Apologies to Cracker Barrel. 

Mike Pomranz
June 26, 2018

Attempting to objectively determine America’s favorite restaurant chains isn’t an easy task. Sales are a big indicator, but these figures are heavily influenced by things like number of locations and pricing. Another annual metric is “customer loyalty,” but even the Los Angeles Clippers have loyal fans, proving that loyalty doesn’t always equal quality. So for its annual restaurant rankings, the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) attempts to quantify exactly what its name implies — customer satisfaction — surveying over 22,500 people about their overall dining experiences.

The biggest news for 2018 is that, after a shocking swap last year, full-service restaurants have once again beaten out quick-service restaurants. In 2017, fast food customer satisfaction topped sit-down eateries for the first time in the survey’s decade-plus history. Diners have apparently been happier with their food service in general in the past year, with overall scores increasing by nearly two percentage points, but the biggest gains happened in full-service, where customer satisfaction was up an impressive 3.8 percent.

Leading that full-service charge was Texas Roadhouse: The steak chain saw a slight increase in its score, which was enough to launch it into the top spot after last year’s number one, Cracker Barrel, dropped 4 percentage points, the steepest drop of any sit-down chain, but still good enough to earn the road trip standby second place. Meanwhile, LongHorn Steakhouse saw its score jump five percentage points to finish third among the 12 restaurants on the list. But that wasn’t the largest gain on the full-service list: Red Robin had a banner year, seeing its score jump eight points to move the burger chain out of the basement and into the middle of the pack.

On the limited-service side, Chick-fil-A remained steady with a customer satisfaction score of 87, the highest of any restaurant on both lists, and a huge six points higher than the number two quick-service brand: Panera Bread. Despite dropping two points, Papa John’s finished third. But one of its competitors was hot on its trail: Pizza Hut saw the biggest improvement in its score in the fast food category, gaining five points to finish fourth. In general, the 17 limited-service chains on the list held pretty steady from last year, though Taco Bell also slipped three points to finish next-to-last with a score of 74. But don’t worry: McDonald’s was still there, holding down the bottom spot, with a paltry score of just 69.

So what’s behind 2018’s increased overall satisfaction? A deeper dive into individual customer service benchmarks saw improvement in three categories: accuracy of food order, speed of check-out or delivery, and quality of food. Needless to say, if restaurants are getting you food faster without getting your order wrong, and offering better eats to boot, that sounds like a recipe for success.

“As the economy improves, consumers have more money to spend, and they’re dining out more,” David VanAmburg, ACSI’s managing director said in a statement. “At the same time, restaurants are adapting their menus and technology in line with shifting consumer preferences, as millennial tastes for fresh food, mobile ordering, and automated kiosks take hold. The bottom line: Restaurants are working hard to please consumers, and the latest ACSI scores show that it’s paying off.”