They Come for Food…but They Talk About Service

By Jim Coyle and Katie HoWe asked two simple questions to a panel of 1,008 people:

What RESTAURANT provided you the best overall experience in the last year?
What were the specific things that made this the best restaurant experience you have had in recent memory?

In other words, we asked ‘Where?” the great restaurant experience happened and “Why?”

Our goal was simple.  We wanted to read the stories about what made a restaurant experience memorable; we wanted to capture the emotion.  Some respondents provided a few sentences about their best experience while others provided several paragraphs.  Each respondent though, made their narrative case about their best experience and provided us with valuable insights.

We suspected that by reading the best restaurant experiences, we could learn the pressure points that distinguish the experience that is merely good with the experience that people rave about.

Our research team read over a thousand responses of best restaurant experiences.  The challenge was to categorize the narrative responses into customer centric categories.  We allocated pieces of the responses into the following major categories:

Major Categories Definition
Service The capable completion of tasks
Hospitality Staff demeanor, warmth, and engagement with guests
Atmosphere The quality of the facility or location
Food The quality the food

As the bar graph below indicates, Service was the leading major category, receiving the most mentions with regard to what contributed to the respondents’ best restaurant experience.  Food had the second most mentions, followed by Hospitality and Atmosphere.

Percentage of Best Experience
1008 respondents surveyed from August to October 2008

Clearly, all four categories are crucial elements to a memorable restaurant experience.  To say that Food was less important than Service would be akin to saying that a windshield is less important than brakes when considering the value of your automobile.  It is interesting, however, that Service, defined as the capable completion of meal-related tasks, stakes out the top position edging out Food by 5% points.  What can we learn from this finding?

Service is Personal

People take service personally.  When something goes wrong service-wise, the situation is upsetting on an emotional level.  Not everyone in the restaurant was seated at a lousy table, and not everyone had to wait a long time for their main courses.  Furthermore, if you recommended the restaurant, bad service makes you feel embarrassed, which is one of the most powerful and lasting emotions.

When a diner gets a cold entrée or salty soup, there may be disappointment, but the diner is not as likely to take it personally.  One can rationalize that the entrée may have sat too long under the heat lamp or the chef has a different taste for what is savory.  Similarly, when the food is sublime, you don’t conclude that the meal was made just for you, especially when others are eating the same item.  Food is not nearly as personal as service.

It stands to reason that when recalling an extraordinary dining experience, that service aspects will be what register emotionally.

Good Food is Consistent

Food has simply gotten a lot better over the years. The chance of getting a significantly flawed meal has gone down.

Similarly, the culinary world has flattened.  When one chef creates a signature item that ‘wows’ the item is quickly replicated at other restaurants.

Service, on the other hand, has more chances for flaws.  When you enter a restaurant, you truly don’t know what you will get.  A perceived slight of the smallest magnitude can eliminate the possibility of a great experience before it even had a chance.  Sure, diners might be apt to forgive a few flaws here and there, but memorable service must be sustained over a long period of time.  Memorable service must also be delivered by a wide cast of characters.  When all the pieces of the puzzle come together, it is unusual; it is an event.


Because the service experience is made up of a significantly larger number of variables than the food experience, one can infer that is harder to achieve all of the standards of excellent service.  The food experience occupies the middle one-third of the dining experience, while Service is happening from the time the diner arrives until the host says farewell.

Restaurant staff must understand that their performances, especially in relation to how capably they perform the dining tasks, are crucial to creating word of mouth, a restaurant’s best friend in these challenging economic times.

In Part II of our series “Being Pitch Perfect” we drill down the Hospitality and Service major categories to find the most significant Attributes that compose the great experience.  Stay tuned or sign up for our newsletters and research at

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