Full-service restaurants are leaving diners unsatisfied

The full-service restaurant industry is getting burned by lower-cost rivals. 

Sit-down restaurants like TGI Fridays and Red Robin (RRGB) are losing their hold on American diners as reflected in the latest American Customer Satisfaction Index, which tracked the lowest score for the category in more than 10 years. For the first time, fast-food restaurants are actually scoring higher in consumer satisfaction than their higher-end rivals, the report said. 

The fast-food industry is innovating through chains such as Panera (PNRA), which offer a bridge between traditional burger restaurants and more expensive sit-down chains. At the same time, consumers are increasingly skipping the mall, where many of the big American full-service restaurants have key locations. 

Delivering a satisfying experience may also be more challenging for table-service restaurants, given that customers will want to feel the meal is worth the additional cost. 

"The quality of quick-service or limited-service options have grown so much over the years. When people think fast food, it's not just McDonald's or Wendy's any more," said ACSI director David VanAmburg. "We're seeing prices rise in the full-service side of the business, and that's adding to their challenges going forward." 

Customer satisfaction with full-service restaurants slipped 3.7 percent to 78 points on the ACSI's 100-point scale. Fast-food chains, by comparison, held steady at 79 points. The results are based on a survey of almost 5,600 customers between June 2016 and May 2017. 

Demographic changes may be partly to blame. Millennials, the biggest generation in America, prefer to cook at home or spend less on eating out, which may be giving fast-casual chains like Panera a boost. Meal-kit services such as Blue Apron may also be squeezing sit-down restaurants, given some consumers' desire to make their own meals with recipe kits. 

A few restaurant chains are doing a better job than others in serving up a satisfying experience, the ACSI found. 

The top-rated full-service restaurant is Cracker Barrel (CBRL), a folksy chain with Southern-style food. It marked its second year at the top of consumer ratings, scoring 84 points. 

On the other end is Red Robin, which dropped 7 points in the ACSI's ratings, earning a score of 73 this year, compared with 80 a year earlier. A burger chain with sit-down service, Red Robin has been testing delivery and catering, as well as reevaluating its mall options, ACSI said.

Still, some reviewers on Yelp have been unfavorably comparing the cost of a burger at Red Robin with fast-food restaurants. "For $14, I would have rather gotten 2 Five Guys burgers instead," one customer wrote in December. 

In the fast-food category, the winner was Chick-fil-A, a chain that has earned a cult following for its chicken-focused menu and friendly service. It scored 87 points, on par with its rating a year earlier. 

McDonald's (MCD) was rated the least satisfactory fast food chain, earning a score of 69. Even though America's biggest fast-food chain has stood at or near the bottom of ACSI's ratings for a few years, it's seeking to revive its fortunes under CEO Steve Easterbrook. 

Regarding those efforts, VanAmburg said: "We're not seeing it yet" reflected in customer satisfaction scores. "McDonald's caters to a particular clientele that knows McDonald's well, and has felt positive, negative or indifferent about the reputation of McDonald's for a very long time."

He added that "one of the things that becomes potentially problematic for a chain like McDonald's is if you roll out new things. It's taking a clientele that's used to Big Macs and McNuggets and says, 'Hey we want you to try something else.' There is sometimes a bit of a challenge when a chain tries to reinvent itself."

Here are the ratings for individual full-service and fast-food chains. "All other" represents smaller chains and individual restaurants. 

Full-service restaurants:

1. Cracker Barrel (84)

2. Texas Roadhouse (82)

3. Olive Garden (81)

4. Red Lobster (81)

5. Outback Steakhouse (80)

6. Applebee's (79)

7. All others (78)

8. Ruby Tuesday (78)

9. Chili's (77)

10. LongHorn Steakhouse (77)

11. Denny's (76)

12. TGI Fridays (76)

13. Red Robin (73)

Limited-service chains: 

1. Chick-fil-A (87)

2. All others (82)

3. Panera (82)

4. Papa John's (82)

5. Subway (81)

6. Arby's (80)

7. Chipotle Mexican Grill (79)

8. Dunkin' Donuts (79)

9. Domino's (78)

10. KFC (78)

11. Little Caesars (78)

12. Burger King (77)

13. Starbucks (77)

14. Pizza Hut (76)

15. Taco Bell (76)

16. Wendy's (76)

17. Jack in the Box (75)

18. McDonald's (69)