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Food Product Design: Foodservice Focus - June 2004 - The Changing Face Of Fast FoodFood Product Design: Foodservice Focus - June 2004 - The Changing Face Of Fast Food

June 1, 2004

16 Min Read
Food Product Design: Foodservice Focus - June 2004 - The Changing Face Of Fast Food

June 2004
Cover Story

The Changing Face Of Fast Food

By Nancy Backas
Contributing Editor

Fast food just isn't what it used to be. Not so very long ago, whatever a fast-food venue served, people ate, and they were happy to have it in value sizes for a good price. New products were rolled out all the time, and if a fad came along -- like heart-healthy/low fat, for example -- the chains paid lip service, adding a few new items to the menu, which were often pulled when few people ordered them.

While core menu items continue to define the top chains, a shift is taking place. Attribute it to the popularity of fast casual, the sophistication of America's taste buds, or the changing demographics, but fast food has a new look, flavor and quality.

"We baby boomers grew up with fast food, but it didn't grow up with us," says Dennis Lombardi, executive vice president, Technomic, Inc., a foodservice consulting and research firm in Chicago. "Now it has grown up. Spoken as a boomer, I go to Arby's now when I wouldn't have before. The Market Fresh Sandwich is really good. The company, like many other chains, has repositioned itself, and it works."

Quick-service restaurants (QSRs) today have to be vigilant in keeping track of what patrons want. "It's not a homogeneous group of people coming into these restaurants anymore. And people go into restaurants for different reasons every time. What works for a business lunch may not work for the same person lunching with young children on the weekend," Lombardi adds. "Quick-service restaurants have to appeal to a lot of different people in a lot of different circumstances, all with a low price point."

Jumping on the low-carb wagon
Several years ago, low-fat, heart-healthy food tried to have its day, except it never really took off, mostly because the food simply wasn't satisfying. Now we have the low-carbohydrate craze thanks to the popularity of the Atkins and South Beach diets, and QSRs are grabbing onto it with gusto. "My take on all of this is that basically, marketing determines what people will try, but flavor will determine what people will eat over time," says Reid Wilkerson, president of McClancy Seasoning Company, Fort Mills, SC.

But it isn't something fast-food restaurants can ignore, mainly because they have been blamed in part for the fattening of America. The National Center for Health Statistics, Hyattsville, MD, through its 2002 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, estimates that 64.5% of Americans are currently overweight and that 30.5% are obese, weighing at least 30% more than their ideal weight. That's a huge difference from the 1991 figures when only 12% were deemed obese. There's a rush to determine how to correct this problem. Some blame super-sizing portions. In 1960, the average order of McDonald's fries contained 200 calories. The super-sized version, which was recently downsized, weighed in at 610 calories.

So what are fast-food restaurants doing to address this new concern? Quiznos Sub, headquartered in Denver, just added more than 20 "Toasty" flatbread sandwiches, 14 of them containing less than 11 grams net carbohydrates. Atlanta-based Blimpie Subs & Salads passes out a Blimpie Carb Counter Menu listing its low-carb offerings. A number of burger chains are offering no-bun burgers: St. Louis-based Hardee's has a Low Carb Thickburger, a 1/3-lb. patty topped with cheese and wrapped in lettuce leaves instead of a bun (fewer than 10 carbohydrates); Irvine, CA-based In-N-Out Burger has had a bunless burger for years; Back Yard Burgers, Memphis, TN, offers a lettuce-wrapped burger made with two leaves of green leaf lettuce folded around a hamburger patty; McDonald's, Oak Brook, IL, just began offering bunless sandwiches served with a knife and fork on a piece of lettuce in a plastic bowl (for the same price as one with a bun); and Burger King, Miami, which has always said you can "Have it Your Way," provides a list of sandwiches patrons can have sans bread.

While fast-food restaurants and food manufacturing companies are rushing to offer low-carbohydrate choices, many believe this fad won't last forever -- at least not at its current frenzied level. Still, it looks like this particular trend will continue for a while and that products will continue to come along that address low-carb mania. Low-carb breads and highly flavored, but low-fat and low-carb, sauces, spreads and dips are the kinds of products that operators will look for in the future. As Wilkerson says, fast-service venues may be able to market low-carb today to get patrons to try them, but the challenge will be to find those items that will having staying power.

Healthful: more than low-carb
QSRs seem to have learned from past experiments that offered menu items that only spoke to a specific fad. Chains today are offering healthful alternatives that go beyond low-carbohydrate items, even offering programs that go beyond the menu itself.

Whether or not it's true that fast food has been responsible, at least in part, for the obesity epidemic, restaurateurs do recognize that they have some responsibility. A recent study conducted by Springdale, AR-based Tyson Foods, Inc., "Obesity: Attitudes & Actions," found that 61% of restaurant operators surveyed feel an obligation to offer menu options that will help Americans slim down, while less than 16% feel it's the sole obligation of the patron. Also, 54% say they now offer more weight-reducing choices than they did a year ago and 54% say they plan to broaden such selections during the coming year.

But offering healthier items on the menu will no longer be just about trimming and eliminating or serving items without sauce or butter -- basically, killing the flavor. "Our fast-service clients want us to come up with ideas that do not sacrifice taste. I see that traditional fast food is moving toward attributes of fast casual with more authentic flavor profiles, fresher food and healthier food in general," says Debbie Jarretbangs, International Flavors & Fragrances, Inc., Dayton, NJ.

In many cases, offering menu alternatives is simply a matter of trimming toppings or substituting one topping for another. Taco Bell, Irvine, CA, started 2004 with a continuation of the company's introduction of "Fresco Style" in August 2003. This method substitutes cheese and sauce with a savory 5-calorie, zero-fat Fiesta Salsa. For example, a Grilled Steak Soft Taco ordered Fresco Style has 170 calories and 5 fat grams compared to the traditional with 280 calories and 17 grams of fat.

Wendy's, Dublin, OH, makes its Garden Sensations Salads with lighter dressings and points to four meal selections on the menu under 510 calories and 10 grams of fat: a grilled chicken sandwich with a side salad and fat-free dressing, a junior hamburger with a side salad and fat-free dressing, a large chili with a side salad and fat-free dressing, or a plain baked potato and a small chili.

Burger King, too, has begun offering salads, called Fire-Grilled Salads, which consist of seasoned grilled chicken breast, shrimp or sirloin steak on a bed of lettuce with a choice of dressings and toppings. The salads are unique because of a "Fire-Grilled Freshness Pouch," which keeps the hot meat separate from the cold greens. Patrons have a choice of salad bases, too: Garden with a mix of lettuce (iceberg, romaine and spring greens), grape tomatoes, red onions slices, cucumber slices and baby carrots; Caesar with iceberg and romaine lettuce mix, shaved Parmesan cheese, grape tomatoes and garlic croutons; or Fajita with iceberg and romaine lettuce mix, a blend of shredded cheeses (Cheddar, Monterey Jack, and pepper jalapeño), chunky tomato salsa, fire-roasted red and green bell peppers and onions, and chili-lime tortillas.

McDonald's has gone beyond just changing the menu and announced its Healthy Lifestyles Campaign in September 2003, a partnership with exercise physiologist Bob Greene, Oprah Winfrey's personal trainer and best-selling author, to help educate consumers about the importance of living a healthy lifestyle. The three-pronged program includes menu choice, education and physical activity. Part of this dietary doctrine is outlined in his new guide to eating out at fast-food and family restaurants, entitled "Get With the Program!" In the book, Greene put together a list of six McDonald's meals under 500 calories each, including such items as the Chicken McGrill sandwich without mayonnaise, a side salad with Newman's Own Low Fat Balsamic Vinaigrette, a snack-size Fruit 'n Yogurt Parfait and bottled water (495 calories); Grilled Chicken California Cobb Salad with Newman's Own Low Fat Balsamic Vinaigrette, along with a vanilla reduced-fat ice cream cone and medium iced tea (460 calories); and a regular hamburger with small fries and a small Diet Coke (just about 500 calories).

Some diet gurus offer suggestions for how to eat fast-food meals and stay healthy. Dr. Barry Sears, developer of the Zone Diet (40% carbohydrates, 30% fat, 30% protein), says two Taco Bell chicken tacos; two Subway turkey-breast subs with half of one of the sub rolls removed; and three-fourths of a KFC chicken breast without skin, one serving of green beans and one serving of BBQ baked beans fit into his version of a healthful diet.

And then there's the downsizing of super-sized. Americans have gotten used to large portions, which many experts say has contributed to super sizing of Americans. The need for smaller portions also coincides with a trend toward eating smaller meals more often, the so-called grazing trend. Some chains are responding with smaller and half portions. McDonald's downsizing its super-sized fries is one example. Z Pizza, a 20-unit chain based in Newport Beach, CA, noted this trend and is now considering offering half-slices of its large pizza slices for half the price. Schlotzsky's, Austin, TX, noted the in-between meals crowd, largely made up of under-30 patrons, and began offering sandwiches in small, 4-inch portions. Its salads are available in half portions as well.

Kid's menus are also starting to reflect the concern for health. Wendy's tested substituting milk and fresh fruit for the soda and fries typically included in the kids' meal, offered at no extra charge. The 4-oz. fresh fruit cup includes honeydew melon and cantaloupe chunks, and the milk, which comes in plastic containers (more appealing to today's youth), is a choice of reduced-fat 2% white milk or low-fat 1% chocolate milk. The dairy industry has started a big campaign with these plastic bottles to get children to drink more milk, and a recent study found that adults who include dairy products in their diets lost weight faster than those who were not consuming dairy. Look for more dairy products on fast-food menus, for both children and adults.

The greening of the menu
One thing that has really changed the face of fast food is the increasing amount of produce, natural products and freshly made items on menus. Fast-casual chains helped move fast food in this direction. Chipotle, headquartered in Denver and now owned by McDonald's, was one of the first success stories in this area. Whether Chipotle is fast food or fast casual can be argued, but the company's commitment to serving fresh, wholesome, natural food, cannot.

"When Steve Ells started this concept 10½ years ago, he thought that eating fast food didn't have to be a fast-food experience. We are committed to using fresh product and everything is prepared in front of the customer," says Chipotle spokesperson Chris Arnold. They serve naturally raised beef and chicken and free-range pork in as many markets as they can find suppliers. The company has, in fact, created a sustainable agriculture opportunity for many farmers. It began contracting with 70 to 75 hog farmers and today those numbers top 300. Chipotle also serves a fresh corn salsa made from Florida Supersweet corn, guacamole made fresh on site, and margaritas made with real juice. It also uses organic beans in markets where they can be sourced.

Blimpie just recently went back to fresh-sliced lettuce instead of prepackaged. Many chains are serving burgers served wrapped in leaf lettuce, a newer product in the fast-food arena, and a number of chains have expanded their salad lines or added salads to the menu. McDonald's Premium Salads, San Diego-based Jack in the Box's Ultimate Salads, and Wendy's Garden Sensations are just a few examples. This has created a new opportunity for produce growers, packers and distributors. "For our standpoint as grower-shippers, we have seen an increase in the use of fresh vegetables in restaurants, multiplied many times over the last 10 years. Fifty percent of our sales is now attributed to foodservice," says Michael Boggiatto, president of Boggiatto Produce, Salinas, CA.

These days, many large-chain foodservice operators want to work directly with growers to get the product they want. "A lot of restaurants today specify that they want their produce from a specific grower. Distributors sometimes try to discourage them, saying it will cost more, but they want it anyway. I have a built-in business now," Boggiatto adds. While he says that iceberg lettuce is still king, romaine lettuce is moving up since it has a little more flavor and nutrition and a good shelf life. One innovation that came about from restaurant requests is hearts of romaine, where the outer leaves are stripped from the plant in the field and plowed back into the soil for mulch. There is less waste with the romaine, which is also a heartier variety that travels better. Another innovative product is Great Northern Wholeaves, a newly packaged whole-leaf green lettuce product produced by Mills Family Farms, Salinas, CA, that offers QSRs individual premium lettuce leaves that don't require cutting.

Fresh, green produce does pose a problem for chains in that it requires a steady supply of high-quality lettuce and finding ways to use it in the most cost-efficient way. Food-safety concerns run high, too since unwashed lettuce poses safety hazards if not washed properly. Prewashed, precut lettuce products solve that problem to a certain extent, simplifying in-house operations and reducing contaminant threats. The newer products may cost more, but they save money for the chains in the long run, which means that these types of products are likely to stay in demand. But with all the new product introductions and menu innovation, QSRs still don't stray too far from core products and traditional items that have identified the brand and brought in core loyal customers.

R&D finds the flavor
Not long ago, many decisions about what to add to the menu were made by executives, not culinarians or R&D folk. Today, many more research chefs are on staff at many chains and, if not on staff, are consultants to fast-food chains. Not only are menu introductions more on target and interesting, but they are also rolling out faster. Cousins Subs, Menomonee Falls, WI, rolled out a new line of sandwiches in summer 2003 in only 60 days thanks to an outsourced culinary team.

Wilkerson has been helping chains develop products for a long time. He developed the biscuits for Hardee's and is now working on flavored rice dishes. Many flavor companies find signatures for fast-food restaurants by coming up with unique tastes.

"Innovative chefs are the first to come up with interesting flavor combinations of crossover cuisine blending," says Jarretbangs. They lead the way so that ultimately the flavor combinations trickle down to fast food. Soon we may find flavor pairings like tropical fruit and avocados with Asian sauces or traditional Mexican empanadas with flavors from Southeast Asia.

What are the popular flavors today? "We are still in a pattern where people are adventuresome about eating hot, spicy food," says Wilkerson. Taco Bell's new Spicy Chicken Burrito and Wendy's new Chicken Temptations, especially the Spicy Chicken Fillet sandwich, are examples. New flavors coming up include mole, a dark, rich, spicy sauce that shows up on Wheat Ridge, CO-based Qdoba's Chicken Mole burrito. Also, chile peppers are showing up everywhere, especially chipotles and habaneros. New fast-casual chain Pei Wei, Scottsdale, AZ, and new Caribbean chain Jerk Hut, Philadelphia, are two new spicy entries into the field and will likely spark many more and influence flavors at other, more-established chains.

"The consumer is so much more food aware than they ever have been in the past. It creates a whole new level of expectation," says Lombardi. "What is going on now is that people are more aware of different international ethnic flavors, different preparation methods. There is an increased interest in culinary diversity."

Jarretbangs sees Asian flavors that come from Malaysia, Korea, Thailand, regional China and Japan, as well as Caribbean flavors, as new flavors coming along. She observes that the heat that we will see becoming more popular is a sweet heat, pairing sweet and hot flavors in condiments, salad dressings and appetizer dipping sauces.

She also mentions that the new diet crazes beg for products to have more flavor to offset the fat or sugar that's missing. No-sugar-added flavors that syrup companies like Monin, Clearwater, FL, and Torani, South San Francisco, CA, offer are one solution at coffee and drink chains like Seattle-based Starbucks.

Given this new, diverse world, quickly changing, fast-food chains will have to continue to find new products that appeal to a wide variety of not just different people, but of the same people with different needs at different times of the day and week. Lombardi concludes: "Is fast food going to fall away from the scene? No. Have they responded quickly to changes? Yes. Will they continue to do so? Yes, and they will continue to be successful"

Nancy Backas is a Chicago-based freelance writer and chef. She has been writing about the foodservice industry for 20 years and can be reached at [email protected].

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