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Steritech Insights

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Drivers behind consumers' restaurant choices

Restaurants spend a lot of time talking about the customer experience – but too often, they’re focused on things that aren’t moving the needle and helping them bring customers through the door. So what are the things that matter to customers? What is driving customer experience?

To find out, Steritech conducted a survey of more than 500 consumers in March of this year. And what we found confirmed some long-held industry beliefs and produced some eye-opening facts in other areas. The infographic below gives a summary of the survey highlights, but I want to take a few minutes and dive into some of the data.

It used to be that dining out was a luxury, something that families did together to celebrate special occasions, a treat that everyone looked forward to. That’s not the case any longer – in fact, you could say that dining out is becoming a way of life.

More than 62% of our respondents said they dine out once a week or more. For restaurants, that means there’s a lot of cash to be captured – but they need to capitalize on the specific experience consumers are looking for in order to earn their business. It’s no secret that consumers are also looking to other segments for prepared meals, as well.

Need hard proof? In the 30 days before we conducted our survey, nearly two-thirds of respondents said they’d purchased a prepared, ready-to-eat meal from a supermarket, convenience store, or other retail store.

What matters most to customers

None of that was really all that shocking to us, and we suspect that it won’t be to you. But when we started to ask detailed questions about how consumers made their choices on where to eat, and what mattered to them as part of their customer experience, we were in for a few surprises.

So what DOES matter most to customers? We asked customers to select their top five out of 10 factors that matter to them when selecting a restaurant – in other words, as a group, which of the 10 factors are selected most often. While the top four were what we expected, what ranked fifth was a surprise: previous experience with a location or chain matters more to consumers than order accuracy, speed of service, and employee appearance and hygiene. WOW. The takeaway from this is that while food quality and safety are paramount, there are other elements of customer experience that are bringing your customers back through the door.

  • Quality of the food: taste and appearance 90.2%
  • Safely cooked and prepared food 71.1%
  • Restaurant cleanliness 70.9%
  • Service quality and hospitality 67.6%
  • Previous experience with the location or chain 54.6%
  • Accuracy of your order 53.4%
  • Speed of service 41.8%
  • Employee appearance and hygiene 32.6%
  • Online reviews on peer websites 13.2%
  • Other 4.6%

Health department scores

Here’s another eye-popper: only 23.4% of respondents said they always take note of the health department score in a restaurant – even more said they don’t bother to look (24.6%). But when we asked consumers if a restaurant’s health department score or grade factored into their decision to eat somewhere, more than a third of respondents said that it depended on their previous experience at that location. That tells me that there’s a lot more than health and safety that go into determining where someone decides to dine.


Let’s take restaurant cleanliness as an example of something that influences a consumer’s decision on restaurant choice. We asked respondents to list their top pet peeves in restaurant cleanliness. At the top, a no-brainer: the presence of insect or rodent pests. But that’s followed by some things that most restaurants may overlook, especially during peak hours: sticky tables and chairs, dirty restrooms, messy ordering or waiting areas, and dirty floors.

Online reviews

Online review sites are also fueling consumer decisions on where to dine. Nearly three-quarters of our respondents said they sometimes or often use peer review sites like Yelp! to help make decisions on where to eat, with 73% of those people qualifying what is written in online reviews as moderately, very, or extremely influential in their decisions. And, a deep dive into our data shows that frequent diners, those dining out more than once a week, are much more likely to use online review sites.

The odds that these more than once a week diners will use an online review site are 2.41 times higher than those that eat out just once a month. Translation: consumers that are spending the most money on dining – the diners that restaurants want to turn into loyal customers – are the most likely to be swayed by what total strangers say about dining experiences online! Just one bad experience in your restaurant could keep other potentially lifelong customers away forever.

Consumers aren’t stupid. In fact, exactly the opposite is true, and they’re becoming more informed every day. Although experience is what brings them back to a location and earns their repeat business, driving same-store sales, if you can’t get the basics of food quality and safety right, you won’t ever get them through the door. Consumers are more aware of health and safety than they have ever been before, and violating their trust in these areas will hit a restaurant or a chain square in the wallet. Even worse news for restaurants – consumers have long memories.

Restaurants with multiple locations

We conducted our survey in March, in the wake of the Chipotle norovirus and E. coli crises, and we asked our survey participants if they were aware of a foodborne illness outbreak in the last six months. Nearly two-thirds of participants said they were aware, with TV, newspapers, and social media being the top sources for This is where it gets scary for restaurants. If you’re a chain restaurant, a foodborne illness outbreak isolated to a single location can prevent consumers from dining at your other restaurants. Of our respondents, 27.3% said that if they knew about an outbreak at a single location of a chain restaurant, they were inclined to avoid eating at the chain, and they’d avoid eating at other restaurants in the chain for six months to a year. Even worse – 17% said they’d never eat at the chain again.

And when an outbreak is linked to multiple locations? Surprisingly, the percentage of consumers that would avoid eating at the chain for six months to a year drops to 19.7%. But that’s because the number of respondents saying that they’d never eat at the chain again almost doubles, a whopping 31.7%.
Food quality and safety are paramount – they are the building blocks, the foundation upon which any eating establishment is built. If you don’t get those right, customers won’t even come through your door. But if ALL you are doing is thinking about food safety, you may not be measuring other important factors that bring customers BACK to your locations over and over

Locations. That’s another important revelation from this survey. Each individual location’s performance in these areas that matter to customers has the ability to influence your customers’ opinion about your ENTIRE brand. Restaurant cleanliness. Service quality and hospitality. Previous experience with a brand. All of these things are at the top of the list of things that matter most to customers – and they are all delivered at the location level.

Food safety audits

An existing food safety audit platform can be leveraged to build a more comprehensive and more insightful operational assessment program, one that can measure performance in these areas that consumers find so important. All too often at Steritech, when we begin conversations with a prospective customer, we find that they are so focused on ticking the boxes of the same food safety audit they’ve been conducting for years that they’ve overlooked how customers are evolving and how each location contributes to customer experience and influences sales.

We encourage you to take a hard look at your audit processes. If you’re just evaluating food safety, you’re undervaluing what the program should be doing for your business – mitigating risk and driving improvement.

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