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Fast-Food Innovation


The drivers that influence innovative fast-food products are multifaceted and constantly changing as trends and consumer attitudes shift. During the IFMA COEX Conference in March 2007, Jim Ryan, Ph.D., CEO, Culinary Institute of America, St. Helena, CA, identified trends for the American menu, including flavor immigration through global cuisine, healthfulness and food ethics. Mexican food ranks first for flavor immigration, followed by Southeastern Asian, Spanish, Indian and Middle Eastern cuisines. The major health consideration is the elimination of trans fats, followed by healthier menus. With regard to food ethics, Ryan noted consumer attitudes toward social and ethical matters, listed in descending order: sustainability, environmental issues, local, organic, fair trade, GMOs and animal rights.

For the fast-food chain, the challenges in addressing flavor immigration through global cuisine involve selection, delivery and compatibility. A fastfood chain that markets a general menu needs to select cuisines that can be integrated into its mainstream products without confusing brand equity. Niche chains have a different problem, such as effectively diffusing an Asian flavor integration into a Mexican restaurant.

Delivery and compatibility are other issues that must be addressed. The flavor immigration has to be credible enough to satisfy the consumer and, to satisfy the franchiser, must feasibly fit into the distribution and preparation infrastructure of the chain. To accomplish this, some chains modify existing products to meet the demand for global cuisine. Maybe it is a curry-flavored chicken pizza, a chili burger or a teriyaki taco. An alternate approach is to give customers a choice of themed condiments— such as Cajun, spicy Asian, chipotle or Italian Parmesan sauces— on existing menu items. A regular salad can be differentiated with globally inspired dressings and add-ins, resulting in a cross section of flavor immigration.

Healthy reactions 

The fast-food sector of the foodservice industry is often first to tap into mega-trends and introduce new products. For example, in the wake of FDA-required trans-fat labeling and the ban of trans-fat ingredients from restaurants in major cities like New York City and Philadelphia, the fast-food industry has quickly responded to help reduce trans fat from the American diet. Yum! Brands, Louisville, KY, which owns KFC and Taco Bell, among other fast-food brands, was one of the first fast-food franchisers to announce major menu changes regarding trans fats. For example, all fried chicken served in KFC restaurants now has zero grams trans fat.

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