We're eating out more and getting a little more particular about where we go for those meals.
Quality is becoming more important than price, according to the American Customer Satisfaction Index released on Tuesday. ACSI analysts believe both of these trends are the result of improving economic conditions.
"In a weaker economy, consumers respond to price, but as the economy improves, quality becomes more important to restaurant customers," ACSI chairman and founder Claes Fornell said in a statement. "This is good news for smaller chains and individual restaurants, which customers associate with higher quality food and better service."
The survey found that the average American went to a fast-food chain or restaurant four times per week last year, a 60 percent increase since the end of the Great Recession.
Full-service restaurants are doing a better job of making us happy—up 1.2 percent to an ACSI score of 82—which puts them slightly ahead of fast food chains (80). They do a great job of getting the orders right and providing high quality food and drinks. They've even improved the speed of getting food on the table significantly from last year.
The survey shows that we are even more satisfied when we go to restaurants that are part of a smaller chain, such as Panera and Chipotle. The score for these restaurants jumped 2 percent to 84.
At the same time, satisfaction with the five largest full-service brands dropped. Top-rated Outback Steakhouse (down 1 percent) and Olive Garden (down 4 percent) had an ACSI score of 80. Red Lobster (down 6 percent) and Applebee's (down 5 percent) both rated a 78, while Chili's (down 5 percent) scored a 74.