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June 29, 2021

Restaurant Study reveal: Customers favor full-service restaurants over fast food chains

David Vanamburg

Following a tumultuous year, the restaurant segment is getting the stabilization it desperately needs.

Hiring is up as , and sales are on the rise. Customer satisfaction with full-service restaurants and limited-service restaurants — which was suffering leading into the pandemic (down 2.5% and 1.3%, respectively) — is no longer in free fall.

Overall, customer satisfaction with the Accommodation and Food Services sector slips just 0.4% to a score of 77.6 (out of 100), according to our latest Restaurant Study 2020-2021.

Fast food restaurants remain steady with an ACSI score of 78, but in a surprising twist, full-service establishments shine brightest, up 1.3% to 80.

How did the latter, while less positioned to handle the increased demand on takeout, delivery, and contactless dining options, rise to the occasion? Let’s find out.

It starts with the customer experience

From a customer-experience standpoint, full-service restaurants pretty much feast on the competition, surpassing the limited-service category in almost every ACSI customer experience benchmark.

According to customers, full-service establishments beat fast food chains in food quality (86 to 82), restaurant layout and cleanliness (86 to 82), and staff courtesy and helpfulness (85 to 82). The former significantly outpaces the latter in terms of food variety (84 to 79).

It doesn’t stop there.

Customers feel that orders are more accurate (88 to 84) at full-service restaurants, and these spots have better beverage quality (84 to 81) and a greater variety of beverages (82 to 78).

In the all-important mobile app space, full-service restaurants hold a slight edge as well. While both industries share an ACSI score of 82 for reliability, full service wins for quality 85 to 83.

10 fast food brands stumble

For the seventh straight year, Chick-fil-A leads the limited-service industry – and all restaurants – with an ACSI score of 83. However, customer satisfaction diminishes 1% year over year.

This trend is common across the industry – and on a larger scale.

Of the 10 fast food restaurants that undergo satisfaction slips, half experience at least 3% declines.

Arby’s and Dunkin’ both slide 3% to 77. Chipotle Mexican Grill has the same score but tumbles 4%. Wendy’s sits near the bottom of the industry, dropping 4% to an ACSI score of 73. Subway takes the largest hit, tumbling 5% to 75.

Among full-service establishments, only one has a similar slide – Red Lobster falls 3% to 77. On the flip side, two full-service restaurants have strong customer satisfaction gains: Red Robin (up 3% to 78) and Chili’s (up 3% to 77).

Full service for the win

At a time when full-service restaurants could’ve been in serious trouble, they gave customers plenty of reasons to be satisfied.

The full-service industry surpassed the limited-service industry in food quality (and variety), beverage quality (and variety), order accuracy, store layout and cleanliness, staff courtesy, and mobile app quality.

Fast food restaurants are known for their speed but have fallen behind in this race. Let’s see if they can use that same sense of urgency to improve satisfaction and catch up to their full-service counterparts next time around.

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