Menu Innovations | January 2012 | By Barney Wolf

Popular Menu Proteins

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“For an operation our size to commit to that is pretty amazing,” says the company’s executive chef, Dan Barash.

The change came with a small price hike among many franchisees, “but we felt this was the right thing to do,” he says. “We didn’t make a big deal about it. We just did it.”

Burritos range from $5.29 to $6.39.

Moe’s also offers tofu, the soybean-based alternative protein available at several other limited-service restaurants, including Noodles & Co. and Pei Wei Asian Diner. Much of the fast-casual tofu is organic.

Freebirds World Burrito has served grass-fed beef from Uruguay for a number of years. The 60-unit chain added natural pork in 2007 and switched to natural chicken a year later.

“Grass-fed beef is a little more expensive, but we think it is worthwhile,” says Steve Byrne, vice president of purchasing and culinary operations at Tavistock Restaurants, the Emeryville, California–based parent of Freebirds.

“More and more, people who are eating out want what’s good for them, what’s natural,” he says. “We decided we could help them make a choice by having great products.”

Grass-fed beef has a different flavor profile than meat from grain-fed animals. “You get more steak texture,” Byrne says. “It just has more flavor.”

The availability of grass-fed beef made a big difference for chef Shaun Doty when he opened Yeah! Burger in Atlanta.

“We were looking for great quality, and that dovetailed in finding great grass-fed beef at White Oak Pastures” in Bluffton, Georgia, he says. “I was looking for a local, sustainable provider, and buying from south Georgia hits the nail on the head.”

In addition to hamburgers, Yeah! has a sandwich that uses free-range chicken. His two-store operation also offers some alternative burgers, such as natural turkey, grass-fed bison, and veggie burgers with heirloom peas from South Carolina.

Basic burgers range from $5.99 to $7.99.

Doty has been able to ride a wave of success experienced by premium burger joints, many of which brought fine-dining food attributes to the limited-service world.

One of the first to use natural, upscale beef was The Counter. Since 2003, when founder Jeff Weinstein opened his first restaurant in Santa Monica, California, the enterprise has grown to nearly three-dozen units in 10 states and overseas.

He wanted the burgers to be better than the norm, so they are made with Red Angus beef from Meyer farms, known for environmentally friendly, humane, and free-grazing methods.

“We call it a ‘never never ranch,’ because there is never any hormones or antibiotics,” says Counter executive chef Marc Boussarie. “Red Angus is a superior breed, with more marbling and flavor, and the cattle are prairie-raised on grass and vegetables.”

The chicken and turkey for burgers at The Counter are also naturally raised. Meat-free burgers are made with 11 vegetables.

The Counter is known for build-your-own, one-third pound burgers, with dozens of different cheese, topping, and bun options starting at $8.75.

The chain also features a varying, monthly Market Selection protein choice that is chosen by local operators. Among the varieties have been bison, salmon, crab, carne asada, lamb, and ahi tuna. Bison and a fish protein, like salmon, may join the regular menu.

Even pizza is getting into the act. zpizza celebrated its 25th anniversary last year with a new pie using an all-natural, preservative-free pepperoni. The Irvine, California–based chain already has all-natural turkey among its toppings and wants to add natural ham.

“We start off with a great-tasting product, and our customers can feel better after eating it,” says Sid Fanarof, founder of the nearly 100-unit chain.

Turkey and chicken are perceived as healthier than red meat, so operators have generally found it easier to procure naturally raised poultry than beef.

Panera Bread shifted to antibiotic-free chicken in 2005.

“We couldn’t find the quality of taste and texture in the market at that time for all-white-meat chicken breast,” says Scott Davis, executive vice president and chief concept and innovation officer for the suburban St. Louis–based fast-casual leader with 1,500 units.

“We began working with some smaller farms, discovered the taste we wanted in an antibiotic-free chicken,” he says. It’s now in soups, salads, and sandwiches.

Panera tries to use antibiotic-free birds for its smoked turkey, but that has been harder to source. “There is a limited supply, but we are working through it,” Davis says.

Two of the biggest users of all-natural turkey are CKE Restaurants’ Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s chains, which both introduced a trio of charbroiled turkey burgers in 2010.

Both chains have regular turkey burgers topped with produce and sauce on a bun, but they also sell two special turkey burgers. For Carl’s Jr., it’s guacamole and teriyaki turkey burgers, while Hardee’s has BBQ ranch and a mushroom and Swiss version.

“No one has introduced turkey like us,” says Brad Haley, chief marketing officer for the Carpinteria, California, company that has been a protein innovator. Hardee’s began offering Angus burgers in 2003, followed by Carl’s Jr. the next year.

Turkey burgers have been the chains’ third-best burger introduction.

“Our target group is young, hungry guys, but what we’ve seen is even with this group, there is more concern with where their food comes from and what’s in it,” Haley says.

Still, the quarter-pound turkey burgers—$3.29 for the base version and $3.49 for the special ones—“have to taste good or people won’t eat them.”

Turkey is also showing up in hot dogs at some restaurants and in breakfast meats at chains ranging from Dunkin’ Donuts to Einstein Bros.

A few brands have tried fish sandwiches. McDonald’s has had its Filet-O-Fish for decades and many others have fish promotions associated with Lent. Phillips Seafood Express sells a crab cake sandwich and a crab and shrimp wrap.

Some others offer veggie patties, albeit with limited success. Burger King has had one since the first quarter of 2002. The sandwich features a Morningstar Farms Garden Veggie Patty made of a variety of vegetables, grains, and spices.

A number of Subway restaurants offer a veggie patty under the name Veggie Max or Gardenburger. The Veggie Max has vegetables, egg whites, grains, and other items, while the Gardenburger has mushrooms, rice, onions, cheese, and more.

These two items account for a very small percentage of total sandwich sales.