Inc.
HQ: Vancouver, Wash.
Units: 1,437
Website: papamurphys.com

What it's doing right:
President and CEO Ken Calwell attributes the brand’s current success to its momentum. A perennial consumer favorite, it continues to grow and innovate, including adding artisanal, thin-crust pizzas and gluten-free pizzas to the lineup in 2014 to appeal to a wider audience. And customers have responded positively to the chain’s moves, as reflected in the 15th consecutive quarter of same-store sales growth.

Overall: 63.5%
Service and hospitality: 80%
Appearance and ambiance: 49%
Food and beverage: 56%
Convenience and takeout: 74%
Value: 58%


#2  In-N-Out Burger

Parent: In-N-Out Burger
HQ: Irvine, Calif.
Units: 301
Website: in-n-out.com

What it's doing right:
Despite evolving little since its 1948 debut, this regional chain continues to win fans, who praise its consistency and quality. While others try to capture the word-of-mouth success of its secret menu, In-N-Out still is the gold standard.

Overall: 60.5%
Service and hospitality: 76%
Appearance and ambiance: 54%
Food and beverage: 53%
Convenience and takeout: 63%
Value: 57%


#3 Chick-fil-A

Parent: Chick-fil-A, Inc.
HQ: Atlanta1,885
Units: 289
Websitechick-fil-a.com

What it's doing right:
In 2014, Chick-fil-A’s CEO said the company would step away from professing its politically charged beliefs that alienated many and focus on service. It also delivered on consumers’ demands for health, adding a line of grilled-chicken dishes to the menu in April (for which sales soared), all the while keeping consumers’ favorite fried items in place. 

Overall: 60.3%
Service and hospitality: 75%
Appearance and ambiance: 57%
Food and beverage: 56%
Convenience and takeout: 65%
Value: 49%


#4 Culver’s

Overall score: 56.6%
The Midwest-born burger chain hit its 500th location this March, bringing its popular Butter Burgers to new markets. But it wasn’t just beef the chain touted this year. Marketing efforts in September focused on antibiotic-free chicken.


#5 Pinkberry

Overall score: 55.5%
Industry watchers have long predicted the death of frozen yogurt, yet Pinkberry remains a well-liked chain. Its efforts to stay engaged include updates to its mobile app, such as a feedback function to solicit users’ comments via Facebook. 

Fast Casual

As evidenced by the booming fast-casual market, this segment is the sweet spot for many consumers, offering the right mix of quality and cost effectiveness. Because of that, competition isn’t coming just from other fast casuals; QSRs are adding upscale offerings and casual spots are shaking up operations to appear more convenient. Everyone wants to be the next Chipotle, yet it’s not Chipotle or any doppelganger that resonated most this year. All five fast-casual favorites  fall in the bakery-cafe/sandwich category

#1 McAlister’s Deli

Parent: Focus Brands Inc.
HQ: Atlanta
Units: 330+
Websitemcalistersdeli.com

What it's doing right:
Consumers rated McAlister’s food and beverage the highest of the fast casuals this year. Much of that is anchored by its signature sweet tea, marketing messages and promos for which dominate the chain’s Facebook page—which reached 500,000 followers in late 2014. Again, the chain offered its annual Free Tea Day giveaway and seasonally driven LTOs, but it also focused on convenience, especially for takeout orders. Most newly opened or redesigned stores were outfitted with curbside-takeout areas and/or pick-up windows to expedite the to-go process.

Overall: 59.5%
Service and hospitality: 73%
Appearance and ambiance: 55%
Food and beverage: 58%
Convenience and takeout: 61%
Value: 50%


#2 Firehouse Subs

Parent: Firehouse of America, LLC
HQ: Jacksonville, Fla.
Units: 840
Websitefirehousesubs.com

What it's doing right:
Firehouse debuted an under-500-calories menu in February with 10 new subs and salads. The Facebook post introducing the lineup got 966 likes. Known for its charitable activities, it briefly turned focus away from its own foundation, donating $7,000 in the heat of the Ice Bucket Challenge frenzy for ALS. 

Overall: 58.8%
Service and hospitality: 73%
Appearance and ambiance: 55%
Food and beverage: 57%
Convenience and takeout: 63%
Value: 46%


#3 Jimmy John’s Gourmet Sandwiches

Parent: Jimmy John’s Sandwiches
HQ: Champaign, Ill.
Units: 2,004
Websitejimmyjohns.com

What it's doing right:
Even with 3 million likes on Facebook, the chain cranked up its social media activity this year, posting 10 times the photos to Instagram and joining Snapchat. A security breach this fall, though, may have compromised guests’  credit- and debit-card info—and their trust in the brand.

Overall: 58.5%
Service and hospitality: 73%
Appearance and ambiance: 51%
Food and beverage: 49%
Convenience and takeout: 71%
Value: 48%


#4 Jason’s Deli

Overall score: 56.3%
This year, Jason’s took aim at customers with dietary restrictions. Social-media remarks used hashtags #vegetarian and #glutenfree, and the chain touted its online Special Diets Wizard, which helps guests find menu items to suit their needs.


#5  Jersey Mike’s Subs

Overall score: 56%
Jersey Mike’s reached out to consumers this spring with its first branded campaign that featured two animated TV commercials highlighting the chains’ ingredients. It also updated its smartphone app to enhance mobile ordering and loyalty rewards. 

Midscale

It’s no secret that it’s still a rough market for midscale chains, defined by Technomic as full-service concepts with moderate price points. While price was once a key hook, there’s now fear of encroachment from casual-dining concepts trying to show more value, thus forcing many of these chains to pull some tricks out of their hats to compete. For two of the top three chains, that meant adding new menu items. While Perkins went the healthy route, Bob Evans’ new broasted chicken line is just the kind of business revitalization the chain needed.

#1  Cracker Barrel Old Country Store

Parent: Cracker Barrel Old Country Store, Inc.
HQ: Lebanon, Tenn.
Units: 633
Websitecrackerbarrel.com

What it's doing right:
For its 45th anniversary in 2014, Cracker Barrel reasserted its mission to serve reasonably priced food in a friendly atmosphere. But now it’s hoping to garner attention beyond its prime family clientele by connecting with younger consumers via social media. Its Pinterest page, for example, promotes its down-home feel, with posts under topics such as “wholesome pantry” and “front porch living.”  More than 11,000 users follow the brand, a sign that its homespun feel can translate to the web.

Overall: 60.7%
Service and hospitality: 70%
Appearance and ambiance: 61%
Food and beverage: 61%
Convenience and takeout: 58%
Value: 55%


#2 Bob Evans

Parent: Bob Evans Farms, Inc.
HQ: New Albany, Ohio
Units: 561
Website: bobevans.com

What it's doing right:
Despite tension at the top, Bob Evans scored some customer-friendly wins. It credits its Carryout Acceleration and Own Our Nights programs with driving its success. And its new broasted chicken, made with a process that melds deep frying with pressure cooking, is a hit.

Overall: 54.6%
Service and hospitality: 63%
Appearance and ambiance: 53%
Food and beverage: 53%
Convenience and takeout: 57%
Value: 46%


#3 Perkins Restaurant & Bakery

Parent: Perkins & Marie Callender’s Holding, LLC
HQ: Memphis
Units: 415
Websiteperkinsrestaurants.com

What it's doing right:
Moving beyond the stick-to-your-gut comfort food the segment is known for, Perkins added six LTO dishes featuring better-for-you ingredients. New cues on the full menu point health-minded diners to its entrees under 600 calories. 

Overall: 50.7%
Service and hospitality: 62%
Appearance and ambiance: 46%
Food and beverage: 50%
Convenience and takeout: 55%
Value: 41%


#4 Shoney’s

Overall score: 49.5%
CEO David Davoudpour still is on a mission to revamp the brand. One way was by launching a new mall prototype last January, complete with a full bar and an attached Shoney’s On The Go dining option in Lawrenceville, Ga. 


#5 IHOP

Overall score: 49.1%
IHOP saw positive traffic flow over the last year, which CEO Julia Stewart attributed to a “focus on menu enhancements, innovative advertising and higher operating standards,” during an earnings call in May.

Casual Dining

It’s noteworthy that two of the top three casual-dining chains favorited by consumers come from Darden’s portfolio—and both are new entrants to the ranking altogether. These two smaller Darden brands—Seasons 52 and Bahama Breeze—are doing something right to win over consumers, and their secret may be just the strategy activist shareholder Starboard Value is suggesting for Darden’s struggling Olive Garden brand: a leaner, more focused menu built on high-quality food. 

#1  Seasons 52

Parent: Darden Restaurants, Inc.
HQ: Orlando
Units: 43
Website: seasons52.com

What it's doing right:
While many chains are trying to add health to the menu, it’s a built-in principle for Seasons 52. To promote its 475-or-less-calories menu that changes seasonally, the brand largely leaned on social media last year. By posting stylized photos of dishes and cocktails, often with glimpses of its restaurant spaces in the background, it conveyed quality food and high-end ambiance, both of which consumers scored high. And it’s working: A Facebook post touting a lineup of single-portion layered desserts served in small glasses got 8,102 likes.

Overall: 59.7%
Service and hospitality: 71%
Appearance and ambiance: 62%
Food and beverage: 60%
Convenience and takeout: 55%
Value: 50%


#2 Maggiano’s Little Italy

Parent: Brinker International, Inc.
HQ: Dallas
Units: 48
Website: maggianos.com

What it's doing right:
For its take on healthier dishes, Maggiano’s offered lighter riffs on traditional Italian dishes rather than creating entirely new items not in sync with the chain’s theme. Its tricks included swapping lemon zest for lemon butter and sauteeing chicken instead of frying it.

Overall: 58.6%
Service and hospitality: 68%
Appearance and ambiance: 60%
Food and beverage: 57%
Convenience and takeout: 57%
Value: 51%


 

#3  Bahama Breeze Island Grille

Parent: Darden Restaurants, Inc.
HQ: Orlando
Units: 36
Websitebahamabreeze.com

What it's doing right:
True to its laid-back, summertime vibe, Bahama Breeze ranks high with consumers for convenience and takeout, a growing concern for full-service concepts looking to prevent encroachment from fast casuals.

Overall: 56.9%
Service and hospitality: 64%
Appearance and ambiance: 58%
Food and beverage: 57%
Convenience and takeout: 57%
Value: 50%


#4 Bonefish Grill

Overall score: 55.9%
It was the year for LTOs and new menu items. Bonefish even stepped outside of the box, serving  a new ceviche and a whole fish. And it’s expanding beyond seafood with bowls, wine-pairing menus and more. 


#5 Texas Roadhouse

Overall score: 56.3%
Texas Roadhouse gets high marks for its food and beverage. The chain took to touting its seafood options earlier in the year, especially via social media, but circled back to steaks and barbecue dishes, its signatures, as the year went on. 

Millennials’ Favorite Chains

Millennials—which Technomic defines as ages 22 to 37—are the lauded-after generation that marketers still are trying to understand. Fortunately, millennials are a strong base for multiple segments, from QSRs to full service, finds Technomic, as they desire to balance convenience and value with quality and an emotional connection. Here are their favorites:

Top Quick-Service Chains

In-N-Out Burger
Overall score: 73.4%

Papa Murphy’s
Overall score: 68.1%

Cold Stone Creamery
Overall score: 66.7%


Top Fast-Casual Chains

Five Guys
Overall score: 67.8%

Jimmy John’s
Overall score: 66.3%

Chipotle Mexican Grill
Overall score: 63.6%


Top Casual-Dining Chains

Seasons 52
Overall score: 66.5%

Texas Roadhouse
Overall score: 65.1%

Carrabba’s Italian Grill
Overall score: 64.8%

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