The difference between ‘OK’ and ‘delightful’ restaurant experiences

May 15, 2014 | by Alicia Kelso

Market Force Information recently polled more than 6,100 consumers on what their favorite restaurant brands are based on their best experiences. The research study attempted to gauge the difference between an “OK” dining experience and one that "delighted" the customer.

OK vs. Delighted
According to the data, 59 percent of customers who tried a new restaurant said it was bad or OK, while 41 percent were delighted. Of those who expressed dissatisfaction, the top reasons given were that the price was too high for the value, poor food quality and it took too long to receive an order. Notably, “delighted” customers are nearly 8 times more likely to recommend a restaurant than those who just had an “OK” experience.

Market Force CMO Janet Eden-Harris said consumers were asked to rate a restaurant they had visited recently for the first time, and those who rated the experience a “5 out of 5” on satisfaction were eight times more likely to recommend the restaurant to others than those who rated the experience a “4 out of 5.”

“That’s a stunning difference between two scores that look close to the casual observer,” she said.

For brands to effectively compete, she suggests they:

  • Know what matters most to your customers; observe and measure what is going on in your restaurants. “Understanding what matters most to drive sales will require an analytics model leveraging customer survey data, audit/mystery shopping data and sales data,” she said.
  • Train your teams to follow those behaviors. Install programs to make sure your restaurants are executing.
  • Consistently measure performance across every location using multiple tools such as customer surveys, mystery shopping and internal audit teams.
  • Reward staff for executing. “It’s the best investment a brand can make,” she said.
  • Keep on measuring. “I think the encouraging news for most brands is that, in almost every case, once the data reveals what behaviors and characteristics will create the biggest lift, those four, five or six things are often not difficult to do,” Eden-Harris said. “It usually centers around the greeting and attentiveness, offering upsells of some kind, having consistent cleanliness and delivering on food preparation and timeliness. It’s less costly than an advertising campaign, and it works.”

Most respondents reported that they had visited a QSR for lunch or dinner at least two to three times in the previous month, with slightly more dining out for lunch. One-third said that they eat out at least three times a week at a QSR.


Among the macrotrends that emerged from the study, 55 percent of respondents said they participate in loyalty programs offered by QSRs and, of those, 48 percent participate in three or more programs. This was the first year the loyalty question was asked, based on what brands wanted to know about their customers. Eden-Harris admitted she was surprised by the high adoption and participation rates of loyalty programs, but added it’s a good surprise.

“What do loyalty programs encourage consumers to do? To come back more often. Consistent with every benchmark research study that we’ve done in this industry for the past several years, the best way to ensure that consumers come back more often, spend more when they do, and tell their friends, is to delight them when they visit. Every restaurant, every time,” she said.


Another new stat from the report: 60 percent had visited a restaurant with a Coca-Cola Freestyle dispenser and, of those, 94 percent used it.  

“I was actually impressed with the Coca-Cola Freestyle’s presence and the fact that 7 out of 10 consumers gave the experience of using the machine a 5 out of 5 satisfaction rating, and that almost half (43 percent) said that the Freestyle fountain machine would make them more inclined to return to that restaurant. That’s pretty impressive,” Eden-Harris said.

Brand rankings

Finally, Market Force research also revealed consumer brand preferences based on a variety of attributes in four categories – pizza, Mexican, sandwiches and chicken. Highlights are included below.


Papa Murphy’s is the favorite pizza chain among respondents, standing out for food and service. Pizza Ranch ranked second, and Papa John’s was third.

“The model of take-and-bake is a real winner for consumers. When we look at how Papa Murphy’s was rated on various attributes, they won by wide margins on ‘high quality food’ and friendly service,” Eden-Harris said. “You can deliver that with the take-and-bake model that I think gives them an edge. But note that Pizza Ranch does almost as well in those categories in their more traditional fast casual setting. So it’s about the food quality and service above all, however you deliver it.”

CiCi’s Pizza, Domino’s and Pizza Hut also rated high in satisfaction, but consumers were less likely to recommend them to friends and family.

Pizza consumers were asked to rank the pizza chains based on attributes such as food quality, customer service, atmosphere and overall value. Papa Murphy’s rated first for both quality and healthy food, and second in fast service and value. Pizza Ranch received the most votes for atmosphere and accommodating children, and CiCi’s was second in both categories. The fastest service went to Little Caesar’s, while CiCi’s took the top spot for value. Pizza Hut also fared well, ranking in the top five for most of the attributes studied, a Market Force release said.


Qdoba is No. 1 for Mexican, edging out Chipotle and Moe’s, although Chipotle topped both in the food categories. Del Taco, Taco John’s and Taco Bell also made it into the top six.

Study participants were asked to select the attributes that described their most recent experience, and Chipotle’s offerings stood out with diners, who ranked it first in the healthy food and quality food categories. Qdoba led the pack for fast and friendly service, and was second in most of the other attributes, including food and atmosphere. Moe’s claimed the top spot for atmosphere and ranked in the top four of every other category. Taco John’s was named the most kid-friendly, and Del Taco topped the other chains in value.


Firehouse Subs and Panera Bread are far-and-away the nation’s preferred sandwich chains, according to Market Force’s study. Firehouse Subs earned a 68-percent Composite Loyalty Score, followed by Panera Bread with 62 percent and Jimmy John’s with 54 percent. Subway, Arby’s and Tim Horton’s also ranked high on the list.

Sandwich restaurant concepts are broadly doing well by offering innovative food options to consumers who seek out convenience, variety and nutrition. Firehouse Subs has made inroads with diners with its specialty hot sandwiches and support of public safety organizations and causes, the release said.

For attributes, Panera Bread had the top votes in the quality food, healthy food and atmosphere categories. Firehouse Subs was the favorite in friendly service and accommodating children, and took second place in quality food and atmosphere. Subway was the value leader, followed by Tim Horton’s and Jimmy John’s.

Subway, the world’s largest restaurant chain by unit count, sits in the midline of customer satisfaction and likelihood to recommend. Eden-Harris said this is because it’s harder for such a big, ubiquitous brand to score in the “exceptional quadrant” when considering satisfaction levels.

“The very thing that makes them attractive to consumers — the same food, really reasonable prices and fact that I can find them almost anywhere — tends to have consumers view them as a good ‘safe’ choice, but not a ‘wow’ choice,” she said.


Finally, Raising Cane’s edged out Chick-fil-A in the chicken category, followed by Zaxby’s, Wingstop, El Pollo Loco and Boston Market.

The top three overall favorite chicken chains also fared well in the quality food category, with Raising Cane’s ranking first, Chick-fil-A second and Zaxby’s third. Raising Cane’s also performed well in the service-oriented attributes, including the top spot for fast service. El Pollo Loco and Boston Market were tied for healthy food, and El Pollo Loco was also the value leader, followed by Church’s Chicken. Chick-fil-A ranked highest for friendly service, atmosphere and accommodating children, as well as in the top three for quality and healthy food.  

Photo provided by Realenvirosolutionsales.


Topics: Customer Service / Experience, Operations Management, Staffing & Training, Trends / Statistics

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