CHICAGO — As cautious consumer spending continues, value remains vital in the restaurant industry. What’s worthy to one customer, however, may not be to another. While some may deem a dollar deal of high value, others simply expect clean cutlery.

“Cost is important, but not the most important consideration,” said Kelly Weikel, consumer research specialist for Technomic, Inc., a Chicago-based market research firm.

Ms. Weikel was among several speakers to discuss the state of the food service industry at Technomic’s Restaurants Trends & Directions Conference held June 18 in Chicago.

While top chains recently have rolled out revised dollar menus, added pick-two lunch programs, or tweaked price points on menus, they may have missed other significant components of the value equation.

More than half of consumers surveyed by Technomic indicated menu variety and customization are keys to creating good value.

In-N-Out Burger ranks high among quick-service restaurants, offering what consumers surveyed by Technomic consider quality ingredients and fresh-to-order preparation.

“Freshness is the top indicator of quality,” Ms. Weikel said. “How do you convey freshness? It comes down to how it is sourced and prepared. Is it made in-house? Is it made from scratch?”

In matters of portion size, bigger isn’t always better, she added.

“With consumers, it’s not so much about a large portion; it’s about the right portion,” Ms. Weikel said. “Consumers do associate large portions with a lower quality product. Also, if they can’t eat all the food on their plate, they may feel like they are paying more than they should.”

Women and millennial consumers tend to favor petite portions, while males prefer a packed plate, but staggered portion sizes appeal to most consumers, Technomic found.

“Put consumers in control of their meal by offering a variety of different portion sizes at different price points,” Ms. Weikel said.

Value also may be measured by ambiance, which is relative to a consumer’s expectations for the experience, said Richard Shank, consumer research manager at Technomic. Still, factors such as cleanliness and service quality are essential from fast-food to fine-dining.

Ambiance factors into the value equation. Seasons 52 tops the list of full-service chains offering good value, scoring highly on food quality and service.

“The issue with cleanliness is it doesn’t become a problem until it is a problem," Mr. Shank said. "It can detract from ambiance in subtle ways, if the dishware is a little smudgy, or the kitchen is a little unclean.”

Eighty-five per cent of consumers agree cleanliness is critical to creating good value, but noise level and restaurant design also are important. Just over half of consumers surveyed said a quiet, relaxing atmosphere contributes to a high-value experience.

Another factor of the value equation is quality of service, measured by order accuracy, speed, friendliness and attentiveness.

“In limited-service, one of the defining factors is service speed,” Mr. Shank said. “If you can't fit within the daily schedule of consumers’ lives, they’ll go on to the next place.”

In full-service, conversely, service speed relates more to timeliness and an appropriate pacing of service elements, such as the arrival of courses in a meal or frequency of drink refills.

Interpretations of value vary across the three top consumer segments. Busy balancers, who represent 23% of food service occasions, consider technology of high value, while functional eaters, accounting for 22% of occasions, seek fast service and convenience. Food service hobbyists, at 21% of occasions, appreciate a memorable or differentiated experience.

Who’s winning the value game? According to Technomic’s survey data, In-N-Out Burger and Chick-fil-A rank high among quick-service restaurants, offering what consumers consider quality ingredients and fresh-to-order or handcrafted preparation. Leading the fast-casual segment in consumer perception of value are McCalister’s Deli and Firehouse Subs, rated high for hospitable service and consistency. Cracker Barrel and Seasons 52 top the list of full-service chains offering good value, each scoring highly in food quality and service.

“Value isn’t creating a pricing vacuum,” Mr. Shank said. “It’s very multifaceted. A lot of the elements are interrelated and not any more important than the other, with the exception of food quality.”