June 22, 2016 | by S.A. Whitehead

There's good news for most fast food chains today from the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI). It seems the improvements they've made in the quality of food and service are starting to move the needle on customer satisfaction, according to the results of this year's polling. In fact, the improvements are significant enough to narrow what was a widening gap in this area between full-service and fast food restaurants. (Although limited-service brands lead full-service concepts in sales, the ACSI only measures customer satisfaction and has found that customers often rank full-service options higher than their limited-service counterparts.)

Big fast food winners in the annual poll that took place in March this year were Chick-fil-A and Papa John's, although all the major burger chains saw increased customer satisfaction levels. Meanwhile, the floor for this category is occupied this year by Jack in the Box and McDonald's, the two lowest-scoring fast food chains.

In the pizza category, Papa John's remained at the top, but Little Caeser's — which charted a 9 percent increase in customer satisfaction this year — is nipping at Papa's heels. Domino's and Pizza Hut both made customer satisfaction gains but remained at far lower rates in the poll overall.  

There was also good news for limited-service restaurants in this year's results, which experienced a 2.6 percent gain in customer satisfaction to finish at 79 on a 100-point scale. The gap between fast food and full-service restaurants narrowed as well, as the latter slid down 1.2 percent to 81.

More spent on eating "out" than groceries

The best news for all involved in the food service industry may be the fact that Americans have what appears to be an insatiable appetite for letting someone else do the cooking, according to polling and research experts with ACSI. 

"Americans are now spending more money dining out than shopping for groceries," said ACSI Chairman and founder, Claes Fornell. "Fast food restaurants appear to be capitalizing on this trend more than full-service restaurants, maintaining the lower prices and speedy service that has long defined the industry, while also appealing to health-conscious consumers via more diverse offerings and higher-quality ingredients."

The poll showed that this year nearly every fast food chain gained in customer satisfaction over the last 12 months, with the notable exemption of Chipotle Mexican Grill. The chain fell 6 percent from its debut near the top of the industry for customer satisfaction last year, to finish at 78 in this year's survey after a brutal round of of food-related illnesses attributed to the chain.

"Higher quality drives the improving scores for the industry, but quality issues relating to food-borne illnesses knock down Chipotle," says ACSI Managing Director David VanAmburg. "Just as Netflix's stock took a dive after the singular event of its pricing and Qwikster branding misstep in 2011, Chipotle's stock also has fallen after its food-quality crisis. Netflix rebounded rather quickly, but it can take more time for a restaurant to recover from quality issues."

Chick-fil-A returned to the top of the fast food heap, actually increasing its customer satisfaction rating this year 1 percent to 87. Papa John's had led this category before the chicken chain entered the game but now holds the No. 2 spot with its 82 rating. In fact, Little Caesar's is also in the top three, after surging 9 percent in these ratings this year to 81 to tie for third place with Panera Bread.

Other food service duals in coffee, sandwiches and burgers 

Despite all the buzz in the news about Starbucks and its community involvement over the last year, Dunkin' Donuts remains the nation's favorite coffee spot. The chain's customer service rating rose 3 percent to 80, while Starbucks gained just 1 percent to finish at 75. 

In fast food specialty sandwich chains, Arby's leaped 8 percent in customer satisfaction to 80, while Subway was up 4 percent. Both excelled over fast food burger specialists, Burger King and Wendy's. However, those two chains did manage to increase customer satisfaction this year 6 and 4 percent, respectively, to 76. Also in the fast food category, McDonald's finished last again, though customers were pleased with the availability of all-day breakfast at the drive-thru, which experienced a 3 percent jump in this year's ratings to 69. 

Still full of love for full-service dining

Full-service restaurants not only remain high in the food service category for customer "love" but they actually comprised one of the highest-scoring industries that ACSI measures. Likewise, the organization reported that full-service restaurants were among the most consistently high-ranking industries for customer service, with this year's score of 81 for the category equal to the long-term average for full-service restaurants. 

In this category, that favorite restaurant-retail hybrid of travelers everywhere, Cracker Barrel, jumped 4 percent in customer satisfaction this year to reign supreme in full-service dining with a score of 83. Second place in this sub-section was a tie between Darden's LongHorn Steakhouse (up 1 percent) and Texas Roadhouse (down 1 percent). Another Darden brand, Olive Garden, sits in third place with a 3 percent rise in customer satisfaction this year to 81. 

Most improved for the full-service category went to Ruby Tuesday, which debuted on the index last year in last place, but this year rose 7 percent to 78 to tie with TGI Fridays. Fridays actually rose 3 percent this year on the index. And finally, Chili's rose a notch to 75, while Denny's dropped 1 percent to bring up the category's rear with a 74 score.

The ACSI report was based on 4,786 customer surveys and was created to serve as a gauge of customer satisfaction for an array of products and services in the U.S. A press release about the survey said that ACSI data have proven to be strongly related to a number of essential indicators of micro and macroeconomic performance. For example, firms with higher levels of customer satisfaction tended to have higher earnings and stock returns relative to competitors, according to the release. At the macro level, customer satisfaction has been shown to be predictive of both consumer spending and gross domestic product growth. 

Topics: Business Strategy and Profitability, Customer Service / Experience, Food & Beverage

S.A. Whitehead

Award-winning veteran print and broadcast journalist, Shelly Whitehead, has spent most of the last 30 years reporting for TV and newspapers, including the former Kentucky and Cincinnati Post and a number of network news affiliates nationally. She brings her cumulative experience as a multimedia storyteller and video producer to the web-based pages of Pizzamarketplace.com and QSRweb.com after a lifelong “love affair” with reporting the stories behind the businesses that make our world go ‘round. Ms. Whitehead is driven to find and share news of the many professional passions people take to work with them every day in the pizza and quick-service restaurant industry. She is particularly interested in the growing role of sustainable agriculture and nutrition in food service worldwide and is always ready to move on great story ideas and news tips.

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