Restaurant response to COVID-19: 2 chains that elevated customer satisfaction, and 2 that failed to deliver

There was every reason to believe full-service restaurants were going to struggle compared to limited-service chains during the pandemic.

Not only did limited-service chains already have the proven business model to support expanded carry out and delivery, but customer satisfaction with full-service restaurants was already diminishing prior to COVID-19, down 2.5% to a score of 79, according to the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) 2019-2020 Restaurant Report.

Amazingly, that’s not what happened.

Per our new special COVID-19 restaurant study based on surveys collected from April 1, 2020 to Sept. 30, 2020, customer satisfaction with full-service restaurants climbs 1.3% to a score of 80, outperforming fast-food restaurants, which remain unchanged at 78.

Of course, as is always the case, some restaurants thrived, and others did not. Here’s a look at the two full-service restaurants that upped their customer satisfaction game during the pandemic and the two chains that failed to deliver.

Chili’s rises from the ashes

At the time of our last Restaurant Report, Chili’s sat at the bottom of the full-service industry with an ACSI score of 75. That’s no longer the case.

Chili’s climbs 4% to 78, tying five other full-service chains – Applebee’s, Cracker Barrel, LongHorn Steakhouse, Outback Steakhouse, and Red Robin. It now sits just two points off the industry lead.

While Chili’s doesn’t lead any of the customer experience benchmarks – and remains mostly in the middle of the pack – it’s made slight gains in multiple areas, including food quality and food variety. Customers agree that the restaurant’s biggest improvement is in store speed.

Red Robin flies out of the cellar

Red Robin wasn’t in the basement like Chili’s, but it was pretty close, tied with both Denny’s and Ruby Tuesday at 76. Red Robin has since flown in the right direction.

Red Robin jumps 3% into a six-way tie at 78. The gourmet burger chain makes small strides in courtesy, layout and cleanliness, order accuracy, and beverage variety. According to the data, Red Robin makes serious progress in terms of store speed and mobile reliability, placing it near the top of the industry in both areas.

LongHorn Steakhouse falls from first

Earlier this year, LongHorn Steakhouse led all full-service restaurants with an ACSI score of 81. Its rule was brief, and its fall was hard.

LongHorn Steakhouse joins Chili’s, Red Robin, and three other brands at 78 after plunging 4%. Its grip over the other chains in many of the customer experience benchmarks also disappears.

Save for mobile quality and reliability, LongHorn Steakhouse tumbles across the board. Customers find it especially worse in beverage quality, food quality, layout and cleanliness, order accuracy – all areas it once held or tied for the lead.

Red Lobster sinks toward the bottom

Red Lobster was previously tied with Olive Garden and Cracker Barrel with an ACSI score of 79. It’s since sunk below them both (among others).

The seafood chain now sits closer to the bottom of the industry after dropping 3% to 77. Aside from mobile app quality, where it remains steady, Red Lobster declines in every customer experience benchmark.

Per the data, its biggest drop-offs occur in beverage quality, staff courtesy, order accuracy, and store speed, where Red Lobster now scores closer to the bottom of the fast-food industry.

Full-service restaurants rise to the occasion

Full-service restaurants were on shaky ground when we released our latest Restaurant Report; just one restaurant improved, while seven out of 12 saw customer satisfaction slip.

Yet, since that time, the industry has shown toughness, resiliency, and flexibility. Now, six fast-food chains see customer satisfaction growth, and the industry is improving in many areas, including beverage quality, food quality, staff courtesy, order accuracy, service speed, and mobile app reliability.

While some restaurants struggled to meet customer needs during the pandemic, many identified their weaknesses and turned things around. All four of these full-service chains may have the same ACSI score of 78, but the paths they took to get there made all the difference.

Restaurants that want to do the same might want to take a page out of the Chili’s and Red Robin playbook.

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