Christine Blank

All Aboard the Fast-Casual Bandwagon

Taco Bell the latest quick serve to add a fast-casual sister brand.

Quick service brands open new upscale concepts to compete with fast casual.
Taco Bell's new U.S. Taco Co. brand mixes a more comfortable store environment with premium menu options to compete for fast-casual customers. Taco Bell

Fast casual has dominated foodservice success stories in recent years, with the category sporting an 11 percent sales hike in 2013, according to Technomic. That success has inspired several traditional quick-service brands to jump on the fast-casual bandwagon with wholly new sister brands, the latest example being Taco Bell with its new U.S. Taco Co. and Urban Taproom brand.

With its edgy “Day of the Dead” theming and upscale fusion menu items, U.S. Taco Co. aims to stand out from both Taco Bell as well as other fast-casual operators.

Chef for Hire

Quick serves enlist culinary consultants to boost menu offerings.

Quick service restaurant brands hire chefs to develop new innovative menus.
Peet's Coffee & Tea enlisted chef Arnold Eric Wong to develop its “Fresh Grab & Go” menu, which includes salads and other healthier items. Peet's Coffee & Tea

In an attempt to elevate their menu offerings, some quick-serve chains are teaming with professional chefs to revamp and upscale their food and beverage products.

Atlanta-based Great Wraps; Greensboro, North Carolina–based Biscuitville; and Emeryville, California–based Peet’s Coffee & Tea are three brands that have recently hired seasoned chefs to spearhead new-menu campaigns.

Operators: Is Winter Over Yet?

Sales, traffic down in parts of country hardest hit by winter weather.

Quick service brands see slow sales growth from winter snow and ice storms.
Pancheros, which has 65 units and is based in the Midwest, has experienced slower sales growth due to winter storms.

As winter storms continue to wreak havoc in the Midwest, Northeast, and Southeast U.S., a bleak sales picture among limited-service restaurants is starting to emerge.

Foodservice sales in the regions most affected by snow and ice storms dropped between 7 and 8 percent in January and February, according to foodservice consulting firm Technomic. National foodservice sales declined between 3 and 4 percent overall as a result.

Are Bitcoins Legit?

Some operators accept digital currency, even as it stirs up controversy.

Quick service concepts like Rise in North Carolina are accepting bitcoin money.
Rise, a biscuit and doughnut shop in Durham, North Carolina, started accepting bitcoins last month.

Despite controversies surrounding the virtual currency bitcoin, a growing number of quick-serve restaurants, bakeries, coffee shops, and bars are allowing their customers to pay for their food and beverages via the digital currency.

Bitcoins are a currency that is transferred directly between buyer and seller typically via digital wallets, eliminating the need for bank transaction fees. The currency’s value is based on an ever-changing algorithm.

Deep Dive

Quick-serve brands capitalize on seafood sales during Lent.

Quick serve Long John Silver's serves lobster bite option as special Lent offer.
Long John Silver's rolled out Norway Lobster Bites in time for the busy Lent season.

Recognizing the potential sales lift that seafood items produce during the Lenten season, many quick-serve chains are once again launching fish-based LTOs in preparation of Lent, which starts March 5. And with more pressure to stand out from an increasingly competitive field, many brands are enhancing their menu and marketing programs to get better exposure for their seafood LTOs.

This year’s more innovative seafood offerings include items like Mojo Fish Tacos from Tropical Smoothie Café and Norway Lobster Bites from Long John Silver’s.

Love is in the Air

Valentine’s Day promotions abound as operators take advantage of splurging consumers.

White Castle Valentine's Day promotion enhances quick service experience.
For 20 years, White Castle has offered a Valentine's Day promotion that turns the stores into white-tablecloth restaurants.

Quick-serve chains across the country are rolling out Valentine’s Day promotions to attract customers for the special day and, in some cases, the entire month of February.

C-Stores Eating Your Lunch

Improved foodservice offerings helping convenience stores steal business from quick service.

Convenience stores compete with quick service with fresh food menu items.
Nice N Easy, an 89-unit convenience store chain, offers high-quality foodservice offerings to compete with nearby restaurants.

Convenience stores have greatly improved their foodservice offerings in recent years, and a Technomic report released last month shows that those offerings may be stealing significant business from quick-serve restaurants.

Technomic’s “Consumer Brand Metrics (CBM): Convenience Store Shopper Insights Report” found that 26 percent of C-store customers would have purchased their meal or snack from fast-food restaurants if they had not bought them in convenience stores. Technomic surveyed more than 4,000 C-store shoppers in November and December.

Burgers By Design

McDonald’s, White Castle test ordering kiosks that allow for burger customization.

New touch screen ordering kiosks find home at fast food restaurants.
Last month, White Castle debuted a new touch-screen ordering system at a Columbus, Ohio, unit.

Recent technology enhancements by White Castle and McDonald’s show that even traditional quick-service burger chains are considering letting patrons customize their orders.

Last month, White Castle added two touch-screen ordering kiosks at a renovated restaurant in its hometown of Columbus, Ohio. It is the only restaurant in the family-owned, 406-unit chain to feature the kiosks, which are part of a pilot project. The large screens allow customers to order their burgers exactly as they like them in the privacy of the kiosk area, says White Castle vice president Jamie Richardson.

Game Time

Brands’ mobile games build customer sales, loyalty.

Mobile games like Chipotle's Scarecrow app give fast food restaurants promo tool
Chipotle's "The Scarecrow" game was downloaded more than 530,000 times. Chipotle

A handful of quick-service brands released games for mobile platforms in 2013, and the apps proved to be more than just for fun. In fact, some brands are reporting increased sales and customer loyalty by integrating games within their apps.

Among the restaurant companies that found success this year with app games were Blimpie, McDonald’s, and Chipotle.

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