The sit-down restaurant chains making headlines in 2023

March 2, 2023

Written by Benedict Nicholson

In February, we published a look at some of the biggest fast-food and quick-serve restaurants in the world, and we wanted to continue that examination by expanding the pool a little broader. 

So this week, we’re going to be looking at some of the QSRs that are just a little less, well, Q. Specifically we’re going to spend some time looking at sit-down restaurant chains, including the likes of Applebee’s, Texas Roadhouse, PF Chang’s and Chili’s. To keep the link to our previous blog we’re also going to include Chick-fil-A for comparison, as the chicken restaurant faced some drama this week.

So let’s dig in.

graph of public and media interest to restaurants

As the graph shows, there is almost no comparison into how much engagement the sit-down restaurants are getting with stories about them compared to Chick-fil-A, with the latter having more than a million engagements since January 1st, while the sit-down restaurants have had tens of thousands of engagements in the same timeframe. Texas Roadhouse garnered the most engagement of these with 95.8k, which is fairly similar to the likes of Chipotle and Burger King in our last analysis.

Why did Chick-fil-A have so much engagement?

As the chart shows, there were two big reasons for Chick-fil-A’s high levels of engagement, and interestingly the public and media interest don’t really match up.

graph of engagement to Chick-fil-A

The media was most interested in the announcement of the chain’s new chicken-free sandwich, which contains cauliflower rather than meat. The spike in coverage led to more than 1,000 articles being written on February 9th.

While the public was not disinterested, with more than 100k engagements that day (the top story from CNN had 11k on its own), the bigger spike in public interest came at the end of February after a Pennsylvania location banned unaccompanied minors from the restaurant due to alleged poor behavior by teenagers. This led to around 700 articles being written, and there were more than 300k engagements to Chick-fil-A articles during this time period.

Much of this coverage came from local publications, but interestingly only one of the top pieces of local coverage was based in the Pennsylvania area, showing that local stories can resonate even outside of the communities they directly affect if they have a common, recognizable theme.

The other restaurants we looked at got less attention from the media, so we’ll be looking at a broader spectrum of coverage to see what’s engaging their audiences.

PF Chang’s gets attention with copycat recipes

The Asian fusion restaurant has inspired fans of its food to recreate its recipes at home, and several of the top articles were food blogs that reflected this, which gained attention on Pinterest. 

There were 542 articles that mentioned PF Chang’s since January, with just 8.8k engagements on Facebook and Twitter. For context the top two recipes had more Pins on Pinterest than all of the articles combined had engagement on Facebook and Twitter. These were a recipe for “Asian Turkey Lettuce Wraps” from Eat Yourself Skinny (6.5k Pins), and a copycat recipe for Mongolian Beef from Averie Cooks, both of which explicitly called out PF Changs as the inspiration.

The former blog also saw some success on Instagram, with more than 1,000 engagements on the author’s Instagram Page.

Non-recipe content that performed for PF Chang’s was otherwise generally local content about restaurant locations opening or closing, while social media did make some broader cultural references to an infamous LA Chargers tweet after the team’s loss to the Jaguars. 

Texas Roadhouse wins at Facebook 

The steakhouse chain was the second most engaged in terms of coverage, and this came from a variety of sources. 

The top stories included a local piece about a new restaurant opening in Concord, a piece from Business Insider on the chain growing from humble beginnings , and a piece from the Daily Dot on its Mac & Cheese (6k). 

Where Texas Roadhouse really grabbed the public’s attention though was with its owned Facebook content, where it garnered tens of thousands of engagements.

Two in particular stood out in this context — the first highlighted a CBS article from last year about a deaf waiter at the chain, and the second about its famous fresh-baked bread.

These had a combined 210k engagements and were a significant driver of attention to the chain. 

Applebee’s restaurant incidents grab the headlines and Chili’s pulled into influencer drama 

Our last two restaurants saw less news about the restaurants themselves, and more about their customers. 

Applebee’s top articles were generally about incidents within the restaurant, including a man with a gun that stopped a knife attack and a waitress that was fired for complaining about a customer on Facebook. 

The employees and restaurants themselves also generated some headlines, with a New Jersey Applebee’s offering free kids meals after a local restaurant banned children, and employees comforting an elderly woman after she had been reported missing.

There was very little interest in the food itself at Applebee’s, and that was true of Chili’s, whose main story of interest was tied to a TikTok influencer.

A TikTok user filmed themselves at a Chili’s location criticizing a man who could not afford a menu item, and the TikTok generated significant backlash from the press and others alike. 

There were several articles about this video, with the top one coming from The Daily Dot with 2.5k engagements.

All in all, coverage of restaurants had a broad range of themes, from the actions of employees to the actions of customers to the food itself. And it’s crucial to be able to understand and measure this across platforms, because as we saw above some restaurants get more media attention while some need to generate their own buzz, and you need to know where your brand falls on that spectrum.

If you’d like to understand how to monitor your brand in real time, reach out to us here.

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Benedict Nicholson

In addition to leading the NewsWhip Research Center in New York, Benedict Nicholson manages partnerships with internationally recognized media outlets furthering data journalism, which includes NewsWhip’s Data for Democracy program. Benedict also facilitates consultations with communicators from the top 10 public relations agencies across America and Europe and with Fortune 500 brands to discuss consumer engagement trends and effective media monitoring. Email Benedict via benedict.nicholson@newswhip.com.

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