Familiar names dot the 2016 Harris Poll EquiTrend Restaurant Brands of the Year list, but two—Moe’s Southwest Grill and Olive Garden—stand out. Both were also-rans in the 2015 rankings, but finished first in their respective categories this year. The secret to their success: listening to customers and making healthy and fresh options a priority.
Harris compiles its EquiTrend Brand Equity Index by sourcing brand assessments from 97,000 U.S. consumers. More than 60 restaurant brands were included in the multi-industry study, which combines three factors—familiarity, quality and purchase consideration–to produce each brand’s equity score.
Moe’s Southwest Grill ranked first in the fast casual Mexican restaurant category, beating out Taco Bell, Qdoba Mexican Grill and Baja Fresh Mexican Grill. Last year’s category winner, Chipotle Mexican Grill, was relegated to the “other fast casual Mexican restaurant brands in study ranked below category average” list, where companies are listed alphabetically. That’s where Moe’s finished last year.
“Moe’s Southwest Grill shows the largest equity increase (13 percent) among all restaurants measured, and demonstrates one of the largest equity increases across all brands assessed, which is significant given the tendency for equity to resist rapid movement,” Harris says. “In Moe’s case, the restaurant’s aggressive expansion and growth, combined with their focus on fresh, likely factored into their equity rise.”
With more than 600 stores, Moe’s is roughly half the size of Chipotle. Based in Atlanta, it is owned by Focus Brands.
Olive Garden and Maggiano’s Little Italy finished one-two in the Italian dining category. Runners-up were Carrabba’s Italian Grill, the first place winner in 2015, and Romano’s Macaroni Grill.
Olive Garden’s brand equity might be reflected in its most recent results. Same-store sales at Olive Garden were up 6.8 percent in the quarter ending Feb. 28, 2016. Same-store traffic rose 4.8 percent during the period. Both numbers are impressive, given the restaurant industry’s overall struggle to grow sales and boost traffic during this time.
Top honors in the casual dining category went to IHOP. Second through eighth place finishers were Outback Steakhouse (first place winner in 2015 over IHOP), LongHorn Steakhouse, Red Lobster, Bonefish Grill, Applebee’s, Chili’s and Buffalo Wild Wings. Brands ranking below the category average were Bahama Breeze, Denny’s, Ruby Tuesday, Shoney’s and TGI Fridays.
Other winning brands in their respective categories include Subway, In-N-Out Burger, Chick-fil-A, Dunkin’ Donuts and Pizza Hut.
“Building a base of ‘brand fans’ is another huge contributor to brand equity; when we consider Chick-fil-A, Dunkin’ Donuts and In-N-Out Burger, these restaurants have die-hard, extremely loyal customers or fans who are in some cases, nearly obsessed with these brands,” Harris notes. “Brands that recognize and acknowledge these fans will remain relevant and stay top of mind with consumers’ active brand consideration set, meaning not only do these brands have high familiarity and quality ratings, but they are able to breakthrough and drive consumer behavior.”
To see the full results of this study, go to the Harris Poll site and select “restaurants” from the category dialogue box.