According to a study by market research firm Datassential, adding sweet potatoes to the menu has grown fastest in the quick-service restaurant space, with a 117 percent increase between 2007 and 2013. At the same time, white potato penetration fell 3 percent.
“A lot of it is related to the healthy halo that surrounds the sweet potato,” says Chuck Zachman, vice president of sales and marketing at Trinity Frozen Foods, a sweet potato processor based in Charlotte, North Carolina. Considered a superfood due to their high amounts of vitamin C, calcium, and iron, sweet potatoes are “perceived as a healthier alternative,” he says.
White Castle added sweet potato fries to its menu in 2007. The item stayed there for five years, and the company is deciding whether to bring it back.
“In today’s marketplace, the variety-seeking consumer is mirroring the variety-seeking user of technology,” Bartley says. “As a result, something cool and great last year may not be the same this year.”
White Castle still has plenty of other fried side choices: Chicken Rings (the chain’s version of a fried chicken side), Mozzarella Cheese Sticks, and Fish Nibblers, which are bite-sized battered fish nuggets. Hash Brown Nibblers and French Toast sticks are on the menu for breakfast.
New side additions are approached very carefully, Bartley says. “We have limited equipment,” she says. “It becomes a capacity issue with our kitchen, and we have to decide if we are only cannibalizing sales or if we are adding margin or extra visits.”
Smashburger’s regular menu not only has items like Sweet Potato Smashfries and Haystack Onions, but it also offers Veggie Frites, which are flash-fried carrots and green beans with sea salt. “They’re lighter and healthier,” Ryan says.
The chain also has a fried dill pickle chip on its “secret menu,” as well as special fried sides in different parts of the country: sliced Hatch chiles in Colorado, jalapeños in Texas, green tomatoes in New Orleans and Alabama, and banana peppers in the Ohio River valley.
Sweet Potato Smashfries were originally a regional side in Dallas.
“I showcased our core menu on a national television program and put the sweet potato fries in that segment,” Ryan says. “Within 48–72 hours, we were deluged with requests from all over. We hit on some latent demand and added them to our menu.”
One operator that has traditionally employed a large number of fried items as a differentiator has decided that a more modern direction is to update the typical side. Pudgie’s Famous Chicken, with five Long Island locations, has been known for its skinless fried chicken and a laundry list of fried sides, including broccoli and cheese poppers, corn nuggets, Mozzarella sticks, breaded mushrooms, and breaded zucchini slices.
In the past year, however, the company began to transition the menu to attract a younger, broader audience, says Gary Occhiogrosso, president and chief development officer of Pudgie’s parent company, Trufoods.
“We looked at what people want and how can we take those common items and make them craveable, unique, and our own,” he says.
Many of the items will be launched next year, when the company opens its new prototype unit. As an alternative to onion rings, the company’s development team came up with a shaved onion, which is a fresh, thin-cut onion breaded with proprietary ingredients and then fried. The shaved onion also will be part of a new burger.
Zucchini sticks “are an off-the-shelf item sold by us and a million others,” Occhiogrosso says, “so we will do zucchini chips, which are thin-cut like a pickle—ultra thin and ultra crispy. We take a zucchini stick and kick it up a notch.” The zucchini chips will be served with fresh dill sauce.
Rather than a straight sweet potato fry, Pudgie’s will have a waffle-cut one.
“We wanted to do unique and upscale sides,” says Anthony Leone, chief operating officer, who led the new menu development. “It’s ideal for what people are looking for out there: a better product, a fresher product.”
Existing Pudgie’s stores will use the older fried sides because customers are tied to them, Occhiogrosso says. New units will have the updated menu with fewer sides.
“What I have learned is less is more,” Leone says. “I’d rather do less, but do them very, very well and have them known as signature items.”