The Changing Face of Fast Food

August 1, 2007

13 Min Read
The Changing Face of Fast Food

Fast food is riding a wave of change whipped up by forces demographic, economic, cultural, technological —even aesthetic. Our global, postindustrial era has conditioned us to expect more from our fast food than the basics.

If fast-food operators and the manufacturers who serve them hope to remain relevant, they’ve got to evolve along with the identity of fast food—but without straying too far from the principles that made the category such a phenomenon in the first place. Only by treading the line between novelty and familiarity can we bring this archetypal American institution into the 21st century.

Fast food for new millennials 

Rumors of a home-cooking Renaissance have been greatly exaggerated, according to Marcia Schurer, president, Culinary Connections, Chicago. “No matter how much is being written about more cooking in the home,” she says, “I don’t see that happening, and I don’t think that’s going to change.” Close to 50% of our food dollars wind up footing fare eaten away from home, and no small portion of that goes to fast-food outlets, which are slated to rack up $150.1 billion in sales this year.

Generation Y, or “millennials,” more than anyone else, are determining the future of fast food. “Based on the macro research that we’ve done,” says John Li, senior executive chef, Kraft Foodservice, Glenview, IL, “the No. 1 message that we communicate to our customers, especially when we start talking about fast casual and QSR, is that when you think about what’s happening with regard to the generational influence, it’s all about millennials.”

Millennials’ dining whims will have a “big effect on how operators pull together their whole menu strategies and forecast their menu pipeline for the future,” Li predicts.

Look how their culinary temerity has helped mainstream global flavors. Li, just one generation removed as an Xer, recalls, “When I grew up in Buffalo, NY, all we had within QSR was, basically, McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s—the ‘Big Three.’” In this representative American city today, however, “it ranges anywhere from Chinese to very authentic Latin American– based foods, to Southeast Asian options,” he notes.

Major operators regularly roll out international ideas nationwide after auditioning them in carefully chosen markets. According to research from Nation’s Restaurant News, more than 52% of QSRs already menu Mexican-style items—and they’re not all Taco Bells. Jack in the Box, Inc., San Diego, has its Meaty Breakfast Burrito and Chipotle Chicken Ciabatta sandwich, and the premium Southwest Salad from The McDonald’s Corporation, Oak Brook, IL, has been going gangbusters since its introduction in April. CKE Restaurants, Carpinteria, CA, has long co-branded its Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s concepts with Mexican-themed Green Burrito and Red Burrito, respectively, but those outfits are now thriving in places like Oklahoma, Portland, OR, and Salt Lake City.

“From an ethnic standpoint, there’s more latitude, more creative license,” says Jason Dumo, director of marketing, Griffith Laboratories U.S.A., Inc., and Innova, Alsip, IL. “If a customer wants something that’s spicy, don’t just show them heat. Show them spice delivered through different cuisines—what Asian, or even Indian or Moroccan, spices would be.”

The moral of the story, though, is all about choice. So many different players have come into the market, Li says, “that there are so many things for consumers to choose. I may want a burger one day, but you know what? I want fish tacos the next.”

Shape-shifting categories 

Traditional fast food was designed to have a very limited menu, notes Schurer. “It concentrated on key or core strengths, and if that was hamburgers, that meant you got hamburgers. It was a very easy, facilitated system. It didn’t have too many ingredients. It didn’t have too many processes. It didn’t have too much equipment. It wasn’t labor intensive and, most importantly, it didn’t require any culinary skills.”

But supermarket deli cases and prepared-food departments started upgrading, and “grocery stores began to provide these ready-to-heat- and-eat meals away from home” that had once been the province of fast food alone, Schurer says. That spelled competition.

Fast-casual concepts “are based on noodles and toppings; sushi ones; sandwich ones; soup-and-sandwich ones; salads; and all kinds of ethnic ones,” Schurer says. Vegetarian? No problem. On a diet? There’s something for you.

Fast casual, she says, “covers a lot of different categories.” And, although there’s still a difference between traditional QSR and fast casual, she concedes that the distinction is “starting to blur.” For the sake of QSR’s survival, it’d better. According to the 2004 USDA Economic Research Service report, “The Demand for Food Away from Home: Full-Service or Fast Food?” QSRs face stiff competition on all fronts—quality, sensory, experiential, even price— from alternative foodservice options. Simulations assuming modest household income growth and expected demographic developments show per-capita spending at full-service restaurants rising 18% between 2000 and 2020, while projections for fast-food increases top out at around 6%.

“You’re seeing a lot of the QSRs borrowing from their morecasual cousins,” Dumo says. “You’re also seeing more of these classically minted chefs making inroads into QSR and quick-casual places.” Why? In a word: convenience.

Fast food has historically had a lock on that attribute, and while consumers may want more daring flavors and culinary execution, they’d rather it not come at the expense of expediency. So, he explains, fast-casual operators “are saying to consumers, ‘You still come to us for better-quality food. We’ll give you more of a variety in culinary trends. But one area where we were deficient was speed, and now we’ll give you that, too,’” he says. “There’s migration downstream, there’s also migration upstream.”

So we’re beginning to see posh ingredients where we’d never expected them before. “An example might be a bun or an artisan bread item,” says Schurer. “You used to have your one choice of white-flour hamburger bun. All of a sudden, now we are seeing whole grains or multi-grains, we’re seeing focaccia, we’re seeing ciabatta —we’re seeing a variety of breads that are making their way into fast-food sandwich concepts.” The condiments aren’t standing still, either. “It could be roasted red peppers, caramelized onions or a hummus spread,” she says.

Perhaps the highest-profile manifestation of the fast-food upgrade is the spate of burgers touting premium Angus beef. Carl’s Jr., Hardee’s and Burger King Corporation, Miami, have joined the Angus stampede, and McDonald’s anticipates extending its trial run of a third-pound Angus burger from the current Southern California test market to locations in the Northeast. Carl’s Jr.’s Six Dollar Burger “continues to sell very well, but it’s the changing pace and the variations that keep these people coming back,” says Jeff Clark, chef and culinary designer, Something’s Cooking, Georgetown TX. The restaurant has fleshed out its selection with a guacamole-bacon version, a Western barbecue-bacon version, even a low-carb version.

“In the old days, we were able to get away with a patty melt,” Clark says. “Now we’ve got to do a sautéed Portobello-mushroom burger to continue to grab the attention of that 18- to 34-year-old guest that we’re all looking at.” This means investigating flavor profiles “that we never thought would be applicable to our particular situations,” he says. Imagine, for example, a burger topped with your typical slice of American cheese, but one that’s had “blue cheese flavors worked into it, and that’s paired with a blue-cheese sauce to make that burger so blue-cheesy that you’re going to believe it the minute you put it in your mouth,” he says.

With price points for such offerings running anywhere from $3 per sandwich to $6 and higher in Carl’s case, operators are betting on consumers’ willingness to factor quality into their value equations. So, when Chipotle Mexican Grill, Denver, made “an expensive decision” to source all-natural pork from Niman Ranch, Oakland, CA, they did so, Schurer says, “because they liked the quality, the taste and the way it was raised,” and they wagered, correctly, that their customers would, too.

Shaping up fast food 

The biggest story shaping QSR and fast-casual has to do with health. “Health is clearly an important issue today,” Schurer says. The industry didn’t expect the backlash from consumer advocacy groups and the press as the blame for rising obesity rates settled heavily on fast-food menus. But with almost two-thirds of American adults overweight or obese, and almost 9 million children and adolescents aged 6 to 19 the same, according to the American Heart Association, Dallas, “that means more grilling, more baking, more roasting,” she says. “I think healthierprofile kids’ food is going to be one of the things you’ll see more of. There are a lot of ways to make food fun and interesting without having to make it full of fat, sugar and salt.”

McDonald’s scored a coup by letting parents substitute Apple Dippers—peeled apple slices with a caramel dip—for french fries in Happy Meals at no extra charge. The chain is also putting serious guidelines on sodium contents in kids’ meals. While that provides a challenge, it’s not impossible. For example, Adam Schreier, corporate chef, Mastertaste, Teterboro, NJ, notes his company’s salt enhancers can help reduce sodium by 50%, “whether it’s in the sauce or the meat or the garnish or wherever.”

The other big bugbear in kiddie menus is sugar. Products need to give up the calories and potential cavities while still satisfying kids’ cravings for sweets. “Again,” Schreier says, “we have a sugar modulator where we’re able to take a kid’s apple juice and lower the sugar from, say, 120 calories to 60 calories, keeping the same sweetness effect, same flavor and same great taste.”

Out, damned trans!

“Americans eat a significant amount of their meals away from home, and the largest portion of calories consumed away from home comes from fast food,” says Ed Wilson, sales and marketing director, AarhusKarlshamn USA, Inc., Newark, NJ. “Fast food tends to be high in fat, and high in saturated and trans fat. Now that the link between cardiovascular health and trans fat has been established, it is critical that consumers minimize their intake of trans fat from all sources, and especially fast food.”

As governments continue to attempt bans on trans fats, industry, agriculture and academia have developed alternatives to the partially hydrogenated oils where artificial trans fats lurk. The most popular among these is low-linolenic soybean oil, whose reduced levels of polyunsaturated linolenic acid—1% vs. 7% in traditional oils—sufficiently increases its stability to render partial hydrogenation unnecessary. Canola is another viable frying alternative, albeit a pricey one whose supplies are still ramping up to meet demand.

“Manufacturers use different approaches to achieve trans-free replacements,” observes Wilson. “Our approach has been to utilize palm, and palm fractions, either alone or in combination with liquid oils. Palm is universally recognized for its inherent stability, which is a function of its low level of polyunsaturated fat. This is reflected in its low iodine value compared to other vegetable oils. Palm requires no hydrogenation and is used around the world as a fry oil due to its outstanding stability.” He points out that the greatest challenges with coming up with suitable frying fats have been “maintaining the flavor profile consumers associated with the product” and “achieving adequate stability and fry-life.”

Supply questions, as well as a wish to avert flavor and textural changes, have led to restaurants pacing themselves in trans eliminations. Wendy’s International, Inc., Dublin, OH, was first to substitute a trans-free oil in all its frying applications in Aug. 2006, and McDonald’s recently adopted a trans-free oil in 3,500 of its 13,100 domestic units, intending to complete the rollout within the next year, and to extend a trans ban to the whole menu.

Getting fresh 

Adopting a “freshness focus” may seem a direct contradiction to fast food’s core principles of cheap, expedient reproducibility, but as the freshness cachet catches on, more operations will find ways to reconcile the competing concerns.

“I do think there’s a fresh fastfood segment that’s growing out there where you can get the speed of fast food without necessarily sacrificing fresh ingredients, quality of service or affordable pricing,” says David Litchman, founder, Pockets, Chicago.

Perhaps the fast-casual category has caught on so tenaciously because it “exudes those qualities” that signify freshness and well-being, Li says. “Fast casuals are usually positioned around something that’s ethnic-based. And ethnic foods, especially Asian—and Latino, to some degree—automatically are perceived to be somewhat healthier,” he says. “What most fast casuals do a good job of is preparing food in front of you. To see it being made ‘fresh’ has a big effect on the perception that you’re getting something better for you, as well.”

Of course, in an industry that relies on processing technologies that build in convenience, executing orders from scratch— or even from speed scratch— may not be part of the business plan. Recall how backups at the counter caused McDonald’s “Made for You” production system to fizzle several years after its introduction in the late ’90s. “Ideally,” Li says, “if you’re a brand-new operator who has endless amounts of capital to get the operation the way you want, you might have every component done that way. But in reality, to stay competitive and keep the price point where we’re talking about with fast casual or QSR, that’s hard to do.”

Which means it’s even harder for foodservice’s manufacturing partners. “When product gets to that store,” Schreier says, “if it’s got eight pieces to a build, they all better be ready and you’d better be able to assemble that sandwich in 90 seconds.” And it’s not just a matter of order turnaround times; the entire store’s infrastructure may not be prepared to accommodate fresher production. “When you have an operation set up a certain way— with equipment and the back-of-the-house storage facilities for inventory that’s been predominantly frozen—you don’t all of a sudden have space and coolers for a whole new set of ingredients,” he says. A menu change can alter equipment selection, storage and even delivery schedules.

“The challenge for us as manufacturers,” Li says, “is to help our customers deliver more of those freshness cues.” For the operator, that means finding elements within their production system to showcase to the patron. Operators need “to understand each menu item and then break it down into components,” he says. “Certain components will have more weight in terms of delivering that perception of freshness than others, and you concentrate on those.”

So, let’s say you run a sandwich concept. “The most important thing to cue freshness is most likely the produce that’s being put onto that sandwich,” Li says. “The fact that your meat may not be sliced or grilled in front of that consumer probably does not weigh as heavily as that produce.” So, the consumer had better see the employee pick the lettuce from the pile, pull the roasted peppers from the grill marinade, and lay the fresh tomatoes on the ciabatta. This takes longer than slapping a pre-made patty on a warmed-over bun, but as fast-casual concepts accustom consumers to a slower pace, they’re “actually changing people’s expectations in terms of turnaround time,” Li says. This gives operators the flexibility to increase the quality of menu items and the price while providing a little more time to make those items.

It all comes back to the centrality of choice, which eventually trickles back to manufacturers. “That’s what operators are looking for these days,” Li says. “They’re realizing their customer base is fragmenting and segmenting. So, they’re all trying to innovate on their menus to reach new audiences. And that usually means new inputs from their partner manufacturers.” In the end, the basics really haven’t changed. “It’s just that the number of offerings have increased exponentially. The pie is getting bigger for everybody.” 

Kimberly J. Decker, a California-based technical writer, has a B.S. in Consumer Food Science with a minor in English from the University of California, Davis. She lives in the San Francisco bay area, where she enjoys eating and writing about food. You can reach her at [email protected]

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