When news that more quick-serve and fast-casual restaurants were experimenting with alcohol beverage service emerged in the last decade, many operators and experts followed it with a skepticism chaser. Analysts warned that costly liquor licensing, regulatory details, and staffing issues were just a few hurdles that could offset any potential sales of a few stiff drinks.
It’s the conundrum befuddling limited-service restaurant operators the world over: How do you answer consumer demand for healthier menu items when so many customers are scared away by health-food claims? How do you help fight off the nation’s obesity epidemic when the entire business is designed around tasty, indulgent menu options?
Like a tropical storm, many different elements came together in 2013 to create a standout year for Fiesta Restaurant Group, parent company to fast-casual brands Pollo Tropical and Taco Cabana. After years of climbing sales and store counts, tinkering with the store design and menu, and strategic growth and marketing initiatives, both brands landed on the Contenders list for the first time, Pollo Tropical at No. 62, Taco Cabana at No. 64.
But while the two brands share a parent company, they don’t share many other resources or even markets. Not yet, anyway.
Earlier this year, research firm The NPD Group confirmed what many in the quick-service industry have known for years: The breakfast wars are real, and there’s more at stake then a Waffle Taco or a better cup of coffee. NPD’s “A Look into the Future of Foodservice” report found that the quick-service segment showed the strongest increase in breakfast visits of all restaurant segments, with a 4 percent increase in 2013 over 2012.
With speculation swirling that the frozen-yogurt market might be nearing a saturation point, fro-yo operators are working hard to diversify their concepts for long-term sustainability.
Some brands are building out their product lineup, making room on their menus for items like smoothies, coffee, juice, and a range of food offerings. Other brands, meanwhile, are squeezing into smaller footprints or repurposing existing stores as new concepts.
Change is afoot at the drive-thru window. While the principles of the drive thru have remained the same for decades, new technology and tighter operations are ensuring that menuboards and broader menu strategies will evolve as brands attempt to maximize the outdoor lane.
One important drive-thru innovation came roughly 25 years ago, when King-Casey, a retail consulting and design firm, worked with Burger King to place pre-selling signs along the path to purchase, where customers wait to get to the drive-thru ordering station, says Tom Cook, principal at King-Casey.
As the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) finalizes guidelines for the restaurant industry to voluntarily reduce sodium levels on menus, some limited-service restaurants are already using a “stealth health” approach to sodium removal, choosing to keep the effort mostly under wraps.
For the most part, the lobster’s place in restaurants has been restricted to fine dining, where bake-stuffed tails can cost as much as a steak dinner. The other place to find lobsters has been in family-run venues, where white-bibbed diners crack open the shells to get to the good stuff.
But now lobsters are crawling their way into more quick-serve settings, thanks to robust supply levels and high-tech processing plants that can take lobster from the Maine coast to more tables in much shorter times and in fresher forms.