Chasing the ever-evolving needs and wants of consumers can be tricky, as well as risky from a cost perspective. But a commitment to the basics—foundational aspects such as service and hospitality, cleanliness, food and beverage quality, and value—goes a long way toward building consumer affection. Plus, currying guest favor with those always-there traits doesn’t require a crystal ball to decipher the latest trends.
Here are the chain restaurants that have improved the most in terms of consumer satisfaction over the last year. The data, which measures eight categories including service and hospitality, convenience and takeout, value, and brand image, comes from the Ignite: Consumer platform, a data service of Restaurant Business sister company Technomic.
The Cheesecake Factory
Standout stat: Top 10 in six satisfaction categories
Stalwart casual-dining concept The Cheesecake Factory ranked in the top 10 in six consumer satisfaction categories, the most of any chain surveyed. Despite developing new concepts such as North Italia and RockSugar Southeast Asian Kitchen, the brand has not lost sight of the importance of its 199-unit Cheesecake Factory operation. According to Ignite data, consumers rated their overall experiences at The Cheesecake Factory 3.7 percentage points higher year over year, at 56.6%. That includes a 3.9-point jump in perceived value and a 3.7-point boost in service and hospitality. As it focuses on these aspects of its experience, the chain plans to keep expanding its reach: CEO David Overton told analysts he’d like to see 300 Cheesecake Factory units in the U.S.
Hungry Howie's Pizza
Standout stat: Guest satisfaction with technology up 6.2 points
Consumers rated quick-service chain Hungry Howie’s Pizza, known for its assortment of flavored crusts, in the top 10 in four customer-satisfaction categories: service and hospitality, value, technology, and brand fit and loyalty. Its biggest consumer-experience gains came in technology—vital for an off-premise-focused concept—scoring 6.2 percentage points higher in the area than it did last year. Hungry Howie’s website and apps feature HowieTrack, technology that allows consumers to input their phone number and track their pizza’s progress to their door. The chain also saw a 3.9-point increase in value.
Standout stat: Service and hospitality satisfaction up 3.7 points
Starbucks scored in the top 10 in three consumer satisfaction areas: service and hospitality, food and beverage, and convenience and takeout. The coffee giant has made a concerted effort to boost guest satisfaction in recent months in a variety of ways, from redeploying workers to customer-focused tasks in the afternoons to declaring its restrooms open to all, even noncustomers. Consumers rated their satisfaction with the chain’s service and hospitality 3.7 points higher than the previous year. And the chain is currently testing delivery, which could potentially grow its convenience metrics. Of the top chains currently winning favor with consumers, though, Starbucks saw the steepest drop in brand fit and loyalty, falling 2.2 percentage points. It is unclear what caused the decline, but the brand still may be suffering the effects of negative publicity surrounding an incident last spring in which two African-American men were accused of trespassing and arrested at a Philadelphia Starbucks. Some stores are also seeing long wait times as consumers have embraced the chain’s order-ahead functionality.
Tropical Smoothie Cafe
Standout stat: 4.6-point jump in overall guest satisfaction
The biggest overall increase in consumer satisfaction came from Tropical Smoothie Cafe, which scored in the top 10 in two categories (food and beverage, technology) but saw a 4.6-point rise in overall guest happiness. The quick-service concept is capitalizing on growing interest in snacking, especially by millennials, with a recently revamped mobile app and website for pickup ordering. The chain saw a 4.2-point boost in satisfaction with its technology year over year. Tropical Smoothie Cafe, which frequently adds seasonal menu items, also scored the highest of any of the studied chains in consumer satisfaction with food and beverage, with 62.3% of customers awarding it high marks. That’s a 4-point increase over the previous year.
Standout stat: 68.4% overall guest satisfaction
Customers gave In-N-Out Burger, the regional QSR known for its “secret” menu items and cult-like following, the highest overall guest satisfaction marks, with some 68.4% of diners reporting happiness with their experiences. That’s an increase of 1.9 points from the previous year, according to Ignite data. The company landed in the top 10 in two categories, brand image and unit appearance and ambiance. Customers gave it the highest rating of any highly rated chain in the area of service and hospitality, with a whopping 71.3% of them reporting high satisfaction. In-N-Out also logged the highest scores for perceived value, with 52% reporting high levels of satisfaction.
The Technomic Ignite: Consumer program is an ongoing study that tracks the performance of leading chains by measuring the consumer experience. This report includes the top chains in the U.S. by sales, plus 53 additional chains to round out categories or capture regional data. The data represents responses from over 100,000 consumers, collected from Q4 2017 to Q3 2018. Scores represent the percentage of respondents who strongly agree with the statements, on a scale of 1 to 5.