According to the latest American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) survey, customer satisfaction with full-service restaurants is back up to pre-pandemic levels, topping all other industries included in the index along with athletic shoes and soft drinks.

Results from the same survey showed the fast-food category climbing 3 percentage points up to 78 out of 100. By brand, Chick-fil-A leads the restaurant industry, topping the chart for the ninth consecutive year.

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“This year we’re seeing customer satisfaction returning to pre-pandemic levels for full-service dining, while fast food outlets have rebounded to within a point of their 2019 score,” says Forrest Morgeson, assistant professor of marketing at Michigan State University and director of research emeritus at the ACSI. “This good news is tempered, though, by increasing inflationary pressures, which are already slowing traffic. Sooner rather than later, the industry is going to feel the pinch, and price competition and value will matter.”

Within the full-service restaurants category, Outback Steakhouse moved into the top spot after rising 8 percent, to an ACSI score of 83. The survey’s authors suggested the brand’s rollout of handheld ordering tablets, and new ovens and grills, helped the brand improve its order accuracy, food quality and food menu variety scores.

Two additional steakhouses–LongHorn Steakhouse and Texas Roadhouse–each climbed 3 percent to meet Cracker Barrel (up 5 percent) in second place at 82 apiece. ACSI said that three of the top four scores belonging to steakhouses could soon be negatively impacted if record cattle prices continue.

“With beef prices on the rise, these brands may face challenges in managing price increases and supply chain pressures,” added Morgeson. “On the other hand, the current inflationary environment is benefiting some of these brands as higher-income consumers opt for more affordable chain restaurants over pricier alternatives. This is definitely worth monitoring.”

Overall, the industry seems to be emerging from the Covid-19 pandemic strong, with almost all restaurateurs improving customer satisfaction. Only two full-service restaurants experience a customer satisfaction slip: Fridays, down 1 percent to 77, and IHOP, down 1 percent to an ACSI score of 72—the worst mark in the industry.

Restaurant prices increased 8.8 percent over the last year, according to the study, marking the first time since mid-2021 that eating out is costing consumers more than eating in. Even so, perceived value among customers has improved.

Perceived value with full-service restaurants is up 3 percent overall, while quality gains increased 4 percent.

Applebee’s, which actually raised menu prices according to the survey, gained 7 percent in quality and 5 percent in value. The authors said that company’s value-based promotions and all-you-can-eat deals are particularly attractive to clientele who are “trading down” due to inflation but still looking for full-service experiences

The ACSI Restaurant Study 2023-2023 is based on interviews with 16,250 customers, chosen at random and contacted via email between April 2022 and March 2023. The study also reveals customer satisfaction with key components of the dining experience, including restaurant layout and cleanliness, beverage variety, food variety, courtesy and helpfulness of staff, and more.