Choosing your favorite casual-dining chain restaurant is serious business. The options are plentiful and there's much to consider from food quality to value for money. Endless choice, super-sized portions, and friendly faces can be very persuasive. It's no big surprise then that The Cheesecake Factory is the nation's favorite casual-dining restaurant according to an annual survey conducted by Market Force Information, a customer experience management firm.
|More at Forbes.com: |
The World's Most Expensive Comfort Foods
• America's Most Beautiful College Campuses
• The World's Tiniest Hotel Rooms
This is the second consecutive year that the popular chain, known for its extensive menu and cheesecake options, has landed in the survey's top spot. With a selection of more than 200 items, including 50 dessert options, and plates so generous almost everyone leaves with a doggie bag, The Cheesecake Factory ranked a clear first earning 7.3% of the vote share, more than double the 3.2% scored by runner-up Texas Roadhouse. Olive Garden came in at No. 3 spot with 2.8% of votes.
More than 4,500 consumers from the firm's 300,000 strong stable of independent mystery shoppers voted for their favorite chain from a list of 51 casual-dining restaurants in the August survey. Votes were weighted against the number of restaurant locations per chain to account for the fact that certain brands are less prevalent than others. "A respondent's ability to select a certain restaurant depends on whether there's even an outlet in their area" said Market Force's Senior Vice President of Customer Knowledge, Cheryl Flink. "If they haven't been, they can't make a decision on how much they like that chain."
To understand why a certain brand fared better than another, respondents rated them by the following attributes: quality of food, taste of food, speed of service, friendly service, cleanliness, overall value, atmosphere, child-friendliness, healthy choices, and green/sustainable practices.
When patronizing casual-dining restaurants, which fall in between fine-dining eateries and fast food joints, the taste and quality food is most important to the diner, according to restaurant and food industry consultant, Bob Sandelman. Notably, the top 3 favorites chains all scored very well in these categories. "Eating out is a considered purchase, often a special occasion, so people need to make sure the food is going to be worth it" said Sandelman.
But good food isn't always enough; the menu needs to be innovative too. "A lot of consumers tire of restaurants when those chains fail to keep up with changing consumer preferences" explained Sharon Zackfia, a restaurant analyst at William Blair & Company. By revising its menu and adding new dishes and concepts every six months, the Cheesecake Factory is a prime example of a chain that innovates to keep consumers coming back. "There are no inherent limitations in it's concept" said Zackfia, "they have to have cheesecake, but otherwise they can go anywhere with their food."
Service is second most important in the mind of the diner, but it's also inextricably linked to the food. According to Flink, "people are tolerant about speed of service if the food is very, very good. If they've waited 10 minutes more than they think they should have, and the food is bad, you've got a double whammy: bad food, bad service — no one's happy."
Then there's atmosphere. Casual-dining eateries are popular choices for celebrations, so a lively environment makes all the difference between a mediocre meal and a great one. Decked out with jukeboxes, Wild West accoutrements and even line dancers, it's no surprise that Texas Roadhouse was an extremely high-scorer in this category.
Though with an entirely different feel, Italian-American chain Olive Garden also wooed diners with its great atmosphere. According to Zackfia, the chain's unique strength lies in creating a widely appealing experience. "It's accessible to everybody" she said, "white collar, blue collar, senior citizens, teenagers on date."
Value however, didn't appear to have much impact on how respondents voted. None of the top 3 favorite eateries featured among the top scorers for overall value.
Value is often about lots and lots of food for few dollars" said Flink. Logically, Golden Corral (which holds the No. 11 spot), a reasonably priced, all-you-can-eat buffet restaurant was the highest scorer in this category. But quantity says nothing about quality. Respondents were decidedly less enthusiastic about the taste and quality of Golden Corral's seemingly boundless offerings.
Here are the Top 7 of America's Best Chain Restaurants:
1. Cheesecake Factory
Tim Boyle/Bloomberg via Getty Images
2. Texas Roadhouse
Matthew Staver/Bloomberg via Getty Images
3. Olive Garden
Richard B. Levine/Newscom
4. P.F. Chang's China Bistro
Rick Gomez/ZUMA Press/Newscom
5. Carrabba's Italian Grill
6. Red Lobster
7. Outback Steakhouse
Marianna Day Massey/ZUMA Press/Newscom
Click here to see the full list of America's Best Chain Restaurants
- Texas Roadhouse
- Cheesecake Factory
- Olive Garden