The American Customer Satisfaction Index shows a steady decline for traditional dining.

By Mike Pomranz
Updated June 21, 2017
chipotle bowl acsi customers finds fast food to be more satisfying
Credit: Courtesy of William Brinson / Chipotle

It’s no secret that full service restaurants have been facing a threat from faster options, especially fast casual restaurants that try to offer higher quality food, quickly and at a lower price point – a mix that appeals to younger generations. But a new report from the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) shows just how far full-service restaurants have sunk: For the first time ever, limited-service restaurants scored better than full-service restaurants in customer satisfaction.

To be fair, ACSI’s annual results can be pretty fickle. Just two years ago, a down year for fast food had full-service boasting one of its larger leads – five points. Meanwhile, in 2012, the two categories were running neck and neck. Even this year, fast food only topped full-service by one point – a score of 79 to 78. Still, the fact that after a decade, fast food finally took over the lead from its more formal competition, coupled with 2017 marking full-service’s lowest score over that same period, would seem to be a bad sign for the future of sit-down dining. “Lower customer satisfaction is a major threat to the restaurant business,” said Claes Fornell, ACSI founder and chairman. “If a lower-price competitor has higher customer satisfaction than a rival that competes on quality, the latter is obviously in serious trouble.”

The 5,500 customers surveyed claimed that full-service chains lacked a good variety of food options, had poor drink quality and offered slower service than in the previous year. “They’re paying more, but not really getting more for it,” ACSI’s managing director David VanAmburg, told NBC News. Meanwhile, a new batch of fast food chains is offering not just convenience but also healthier options than the burger chains of yore. “It’s now about a number of newer, more dynamic, more diverse types of fast casual choices that really stress innovation and the quality of the food they’re serving,” said VanAmburg.

Just as “fast food” has learned to innovate, it’s sensible to think that the sit-down chains will find ways to adapt as well – though currently, that seems to be with a “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em mentality.” For instance, both Hooters and Buffalo Wild Wings recently announced they’d be dipping their toe into the fast casual game. Here’s one possible strategy: Make service at those restaurants so terrible customers are yearning for the days of full-service again.