First Impressions Matter at Full-Service Restaurants

It’s no surprise family-style and traditional casual-dining restaurants continue to struggle following the Great Recession. Many factors are working against these segments—a shrinking middle class, increasing interest in the new and different, and competition from the up-and-coming fast-casual segment, to name a few.

Due to this onslaught of challenges, full-service restaurants (FSRs) are taking a closer look at everything from menu sizes to their very formats. (Some are introducing fast-casual spinoffs while others are offering express takeout options.)

One of the changes being undertaken by household names such as CPK, Olive Garden, Applebee’s and Huddle House, are remodels and décor updates to modernize and refresh their ambiance. But are these (rather costly) projects worth the effort? Restaurants seem to be betting on people’s tendency to judge books (or restaurants) by their cover. In Technomic’s 2014 Future of FSR: Family and Casual-Dining Consumer Trend Report, we took an in-depth look at how ambiance and décor impact consumers’ perceptions of a full-service occasion.

Atmosphere Trumps a Host of Other Factors

At full-service restaurants, a quiet, relaxing atmosphere is one of the leading traffic drivers for family-style (46%) and casual-dining (54%) visits. In fact, more consumers say this is very important to them than other key dimensions like social responsibility, and healthy, unique or new menu items.

This isn’t even taking into account the approximately quarter of consumers who emphasize the importance of a lively atmosphere. Dining out is an occasion and consumers are particular about the atmosphere for such occasions.

Spillover Effect

To assess the influence of ambiance on consumers’ perceptions of a restaurant, survey respondents were shown either an image of a traditional-looking restaurant or one with more modern décor (see below).

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Respondents were not given any additional information about the restaurant beyond the photo. Still, visual appeal clearly had an impact on their perceptions. At least 70% of consumers who were shown the photo of the contemporary restaurant rated the location as providing a good or very good overall dining experience and service, as opposed to roughly 55% and 51%, respectively, of consumers who saw the photo of the more traditional concept.

Perhaps most surprising, however, was the impact these images had on perceptions of a restaurant’s food. Again, at least 70% of consumers shown the contemporary photo assumed the taste and quality of the food and beverages was good or very good. In comparison, less than 60% of viewers of the traditional photo rated the taste (57%) and quality (55%) of the food or beverage as good or very good.

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Base:  752 (traditional photo) and 748 (contemporary photo) consumers aged 18+ who visit family-style, traditional CD or upscale CD restaurants. Consumers indicated their opinion on a scale of 1–6 where 6 = very good  and 1 = very poor
Source: Technomic’s 2014 Future of FSR: Family and Casual-Dining Consumer Trend Report

Given these results, it’s easy to justify an updated, contemporary ambiance as a worthwhile investment because first impressions can really say it all. By updating their décor, Olive Garden, CPK and others are making an investment not only in their ambiance but also in perceptions of their food and service.

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Maia Chang

Maia Chang is a Research Analyst at Technomic, Inc. in Chicago. She works on the firm’s Consumer Trend Reports, a series of annual studies that provides operators and suppliers with a comprehensive guide to the menu and consumer trends impacting various restaurant segments and menu categories in the U.S., Canada and U.K.

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