Americans are growing increasingly tired of fast food.
As the economy improves, more people are choosing quality over price when they dine out, according to the new American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) survey released on Tuesday.
Satisfaction with full-service restaurants held steady this year: 82 out of 100 points. That compares with just 77 for fast food restaurants, the category's lowest score in five years. The report noted that the five point gap between fast-food and full-service restaurants is the largest since 2010. (Read the full report, which is based on a survey of more than 5,000 adults in the first quarter of this year.)
"As we get more money in our pockets, we begin to shop around for a dining out experience based on the quality of the experience that we would like to have rather than the price that we want to pay," said ACSI's managing director David VanAmburg.
The top-rated full-service restaurants are both steakhouses -- newcomer Texas Roadhouse, making its debut in the survey with a winning score of 83 points, and LongHorn Steakhouse, with 81 points.
Among fast-food restaurants, Chick-fil-A was the runaway favorite in its first year in the survey. Its score of 86 was the highest level of customer satisfaction ever recorded by a fast-food or "limited service" restaurant.
Many of the most familiar names in the fast-food industry took a licking in this year's results. Subway dropped one percent to tie the industry average at 77. All the other fast-food heavyweights declined from last year and remain well below the industry average. Arby's scored a 74, while Wendy's and KFC were tied at 73, and Burger King, Jack in the Box and Taco Bell were tied at 72. McDonald's was in last place at 67, a drop of six percent.
In fact, Dunkin' Donuts was the only fast-food chain to improve its customer satisfaction score since last year, up four percent to 78. That puts Dunkin' Donuts ahead of Starbucks (74), which dropped three percent.
Why are the fast-food heavyweights suffering? "Consumer perception is that the traditional burger chains are becoming a bit tired," VanAmburg said. "They're just not keeping up with the newer kids on the block, like Chipotle and Panera Bread, companies that offer a fresher alternative; something that's different and better."
Classed as "fast casual" restaurants, Chipotle Mexican Grill (83) and Panera Bread (80), had a strong showing, well above the industry average of 77.
The four major pizza chains also suffered big drops: Papa John's (78) and Pizza Hut (78) dropped five percent, Domino's (75) fell six percent and Little Caesars (74) tumbled eight percent.
The report says pizza chains have increasingly competed on price for the past several years, "sometimes at the expense of quality ingredients and that is now beginning to have a negative effect on customer satisfaction."
Full-service Restaurants Shed Menu Items
While the overall satisfaction score for full-service restaurants held steady this year, some are still changing their approach to appeal to customers. Many that used to boast expansive menus that had something for everyone are simplifying their menus to concentrate on doing fewer things better. The report notes that Olive Garden, Red Lobster and Chili's are all shedding menu items to speed up service.
In addition to the two steakhouse chains that won the full-service category, other top performers were Cracker Barrel (80 points), Olive Garden (79), Outback Steakhouse (78) and Applebee's (78). In the middle of the pack were Red Lobster (77) and Red Robin (77), while TGI Fridays (76), Denny's (75), Chili's (74) and Ruby Tuesday (73) were at the bottom.