HOW MANY TIMES HAVE YOU WISHED YOU WERE A MIND READER because of the unpredictability of your customers? They're not always straightforward, particularly when you're talking to them in your restaurants. Outside, however, customers will often speak their mind to others. That's why RESTAURANT HOSPITALITY recently commissioned consumer research to provide original and actionable information about consumer usage and ordering habits that you can take to the bank.
The research captured consumer frequency of eating at full-service restaurants on weekdays and weekends; how often they eat at your restaurants for breakfast, lunch and dinner; the types of restaurants they've eaten at in the past six months and what makes them want to return to a restaurant.
We also asked your customers about items ordered for breakfast, lunch and dinner, including shairng appetizers and desserts, and what items they avoid when counting calories.
Beyond what they eat, the people you serve were also asked if they participate in frequent dining programs and how often they use coupons from mailings and newspapers. Do they use takeout service? We asked them that, and we also asked them about brand recognition and how placement of nationally known brands influences them. Here's what they told us:
On average, consumers eat out at fullservice restaurants more than once a week (5.5 times a month). Men visit restaurants (6.2 times a month) more than women (4.7).
Demographic factors such as age and household income also impact the frequency with which consumers eat at full-service restaurants. Consumers with an income of $75,000 or more and those 50 years, or older visit your restaurants significantly more than younger and less affluent customers do.
This bit of information may not come as a surprise to you, but it's interesting from a sociological standpoint. While American popular culture is obsessed with youth, in the world of full-service restaurants, older customers butter your bread.
If you've been targeting your marketing programs toward men, you've been on track. Men simply eat out more at breakfast, lunch and dinner than women do. You can also count on older (50 plus diners) to visit you more during all dayparts. Also consider this: the 35-49 age group, which also has a lot of dining-out clout, will show up less often at dinner, possibly because they have children to take care of at home.
Nearly one quarter of consumers eat at full-service restaurants at least once every weekend. On average, they eat out about three weekend days a month. Those who visit you on weekends are affluent, though age and gender are less likely to impact weekend visitation. Your customers' willingness to spend time with you on the weekends (typically for dinner on Fridays and Saturdays) suggests that you may want to consider offering brunch.
Weekdays are another story. More than half of consumers eat out less than one weekday each week. This detail suggests that a lot more of your marketing and promotion dollars should be targeted to getting customers to your restaurant during the week. The weekend, it appears, will take care of itself.
FOODS CUSTOMERS LIKE
What were once considered ethnic food—Chinese, Mexican and Italian— have gone mainstream, the statistics suggest. These top three categories were among the most popular diningout choices of the consumers we queried. Steak restaurants were right up there as well.
Another trend our study found: Men are more likely than women to eat in Chinese, steak, barbecue and Japanese restaurants. For that matter, men dominate the other dining out categories as well.
On the other hand, younger customers (18-34) love Mexican restaurants, with Italian close behind.
Affluent customers, our research says, are more likely to frequent Italian, barbecue, Chinese and seafood restaurants.
When we talked to customers about why they visit restaurants, we found some surprises. Two of the top three most important factors in gaining repeat customers focused on the quality and freshness of the food served. No surprise here. But the other critical factor is cleanliness. Certainly everybody wants to eat in a clean restaurant, but what surprised us is that it ranked ahead of atmosphere.
Here are some other details surrounding reasons for repeat visits:
- Women are more likely than men to return to a restaurant because of food quality and atmosphere.
- Patrons over 35 put more emphasis on cleanliness, atmosphere, location and the ability to be seated upon arrival.
- Younger patrons, on the other hand, emphasize value for the money, social atmosphere and the restaurant's ability to accommodate children easily .
- Not surprisingly, the importance of "good value for the money" as a factor in repeat visits is strongly correlated with the level of income.
This industry's strong focus on food safety appears to be on track. The research suggests that if customers believe your restaurant is not clean, then their trust in your operation and desire to return are diminished.
ORDERING DECISION INFLUENCES
The merchandising techniques that most influence ordering decisions are menu boards that list specials and in-menu clip-on additions. And when it comes to table tents and dessert displays, younger customers are significantly more likely than their older counterparts to be influenced by them.
How many times have you heard someone say, "I go to restaurants to eat something I can't prepare at home?" Ironically, our research does not back up that statement, except when it comes to seafood restaurants. The more exotic meats, such as veal, lamb and duck, are ordered infrequently, though customers give you kudos for preparing them.
Despite talk of America's increasingly sophisticated palate, steak is still the most frequently ordered food item, though consumers are evenly split on whether it is better prepared at home or in a restaurant. Those in the business know it's no contest. Restaurants menuing steak might consider a marketing program that convinces customers that the steak they eat in your restaurant (because of aging and the high levels of heat that can't be achieved at home) is better than what they can make at home.
ORDERING FROM A SPECIALS MENU
The specials you serve are a huge opportunity. More than twothirds of consumers order from specials menus at full-service restaurants, primarily because they perceive these specials offer a better price/value. Customers also look to specials for new and unique menu items.
With so many customers ordering specials, you'd be wise to look at this part of your menu as a chance to boost check averages while creating a point of differentiation between you and your competitors.
On the other hand, if you've been offering a specials menu that is not so special because your offerings change too infrequently, you may not be profiting from this part of the menu as you should.
Appetizers are most frequently ordered at dinner to share with others at the table and are least frequently ordered at lunch with an entrèe. Time is a likely factor here, but so too may be their desire to eat lighter because they have to return to work.
You may want to consider a prix-fixe lunch offering that includes a light appetizer, a small entrèe and a light dessert for what your customers perceive to be a reasonable price —even though it will lead to overall higher check averages for you.
When it comes to appetizers, gender and age influence the frequency with which they are ordered. Men are more likely than women to order an appetizer with their entrèe, while women are significantly more likely to order an appetizer as their meal.
Customers 50 years and older are significantly less likely than their younger counterparts to order appetizers for any occasion.
One last point about appetizers: customers at fullservice restaurants prefer to share an appetizer with others rather than eat it themselves. This is particularly true of women and those under the age of 50.
For this reason, a simple marketing strategy may be to create a box on your menu titled "Appetizers to Share." You may not have to change a thing about the appetizers you serve, but the mere suggestion plants the seed with customers.
Approximately 4 out of 10 lunch patrons and nearly threefourths of dinner patrons at least occasionally order dessert at full-service restaurants. This holds true for all demographics. If they are going to order dessert, more than 6 out of 10 consumers prefer to consume their own dessert rather than share it with others.
One of out five consumers tends to stick to their special diet when they eat in your restaurants. This is particularly true among older patrons.
This informational tidbit suggests that most people who eat in full-service restaurants are coming to treat themselves, in spite of restrictions they may hold themselves to outside your restaurant. There's a lot you can do with this information, not the least of which is to urge your servers to upsell and "push" desserts.
With that said, restaurant patrons who are trying to conserve calories—particularly women and older patrons—are likely to avoid desserts, fried food, bread, rolls and other starchy foods. If your customer base is largely skewed toward these two groups, you should be offering plenty of alternatives.
INCENTIVES AND PROGRAMS
Less than 1 out of 10 full-service restaurant patrons is currently participating in a frequent dining program, according to our research. What this may suggest is that restaurants are not marketing their programs well enough or the incentives for joining such a program don't warrant the trouble of participating. Keep in mind, however, that frequent dinning programs are an excellent way to build your customer database for other types of marketing programs.
When it comes to coupons, your customers find them far more appealing than frequent dining programs. Nearly half say they use coupons from mailings and newspapers at least occasionally. The segment least likely to use coupons includes consumer in the 18-34 age group.
We, the editors of RESTAURANT HOSPITALITY, hope that this consumer research will give you a better insight into dealing with customers. We're convinced that it will confirm information that you may have already believed in your mind, while also revealing areas of opportunity that you may not have known existed. Use this information wisely and watch your business grow.
Brands Are Important
In our study of full-service restaurant customers, we asked them if they noticed the use of brands in restaurant and how they affect their opinion. Based on their response, you would do well to make a point of showcasing your branded products.
More than one-third of customers asked said they noticed references to nationally known brands on the menu. Almost 25 percent of those who noticed brand-name references on the menu indicated that they improve their opinion of the restaurant.
Interestingly, awareness of brand-name condiments on the table in full-service restaurants was much higher than recognition of brand names on the menu. One-third of the respondents who noticed brand name condiments on the table indicated that they improved their opinion of the restaurant
The positive impact of brand-name condiments on the table was much greater than the positive impact of nationally known brand names on the menu.
Overall, displaying the brand names of beverages on the menu enhances the value of the dining experience of nearly two-thirds of restaurant patrons. The ones who were least likely to be influenced by beverage brand names were the 50-plus crowd.
Although branded menu items are not quite as impactful as condiments and beverages, they are important in elevating patrons' dining experiences. Patrons under 50 are significantly more likely to be influenced by branded menu items.
RESTAURANT HOSPITALITY commissioned Synovate, one of the world's top research firms, to conduct an online national survey among 1,418 men and women aged 18 and older who eat out at full-service restaurants to determine:
The sample was selected from the Synovate Consumer Opinion Panel and balanced to U.S. Census data on standard demographics. The sample was evenly split among men and women. For information on Synovate, visit Synovate.com.