Nonstop news stories about strikes by low-wage restaurant workers and schedule reductions operators impose to sidestep mandatory health insurance requirements are beginning to register with customers. Now restaurant patrons are saying that how well operators take care of their staffs has become a key determinant of where those patrons will eat.

That’s the key takeaway from a new Restaurant Demand Tracker study conducted by Consumer Edge Insight. The Stamford, CT-based company’s April 2013 online survey queried 3,100 U.S. consumers who visit restaurants at least once a month.
One big surprise here: awareness. Who knew restaurant patrons had the slightest concern about how well the people who cook their food, wait their tables and wash their dishes are being compensated?

A second surprise: how much it matters. All the time, money and effort operators put into giving back to their communities and sourcing sustainable ingredients turns out to be not that important to the people who participated in this survey. Restaurant employee welfare is a bigger deal to them by roughly a two-to-one margin.

Survey results show that 48 percent of restaurant consumers prefer to visit restaurants that take good care of their employees. Just 26 percent prefer to patronize restaurants that give back to their communities. And only 25 percent said they prefer to dine in restaurants that obtain their food from sustainable sources.

Both factors were slightly more important for a trio of demographic groups: Hispanics, 18- to 34-year-old customers and women. Yet all three still ranked employee welfare as the key value by a wide margin.

“As many restaurant companies seek to strengthen their brand images by engaging in responsible business practices, it’s important to understand which practices are the most important to consumers when deciding which restaurant to visit,” says Consumer Edge Insight president David Decker. “While protecting the environment and supporting the community are important to some restaurant-goers, the most beneficial thing a restaurant company can do is treat its own employees well.  This has the added benefit of contributing to a better service experience for customers if employees are happier and better motivated.  And a good service experience is critical for keeping customers coming back.”