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Special Reports

Consumers still love chains

Despite a movement towards independents, chain restaurants keep driving business.
Photograph courtesy of Pret A Manger

There’s this rumor going around that consumers—especially millennials—don’t like chain restaurants. They prefer independents that have a local or specialized feel, something diners they feel they can’t get anywhere else. Some of the data even shows that independents are growing at a faster rate, sales-wise, than chains. 

In reality, though, the idea of a chain-hating mentality just isn’t accurate. Today’s consumers still visit chain restaurants … a lot. An example: I live in an area that has a lot of chains and independents, and they are pretty intermixed. A location of the Darden-owned chain Yard House opened near me. On a Thursday night around 6 p.m. (when I figured I’d have to wait a little), the quoted wait time was nearly two hours. En route to another restaurant, I noticed hoards of people hanging outside of The Cheesecake Factory, waiting for their buzzers to go off. Across the way, I got a table almost immediately at a well-known, locally loved independent. 

One thing that most chains have going for them is consistency. The Cheesecake Factory and Yard House might not have been delivering the funkiest, most unique menu that night, but consumers are aware that they’ll be getting something solid.

And solid isn’t a bad thing. Instead, it’s a promise to deliver. As we discovered with our look at consumers' top need states, consumers say that knowing what they're getting from a satisfaction standpoint is a top traffic driver. 

Throughout our report on America's Favorite Chains, in fact, you’ll get an idea about what consumers think of chains. Researcher Technomic sliced and diced its consumer data to identify the top chains as well as look at the chains that have both gained and lost favor with consumers over the past year. Looking at everything from food and value to hospitality and convenience, consumers’ overall satisfaction with chain restaurants highlights a range of different concepts.

While those reports look at the full country, I did my own internal case study to see if the same satisfaction factors held true. The Restaurant Business team isn’t composed of your average consumers. We all frequent restaurants a lot, and we’re well-informed on trends, issues, operations and more. So which chains are our favorites and why?

The answers ranged from upscale-casual Seasons 52 to the burger chain Culver’s and even Olive Garden. Interestingly, no matter what chain one of my colleagues named, two factors continued to come to the surface: freshness and service level.

While both ingredient quality and service look different at different types of chains, they matter even to some of the most discerning customers. 

Which chains did the RB staff name as their favorites?

Peter Romeo
Pret A Manger
The food is good and always fresh, but what really sets it apart is the caliber of the people who work there. Their service level is right up there with Starbucks

Heather Lalley
Dos Toros
Super fresh, tasty, ridiculously fast and always friendly.

Jonathan Maze
Red Robin
My kids love it when we go there. (They also tend to like Chili’s and Applebee’s.) We get a tower of onion rings and a bunch of burgers and the service is always on point.

Sara Wirth
Cooper’s Hawk
The food is always great, but more so the servers are so well-informed and great at making suggestions. 

Patricia Cobe
Seasons 52
I love the way they control portion sizes without sacrificing flavor or creativity. Everything I’ve eaten there has been above par.

Joe Guszkowski
Culver’s
I’ve been going there for probably two decades and I always get the same thing—Butterburger basket with cheese—and the quality has never wavered. I could probably eat there every day.

Kim Collie
Chick-fil-A
Darn if those Chick-fil-A employees aren’t the happiest people on earth outside of Disney employees. They can perk up a day.

Kelsey Nash
Roti
Fast, efficient service, a good price point and food that always tastes flavorful and fresh.

Sara Stewart
Olive Garden
The salad/soup/breadsticks combo is satisfying, comforting and so cheap. And they often bring out complimentary wine!

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