Seeking the Ideal Casual Dining Experience
Mike Baglietto |
 07/21/11 |
7 min read

Young adults in a casual restaurant

Judging from consumers’ comments, all the casual dining restaurants we’ve analyzed can deliver good food and service. But they don’t do it consistently, and that leads to dissatisfied customers, poor word-of-mouth, tarnished brand image and a drop in return business.

The six casual dining restaurant chains that have been the subject of our netnographies are Applebee’s, Olive Garden, Outback Steakhouse, Red Lobster, T.G.I. Friday’s, and The Cheesecake Factory. This post summarizes our findings on positioning and perception for this market segment.

Defining Casual Dining

To quickly define terms, Wikipedia says that:

“A casual dining restaurant is a restaurant that serves moderately priced food in a casual atmosphere. Except for buffet-style restaurants, casual dining restaurants typically provide table service. Casual dining comprises a market segment between fast food establishments and fine dining restaurants.”

Biggest Positive and Negative Themes

This table shows the biggest positive and negative theme for each restaurant.

Restaurant Biggest Positive Biggest Negative
Applebee’s Great Menu Selections Not Good Tasting
Olive Garden Great Tasting Poor Customer Service
Outback Steakhouse Great Menu Items Poor Customer Service
Red Lobster Great Menu Items Not Safe to Eat
T.G.I. Friday’s Great Menu Selections Poor Food Quality
The Cheesecake Factory Finest Cuisine Unsafe to Eat

Food and service are what matter most at a restaurant, so those are the biggest themes in consumer comments. The most-common positive theme, summarized as “great menu items or selections,” reflects the fact that diners have favorite dishes at restaurants and go there specifically for that reason. The most-common negative theme is “bad tasting or unsafe food,” which is made up of comments about poorly prepared food or food that makes a diner feel sick. “Poor customer service” is right behind as a negative theme.

Consumers React to Commercials

For one chain, Olive Garden, TV commercials were the second biggest negative theme, almost equal to the biggest negative, poor customer service. Many consumers find the artificial gaiety in the Olive Garden ads and the tie-in with the “family” theme to be forced and grating. Nevertheless, all the chains want to attract families and emphasize that in their commercials (which comedian Sheldon Cooper parodies with his line: “I don’t like the Olive Garden. They treat me like family.”)

People occasionally threaten not to go to a specific restaurant because its commercials bug them so much, but they may be saying that just for effect.

Key Insights by Restaurant

Here are the key insights from the netnography on each restaurant.

Applebee’s: “The Weight Watchers agreement, where the chain serves ‘less-caloric alternatives,’ gets mixed reviews. If the chain is going to do this, they should commit to it at all locations and provide the WW points information that diners on the WW program expect. It could be a valuable differentiator, but only if it’s executed consistently; doing it inconsistently creates ill will when a customer comes to an Applebee’s specifically for that reason, only to find this dining option is not available there.”

Olive Garden: “The customer service complaints are mostly about the long waits, which is tied to the chain’s no-reservation policy. While the long waits are a result of the chain’s popularity, they are an annoyance to consumers, several of whom said they’d go elsewhere just to be served faster. The chain must have a reason for this policy, but apparently its competitors, which accept reservations, see the pros and cons of reservations differently.”

Outback Steakhouse: “So for Outback, as for Olive Garden, it might make sense to reduce the number of tables, or boost the number of servers and kitchen staff, or take reservations, or find some way to serve the correct meal more quickly to diners. They may be able to serve fewer diners in an evening, but those diners will have—and will write about—a better experience.”

Red Lobster: “Diners aren’t all that enthusiastic about the freshness and quality of Red Lobster’s seafood—something they want to be known for, but apparently aren’t. Often diners don’t like the preparation—too much salt, butter and grease—and occasionally they find it makes them sick. If people complain to the restaurant about meals that make them sick, comping them their next meal, which many other restaurants do, is one way to make amends. Of course, identifying the source of the problem and fixing it is another.”

T.G.I. Friday’s: “The chain’s emphasis on a young vibe, lively atmosphere, bartenders, and drinks is designed to appeal to consumers between ages 21 and mid-thirties. Maybe the chain ought to focus their marketing more on that segment and downplay the appeal of the restaurants for families with young children and diners not looking to party.”

The Cheesecake Factory: “The company says it’s ‘famous for our generous portions, which are ideal for sharing or taking home,’ perhaps to imply that it’s not encouraging diners to eat their entire meal at one sitting. Probably good positioning to head off criticism from health-conscious diners, but then they say “be sure to save room to enjoy one of 50 legendary cheesecakes and specialty desserts.” If you eat an entire serving of their Pasta Carbonara, which one poster says has 2,500 calories, and then a dessert like White Chocolate Caramel Macadamia Nut Cheesecake, well, you’d better get in a lot of exercise over the next few days.”

The Ideal Casual Dining Restaurant

What would the ideal casual restaurant look like? To answer that, we’ve synthesized the themes from consumer comments and our insights, and we’ve asked an expert to put it all into words: Here’s the fictitious restaurant critic at NetBase News:

“People often ask me where I go for a casual meal when I’m not reviewing a restaurant. There’s no single chain, but the ones I go back to regularly have many good traits in common. Here’s a summary of what they do right.

  • They don’t try to be all things to all people with their menus. They’ve decided what their specialty is—seafood, pasta, steaks, healthy meals—and they “own” that positioning. If a diner is in the mood for their specialty, they’re the first place that comes to mind. If diners are looking for something else, they go elsewhere. But this approach still works out over time because people who eat out like variety, and a diner who’s looking for pasta on one night is looking for seafood on another.
  • They don’t try to be all things to all people with their ambiance. The restaurants that want to attract families use ad campaigns that make that clear. Those that want to attract twenty-somethings looking to have drinks at the bar and hook up market to that audience. The benefit is that people know what to expect and don’t come to the restaurant only to be surprised and have a bad experience.
  • They listen to customer feedback about their special dishes, refine them to please their customers’ tastes, then—and this is the hard but important part—prepare them consistently.
  • They match the capabilities of their kitchen and wait staff to the volume of customers. In other words, they don’t understaff or overbook. If they did, customers (like me) would get poorly prepared food or poor service or both—like they do now at many casual dining chains. When that happens, diners don’t come back, and they complain on the web about it, which makes other people think twice about coming to the restaurant.
  • They are obsessive about food storage and safety and monitor it very closely. Diners who get sick on a restaurant’s food love to tell people about it, and if it happens often enough, it can become part of the chain’s reputation.
  • They take reservations; seat people on time; bring them their appetizers, main dishes, desserts, and check before they have to ask where they are; and fix problems quickly and courteously. It’s called good service.
  • They hang on to their good employees—both in the kitchen and the dining room. A single surly waiter can do a lot of damage. They have waiters who know the menu, are unfailingly polite, establish good rapport with customers, and have a genuine customer-service ethic. Maybe they pay them more to retain them. If so, it’s a smart investment.”


Opinions about the food and service at these casual dining restaurants vary by each individual diner’s experience. Whether you post a positive or a negative comment online depends on what you order, how it comes out of the kitchen that night, who your waiter was and what mood he or she was in. Professional reviewers typically visit a restaurant more than once before writing their review to be sure they’re giving it a fair shake; but individual consumers usually write about a single experience (good or bad), so getting an accurate read on a restaurant requires looking at social media posts in aggregate, which our analysis does. While individual sound bites may be colorful and give a feel for how consumers express themselves, no single comment is the equivalent of a considered review by a professional restaurant reviewer.

For every restaurant, some people like the food and some don’t; some get good service and some don’t. The pie slices in the theme charts for both the good and bad of those attributes are typically large, and sometimes they’re even roughly equal. Putting aside the variable of individual preferences (I like rich cheesecake, you don’t), that points out the need for consistency. For these restaurants to improve their reviews and return business, they need to strive not only for good food and service, but for consistently good food and service in order to improve their reputations and boost their return business.

It does seem that many go for quantity over quality—they serve a lot of people; choose not to take reservations so they can be sure their tables are occupied; and boost business with lots of coupons, discounts and promotions. While it seems unfair to criticize them for any of that—volume is essential in the casual dining business—it might be smart for a chain to slow down a bit and consistently deliver high-quality food and service. That could be another differentiator and a way to improve the brand image and build a loyal following.

About Our Approach

This post is a meta-analysis of the casual dining segment based on netnographies of six restaurant chains (links provided in paragraph two above). A netnography is a form of social media analysis that is a qualitative, interpretive research methodology that adapts the traditional, in-person ethnographic research techniques of anthropology to the study of online communities.

To write each of the individual netnographies, NetBase analyzed thousands of posts from consumers about the brand. The posts are automatically sorted into Positive or Negative classifications by our natural language processing (NLP) engine, then we manually sample those posts.

To summarize a netnography, we distill our findings into useful insights about how the brand we studied is positioned and perceived. To write this meta-analysis, we reviewed insights and findings from all six individual netnographies to reach more-general conclusions about the market segment as a whole. We can provide our source data and confidence intervals for the percentages in the theme charts found in the individual netnographies upon request.

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