Consumer Reports’ biggest-ever subscriber survey about restaurant chains – Dining Out: Where America Eats – dishes up which ones hit the spot, and highlights some tasty new trends. Eating out isn’t just for special occasions anymore: It’s now the American way of life. Americans will spend an estimated $720 billion at restaurants this year, up 19 percent from 2012.

“That breaks down to $1.97 billion per day—or roughly $2,222 per year for every man, woman, and child in the U.S. It’s almost half of every food dollar we spend,” Tod Marks wrote for Consumer Reports.

“A lot of those dollars—$262 billion, in fact—are going to fast-food emporiums such as McDonald’s and Burger King. But Americans are also spending $206 billion at restaurants with table service such as California Pizza Kitchen, Chili’s, Red Lobster, and Waffle House, among many others. New survey findings represent the largest sit-down restaurant ratings ever reported by the Consumer Reports National Research Center, reflecting the experiences of 68,950 subscribers who frequented a record 238 restaurant chains and had 170,838 meals.”

Get diners to spend more of this money at YOUR local restaurants with the help of daily deals! The most recent AudienceSCAN study found 5.5% of U.S. adults purchased at least four (4) daily deals (like Groupon or Living Social) during the past 6 months!

Some category leaders reveal just how diverse American tastes have become:
Hillstone, the overall top-scoring chain, features unique artwork and dishes made with local ingredients at each spot.
The Counter, a high-end build-your-own-burger (organic bison, vegan veggie, crab, and more) chain featuring premium cheeses, sauces, and toppings.
They also saw that, to attract and keep more customers, food establishments are trying to evolve.
In particular, Consumer Reports found four major trends that are shaping today’s chain-restaurant landscape.

1. Cuisine Gets a Conscience

“Consumers are increasingly interested in finding options that are healthy—not just for themselves but for the environment. Sixty-eight percent of consumers polled by the National Restaurant Association as part of its 2016 Industry Forecast said they’re more likely to go to a restaurant that offers locally sourced food, and 60 percent said they prefer those that engage in environmentally conscious practices such as water conservation and recycling. More diners also care about the humane treatment of animals. Other trends gaining traction include food that’s “clean” (free from additives and close to nature) and sustainable (not depleting our natural resources).”

Restaurants can entice Heavy Daily Deal Purchasers by highlighting their sustainable offerings in their daily deals. 41.2% of Heavy Daily Deal Purchasers are willing to pay more for healthy or organic food products, according to the most recent AudienceSCAN data.

“Consumer Reports’ survey confirms the growing appeal of restaurants that consumers can feel good about. Thirty-eight percent of Consumer Reports subscribers surveyed said the availability of healthy menu options figures prominently in their choice of a restaurant, and 50 percent said it was “somewhat important.” The use of locally sourced food or meat from animals raised without antibiotics was significant to around 15 percent; about 10 percent said they especially seek out places that use organic ingredients. About 10 percent are also especially drawn to those serving foods without genetically modified organisms.”

“But don’t expect to find organic items and food grown or raised in an environmentally sustainable way at many casual and family dining chains. Darren Tristano, president of Technomic, an industry consulting and research firm, said that high costs and limited availability mean it’s not practical or plausible everywhere. Such foods cost more, and there’s just not enough to go around.”

2. The Table Becomes To-Go

“Full-service eateries are facing increased competition from chains that offer only limited service, such as Panera Bread and Chipotle Mexican Grill. They’re also losing business to supermarkets, which are reinventing themselves as “grocerants,” industry-speak for food stores that incorporate restaurant-style, sit-down aesthetics. In fact, in-store dining and purchases of take-out prepared foods from grocers have grown 30 percent since 2008, says trend tracker The NPD Group. Perhaps in response, chain-restaurant takeout has taken off. More of us are ordering our food to go, and takeout and delivery services are flourishing among table-service eateries. That includes even pricey, sophisticated chains such as Morton’s The Steakhouse.”

“Takeout will continue to boom, according to Technomic’s Tristano, driven by Generation Z consumers (those born after 1995), who tend to be comfortable eating on the go and in their cars. Adding tech to the trend, many full-service chains are making it easier for takeout customers by accepting online and mobile orders and allowing them to pay electronically in advance; some also provide local home delivery and curbside pickup.”

3. Curiosity Turns Culinary

“Consumers are eager to try innovative fare that they can’t replicate at home, says Annika Stensson, director of research communications for the National Restaurant Association. Those ages 18 to 34 in particular consider the availability of unique, creative, and unfamiliar cuisine important factors in choosing a restaurant. Our survey also shows that consumers are giving a thumbs-up to unconventional chains.”

Pique their curiosity with a daily deal. 35.1% of Heavy Daily Deal Purchasers bought and used a daily deal voucher for a business they’ve never used/shopped at previously, according to the latest AudienceSCAN research.

4. Waits Start to Shrink

“The subscribers in the survey made reservations for only 6 percent of their restaurant outings. But for the most part, lacking one didn’t slow things down: The median wait time without a reservation among all chains was less than 5 minutes. During peak periods, like Friday and Saturday evenings, and at highly popular chains, though, the wait can be much longer if you don’t book ahead. At Carmine’s, for example, guests waited an average of 15 minutes for a table.”

The most recent AudienceSCAN survey found Heavy Daily Deal Purchasers are willing to make reservations. During the past 30 days, 39% have used the internet via browser, tablet or smartphone to make a reservation.

“Consumer Reports found that chains are making an effort to keep customers happier here, too. Some casual chains such as Texas Roadhouse are now encouraging call-ahead seating, which gets your name on the wait list before you’ve even left home rather than after you arrive. Carrabba’s Italian Grill and Outback Steakhouse introduced a new twist called Click-Thru Seating that allows you to monitor real-time seating availability at your local restaurant by computer or smartphone and put your name on the wait list for now or later.”

“As for waiting for your food, the median time was 15 minutes among all chains in the survey. But 17 percent of visits resulted in waits of 20 minutes or longer. That, too, may change because several chains have started employing technology to speed up service.”

AudienceSCAN data is available as part of a subscription to AdMall for Agencies, or with the SalesFuel API. Media companies can access AudienceSCAN data through the AudienceSCAN Reports in AdMall.