Let’s hope it’s familiarity that’s breeding customer contempt for large casual dining chains and not their food and service. As the results of the just-released American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) make clear, it’s smaller chains and independent restaurants that are delivering what diners expect from a full-service restaurant experience these days. Customers are still somewhat enamored with the big chains, but they love them a little less—in some cases, a lot less—than they did even a year ago.

The 2014 edition of the annual ACSI study found that overall customer satisfaction with restaurants is holding steady. The industry posted the same score—an 80 on ACSI’s 100-point scale—as it has for the last three years. However, a closer look at the individual components that make up the overall score suggests that customers have grown weary of large national chains. They’re getting more of what they want from newer, smaller industry players.

Consider. Overall, satisfaction with full-service restaurants gained 1.2 percent to climb to a score of 82 on the ACSI scale. What’s striking is that the five casual dining brands ACSI uses as the proxy for the overall industry all showed declines in their scores. Some were quite significant. Olive Garden posted a loss of four percent on its ACSI score, Red Lobster was down six percent and Applebee’s and Chili’s fell five percent each. Outback Steakhouse was the best performer of the group. But its ACSI score was still in negative territory, off just one percent.

Meanwhile, the catchall “all others” category, where smaller full-service chains and independent restaurants reside, rose two percent. That was enough to offset the declines posted by the five big chains and move the full-service category into positive territory for the year.

Here’s ASCI’s analysis of the full-service customer satisfaction landscape.

“This year’s small gain is driven by improvement in smaller chains and restaurants, which make up the bulk of the sit-down industry. The combined ACSI score for these restaurants climbs two percent to lead the category at 83,” the organization notes. “In contrast, customer satisfaction with each of the five largest full-service brands declines. In a weaker economy, price plays a more important role in determining dining preferences and smaller restaurants that compete on quality rather than price may be more challenged to thrive. But in a strong or improving economy—as is the case now—the opposite is true.”

Among limited service restaurants, “all others” was again the big winner, reflecting the rise of fast casual restaurants. Satisfaction scores for this part of the market rose two percent. Yet only one of the 12 large chains tracked by ACSI recorded a higher score than the previous year: Yum Brands’ Pizza Hut. The other 11 were down, with Yum Brands’ KFC falling nine percent, Dunkin’ Donuts and Subway sinking six percent each and Starbucks off five percent.

As was true for full-service, increased satisfaction with smaller chains—in this case, fast casual brands like Panera and Chipotle—was enough to offset big losses by the giant fast food players. Overall satisfaction in the limited service category held steady with an ACSI score of 80. It’s the high water mark for the quick-serve segment and underscores the increasing influence of fast casual players. 

“This is a considerable transformation for an industry that posted scores in 60s throughout the 1990s and never exceeded an ACSI score of 70 until 2001,” says David VanAmburg, ACSI director. “Price has always been a strong point for fast food, but fast casual restaurants have been improving quality and service at such a brisk pace that customer satisfaction with fast food is nearly as high as dine-in restaurants.”

ACSI bills itself as an independent national measure of customer satisfaction. It annually surveys more than 70,000 U.S. consumers to compile its rankings, quizzing them about their experience with companies in 43 different industries, including restaurants. ACSI is designed, conducted and analyzed by the National Quality Research Center, located at the Stephen M. Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. ACSI gives operators a valuable big-picture look at key aspects of restaurant industry performance.

You can download the full report for free at www.theACSI.org. But given the market shifts documented by this year’s data, let’s hope the organization starts breaking out numbers for key fast casual players in future reports. Related articles Customers rekindle love of full-service restaurants QSR Sees Gain in Guest Scores Research shows customers want more value at full-service restaurants