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November 28, 2016 Williams Helde Staff

Active Explorer Restaurant Chains: A Top Ten List

Tried and true. With a dash of spice.

e6hjqab7uea-dan-goldThat’s what our Active Explorer User Group told us they preferred when they went out to eat. Not in so many words, mind you. In general, Active Explorers are the most likely to crave culinary adventures. They love learning to cook new things, explore new restaurants, and taste dishes they haven’t tried before.

But not always. When they responded to our survey, they revealed that their default setting was a little closer to home. When deciding to go out on the spur of the moment on a Saturday night, nearly half (44%) of Active Explorers choose a sit-down restaurant close to home.

But which five sit-down restaurants were the most likely to be chosen by Active Explorers? Drum roll please…

  • Olive Garden (11%)
  • Chili’s (10%)
  • Applebee’s (9%)
  • Outback Steakhouse (8%)
  • Cheesecake Factory (8%)

The fact that these were national chains wasn’t surprising; this was a national survey. What’s interesting is who was left off the list. No Denny’s, Red Lobster, Buffalo Wild Wings, or TGI Fridays – names you’d expect to be competitive in this race.

When we dug a little deeper, we noticed something our winners had in common. Each of them has recently emphasized a value in their marketing that olivegarden575-calpromostrikes a chord with the Active Explorer. For example, Olive Garden has recently hit “fresh,” “healthy” and “gourmet” pretty hard. Same with Chili’s and Outback.

When it came to fast-food restaurants, we learned even more. Here are the top five finishers:

  • McDonald’s (10%)
  • Panera (9%)
  • Chick-fil-A (7%)
  • Taco Bell (7%)
  • Chipotle (7%)

Panera and Chipotle are perennial Active Explorer favorites, so it’s not surprising to see those place well. But we were curious to see what McDonald’s, Taco Bell, and Chick-fil-A were doing right. A lot, as it turns out. All three have spent a great deal of marketing emphasizing their fresh, local, bold new menu items.

mcdonaldsbillboard2Even McDonald’s has made a big push in the Pacific Northwest, sourcing their fries from Washington farmers and putting up billboards that connected the McDonald’s brand to a sense of outdoor adventure.

What else did we learn? 1 in 4 Active Explorers said that spending time with family and friends is the best thing about going out to dinner. About the same number said the best thing about going out to eat is not having to make it themselves.

Active Explorers are, at their heart, explorers. But as we learned from our travel survey, they also like coming back to a place they feel comfortable. In the food industry, that’s where fast casual brands are making their biggest gains. There’s always a place for known quantities that are trusted brands, are convenient and reliable, but also consistently provide new flavors or refreshed menus.

Put all the Active Explorer learnings together: buzzwords, restaurants, food trends and lifestyle: what does it all mean? Let’s talk about that next week.

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