Despite their name, french fries are as American as the 4th of July and are a mainstay in the quick-service universe. Fries are the most popular side item at U.S. limited-service eateries, outpacing others by a wide margin, according to various menu-monitoring reports.
But other fried sides are now showing more growth potential than french fries. As consumers look to experience new flavors and seek a healthy halo from vegetable consumption, restaurateurs are providing more fried-side options.
“Sides allow operators to expand the opportunities around proteins, around signature items,” says Dennis Lombardi, executive vice president of foodservice strategies at WD Partners, a retail and food strategy and design firm. “It allows brands to increase their reach in terms of appeal to people who want more than traditional french fries as an option.”
Despite fries’ overall appeal, they have been on a relative decline, says Bonnie Riggs, restaurant analyst at market research firm NPD Group. “Consumers are looking for something different,” she says. “They also want more choices than in the past.”
The five-year trend for just about all types of fried sides has been down, she adds, as consumers have been trying to save money by leaving sides and drinks off orders. But as the economy has rebounded in the past year or so, some sides have shown an uptick. They include onion rings, sweet potato fries, and even some white potato products, such as breakfast hash browns.
According to the MenuMonitor tool from Chicago-based consulting and market research firm Technomic, onion rings are the most popular fried side items after french fries, followed by cheese sticks and fried cheese and chicken strips/nuggets. Jalapeño poppers and fried mushrooms round out the top five.
Many fried sides are part and parcel of ethnic or regional restaurants, such as egg rolls and potstickers at Chinese restaurants or knishes at some New York–style delis. In many parts of the country, particularly in the South and with barbecue and seafood entrées, hush puppies are second only to french fries.
“It’s a signature item with us and is our delicacy,” says Richard Averitte, vice president of operations at Smithfield’s Chicken ’N Bar-B-Q, of hush puppies, the only fried side item other than french fries at the chain. “It’s what we serve with eastern North Carolina barbecue and sweet tea.”
The chain has its own proprietary mix made with cornmeal from House-Autry Mills, which is located near the barbecue chain’s headquarters in Smithfield, North Carolina.
“We make our hush puppy mix fresh every day in each restaurant and have a hush puppy machine that cranks out two of them at a time,” Averitte says. The menu items “have about the same hold time as fries, so we try to make them fresh. They just taste better that way.”
The cornmeal batter’s consistency is crucial, he says, just as it is for pizza dough. “If it’s too hard, the hush puppies come out small,” Averitte says. “If it’s too loose, they will stick together and form one big hush puppy.”
Hush puppies are also a popular side at Captain D’s. Made from scratch with 11 ingredients, including proprietary spices, the hush puppies are round rather than finger-shaped like at Smithfield’s.
Hush puppies aren’t the only distinct fried-side offering. The Nashville, Tennessee–based chain offers fried okra, a Southern favorite, and rolls out fried green tomatoes as a summer limited-time offering, says James Henderson, chef and vice president of product innovation at the chain.
“The okra has more of a very fine cracker breading, and the fried green tomatoes use a cornmeal batter,” Henderson says. The brand also has a fried dill pickle that employs more of a traditional batter, while some fish items have a Cajun seasoned mix.
“We spend a lot of time and energy experimenting with things, making the batter fit best,” he says. “We come up with our own twist on hush puppies and other fried sides.”
While Mozzarella sticks and jalapeño poppers are found mostly at pizza parlors in the quick-service world, they are “workhorses” of the Captain D’s menu, Henderson says. “Customers are voting with their dollars that they want them on the menu.”
The company has a number of other fried menu items listed as “add-ons,” but which function as sides. These include smaller-than-regular portions of lobster bites and crab poppers, which contain real lobster and crabmeat and are often ordered with a regular entrée.
Determining whether to have a large number of sides (in Captain D’s case) or a limited number (like at Smithfield’s) is a balancing act, says WD Partners’ Lombardi.
“There is a lot of experimenting going on, but what keeps the number of items under control is a good restaurant rationale program,” he says. “You don’t want to complicate operations by increasing SKUs for something not drawing in a lot of people.”
One way to offer sides without boosting the number of ingredients is to develop them so they can be used in several menu items. That is often the case with onion rings.
White Castle, for example, is known for steam cooking its hamburgers on a bed of onions, so it makes sense that the chain also added onion rings and onion chips as sides. They are among the most popular secondary items on the menu.
“It’s a habit that customers formed,” says Kim Bartley, vice president of marketing and site development for the chain.
When Smashburger launched in 2007, the Denver-based company’s founder, Tom Ryan, wanted to do the sides “a little differently,” he says. That led to including Haystack Onions, which are finely sliced in the stores and fried in chicken-fried steak batter. The Haystack Onions are also part of the BBQ, Bacon & Cheddar burger.
French fries are still the top side at Smashburger, but the chain came up with a twist on one version of its fries by tossing them with rosemary, olive oil, and garlic to create Smashfries. There’s also a sweet potato version of Smashfries.
Sweet potato fries have joined the menu at a growing number of restaurants and have been an LTO at big operators like Burger King and Wendy’s.
“We’ve seen a lot of interest from quick-service restaurants and chains,” says Sue Johnson-Langdon, executive director of the North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission. North Carolina is the nation’s largest sweet potato producer.