Olive Garden earns business diners' top rating

Starboard sweeps Darden board: Faber

Italian chain Olive Garden takes the top spot in a new set of restaurant rankings, according to a quarterly report from Certify analyzing corporate expense spending.

The chain earned an average rating of 4.5 stars out of five, followed in order by Chick-fil-A, Chipotle Mexican Grill, Panera Bread and Dunkin' Donuts in the report, which sifted through several million business travelers' receipts from July to September.

Source: Olive Garden

To be included in the top 15, a restaurant had to garner a certain number of ratings submitted by diners. This means that independent restaurants that serve fewer diners did not make the cut to be included in the top-rated restaurants.

In a phone interview, Certify CEO Bob Neveu said Olive Garden's rise up the ranks was "really the big eyebrow raiser for us" from the report.

"That's typically been one that's off the charts downward," Neveu added.

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First place represents a jump from its fourth-place finish in the second quarter and tenth-place result in the first quarter this year.

Not everyone is happy with the chain's operations, though.

The dining chain's parent Darden Restaurants has been involved in a prolonged fight over Olive Garden's operations with activist investor Starboard Value, which recently won all the seats on Darden's board.

The rankings are more positive for Olive Garden than what global customer intelligence firm MarketForce found in a recent study.

That survey polled customers about their satisfaction with chains and likelihood of recommending them to someone else. Olive Garden earned a composite loyalty score of 48 percent, lower than that of Cheesecake Factory, Cracker Barrel, Texas Roadhouse and Outback Steakhouse.

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The Certify report also looked at the most expensed restaurants overall.

As McDonald's struggles to turn around its U.S. business, the business traveler appears to be a bright spot for the chain. Still, the fast-food giant lags in frequency behind Starbucks, which accounted for 4.57 percent of expenses among restaurants. In breakfast, the coffee chain drew 13.59 percent of transactions—earning it the title of the most expensed breakfast spot.

At lunch and dinner, McDonald's is the restaurant of most frequent choice.

Its overall share of total expensed meals grew to 2.99 percent in the third quarter from 2.68 percent in the second quarter.

McDonald's average meal cost is also significantly lower than the majority of the top 15 most expensed spots.

This report comes as McDonald's struggles to turn around its domestic business. During the second quarter, comparable sales shrank 1.5 percent. Negative trends persisted in July and August, and the chain recently ranked last for taste in Consumer Reports' burger rankings.