Menu Innovations | December 2013 | By Barney Wolf

Farewell, French Fry

New fried sides give customers a wider variety of options to go with their entrée.

Fast food chains reinvent fried side dishes.
Onion rings are the most popular fried side item after french fries, according to Technomic’s MenuMonitor tool. thinkstockphotos.com
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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.

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.”