Menu Innovations | February 2011 | By Barney Wolf

Trickle-Down Theory

Even without the white tablecloths, quick-serve brands are beginning to rival fine-dining establishments.

There was a time when the only place you could find Black Angus beef on a menu was at some of the nation’s finest steakhouses. But these days, Angus burgers are served at McDonald’s, Back Yard Burgers, Carl’s Jr., Hardee’s, and Smashburger and are just one of many fine-dining menu items, ingredients, and techniques that were adopted by quick-service and fast-casual restaurants over the last decade.

“Traditionally, we have seen food ideas filter down from fine dining to casual and then to quick service,” says Brad Barnes, a certified master chef and the associate dean for culinary arts at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York.

“It happens with specific dishes, and even with the restaurant’s environment,” he says. “I think you’re seeing even more spices and other ingredients typically associated with fine dining being used in limited-service restaurants.”

Fresh, high-quality ingredients are a hallmark of fine dining, but they have been appropriated by the quick-service sector, particularly fast-casual concepts, as a way to increase value.

A study by the NPD Group found that consumers believe value in restaurants means “fresh ingredients, and fresh-looking and good-tasting food at affordable prices,” says Bonnie Riggs, restaurant industry analyst for the market research firm in Port Washington, New York.

“People are willing to pay a little more” for the freshness and improved taste, she says.

While Angus and other better-beef products are examples of this phenomenon, they are certainly not the only ones. The same occurred with salads, breads, pasta, and fish.

“Americans are becoming more aware and educated about cuisine,” says Dennis Lombardi, executive vice president of foodservice strategy for WD Partners, a retail consulting and design firm in Dublin, Ohio. “That is a combination of the Food Network, other cooking and reality shows, and the growing strength of cookbooks.”

This provides operators the ability to promote better ingredients and to present menu items with more panache, he says.

As flavors, and the ingredients that inspire them, become more readily available, “the trends migrate to other foodservice segments,” says Jane Gibson, executive director of foodservice marketing for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.

This happened increasingly during the recession, she says, when consumers looked for lower price points when dining out and operators saw an opportunity to create a great meal at an affordable price by “taking the burger upscale.”

This helped fast-casual players such as Five Guys Burgers and Fries, The Counter, and Smashburger. It also presented an opportunity to fast feeders, resulting in McDonald’s Angus Third Pounder, Burger King’s Steakhouse XT Burger, and many others.

Angus beef has been available in America for more than a century, but it only migrated to limited service during the past decade. An early chain to embrace it was Back Yard Burgers, the Nashville, Tennessee–based company with about 120 units in 20 states.

“It’s clearly a better product in my opinion,” says Bob Page, the company’s CEO. Back Yard Burgers introduced the beef “to differentiate ourselves in a crowded market.”

Not all Angus is the same. About a quarter of the brand meets stricter standards to qualify as Certified Angus Beef, so that product is more expensive. Among the brands serving Certified Angus Beef are Smashburger and Jersey Mike’s Subs.

High-quality breads and pastries have moved to limited service in a big way, thanks to Panera Bread, Corner Bakery, and other companies that use improved par-baking technology to maintain quality and consistency across their systems.

Salads also went upscale at quick serves.

Initially a mainstay of only the poshest restaurants, salads that feature various greens, top-grade cheeses, and fresh fruits and vegetables migrated to casual restaurants and then to quick-service and fast-casual eateries.

Wendy’s updated Garden Sensation salads include ingredients such as red and green apples, cranberries, pecans, pico de gallo, guacamole, and blue cheese.

To emphasize the salads’ quality, Wendy’s hired well-known fine-dining chef Rick Tramonto as a brand ambassador.

Dressed in chef whites in a culinary kitchen, Tramonto assembled the salads during a Webinar, creating each of the four salads and talking about their ingredients.

“We don’t usually reach out to celebrities, but his role in the culinary world and his connection to Wendy’s made him a perfect spokesman for this,” says Denny Lynch, senior vice president of communications for the Columbus, Ohio–based company.

Wendy’s approach to salads is part of the company’s brand positioning, which focuses on “real” food and superior ingredients. The company recently introduced french fries that use russet potatoes, cut with the skins on and dusted with sea salt.

Salad is also at the heart of Mixt Greens, a San Francisco–based fast-casual chain of eight units in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. The company’s goal is to establish salad as a cuisine and bring fresh, local ingredients to a range of menu items.

Founder and executive chef Andrew Swallow, who graduated from the CIA in Hyde Park, says he was looking to “reinvent the wheel” with Mixt Greens.

“I had great experiences in fine dining, but I was more interested in creating and recreating fast food,” he says. “Instead of opening a fine-dining restaurant where only a small portion of the people could experience it, I wanted to serve everyone.”

 

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