The restaurant industry's sales rebounded solidly during March after stumbling the previous month. Same-store sales growth was 1.2 percent in March and 1.0 percent for the first quarter of 2019. The industry is going through its strongest period of sales expansion since 2015, with four consecutive quarters of positive same-store sales growth, according to TDn2K's Black Box Intelligence™. However, chain restaurants continue to struggle with declining guest counts. Same-store traffic was -1.8 percent during March.
Restaurant guests have many options when it comes to buying food away from home. This means each guest interaction is vital for restaurant brands to develop loyal guests that will help offset this waning traffic trend. But are restaurants delighting their guests and meeting their expectations?
White Box Social Intelligence™ data reveals sentiment has indeed been increasing for restaurant guests in recent months. Guest sentiment based on chain restaurant food became more positive during each month in the first quarter compared with March of 2018. The same is true for guest sentiment based on restaurant service. This is especially important, since TDn2K research continues to show that service is a key differentiator for top performing brands based on sales growth. A common characteristic of these top performers in recent years has been delivering an experience that is driving higher service sentiment scores.
Although intent to return positive sentiment is declining slightly year over year, the overall values remain extremely high.
What food items do guests of top performing restaurant brands love? What food offerings have the highest guest sentiment among the brands with the largest same-store sales growth during the first quarter of 2019?
In the case of guests of top performing limited service brands (those in quick service and fast casual), the terms with the highest net sentiment during March were the following: sandwich, BBQ, salad, fries and chicken. Most of these terms typically come to mind when thinking about limited service restaurants. But there are guests of these segments that are looking for healthier options. Top performing brands in these segments are providing craveable salad options as a way to attract guests and drive sales.
In the case of full-service brands (casual dining, family dining, upscale casual and fine dining), the food terms with the highest guest sentiment during March were the following: sauces, desserts, steaks, parmesan and avocado. It is interesting that in the case of full service, the terms that get the highest positive sentiment were mainly ingredients versus meals. The details such as the sauce or a topping included in a dish can make all the difference in delighting the guest. Additionally, once guests have decided to sit down at a full-service restaurant and spend a little more time and money, desserts are enhancing the experience and can be powerful drivers of positive sentiment.
The relative strength of chain restaurants can be perceived not only at the national level, but throughout the country as well. All eleven regions of the country tracked by TDn2K reported positive same-store sales during March. This is something that has only happened four times in the last three years, all of them within the last twelve months.
As could be expected, guest sentiment is also positive in all regions of the country. For the fourth time in the last five months, over 50 percent of all restaurant online mentions and reviews were positive in each of the eleven regions.
Florida not only has the market with the highest sentiment on multiple restaurant attributes, it was also the region with the most positive sentiment overall during March. It was the only region in which over 60 percent of all mentions and reviews were positive. The Mountain Plains and Western region rounded up the list of the most positive regions during March.
The regions with the least positive restaurant sentiment during March were the Southwest, New England, and New York-New Jersey. The last two are frequent inclusions in the list of least positive sentiment each month.
The Restaurant Guest Satisfaction Snapshot is produced by White Box Social Intelligence™, a TDn2K Product™. WBSI is tracking over 192 brands to benchmark customer satisfaction and is the only online tool that integrates with operational performance data to validate the impact on financial performance. The algorithm determining ranking brands is based on sentiment and determined by White Box Social Intelligence. Brands included in this monthly snapshot must have a total of at least 250 mentions for the month. Restaurants must have a minimum number of units to be eligible as well. DMA rankings consider only the largest 25 areas.