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.”

 

The menu’s eight regular salads range in price from $7.95 to $11.75. Customers can also design their own salads with a set number of toppings for $6.95. Proteins and premium items cost extra.

Among the toppings are roasted zucchini, toasted pumpkin seeds, jicama, soba noodles, caramelized onions, marinated tofu, and green papaya. The restaurants also offer five varieties of cheese and freshly made dressings.

Many other formally trained chefs have started fast-casual restaurants that feature high-quality menus, presented attractively in contemporary settings—a move that experts say was probably fueled by the bad economy.

“Fast casual is the one segment that has seen traffic growth,” NPD’s Riggs says.

Some operators may also want to emulate CIA grad Steve Ells, who grew Chipotle from one unit in Denver in 1993 to more than 1,000 nationwide.

Ells’ idea was to use high-quality, fresh ingredients in burritos, which were cooked on site in an open kitchen, complete with fine-dining staples like stovetops, pots, pans, knives, and whisks.

“From the beginning, those elements were part of the restaurant,” says Chipotle communications director Chris Arnold.

In recent years, the company focused on the issue of sustainability, committing to use organic and locally produced food when possible. Its naturally raised meat is the kind “often found in fine-dining places,” Arnold says.

Mike Hoque saw an opportunity to bring fresh fish to the quick-service world, so the Dallas Fish Market founder launched the fast-casual seafood house Fish Express.

Fish “is the toughest thing to do in Texas,” he says. “Here, they think fried catfish is seafood. So people thought I was nuts to try this concept.”

Hoque says Fish Express is helping to train consumers to eat fish by offering dishes such as grilled salmon, fish tacos, burgers made of shrimp and fish, shrimp and oyster po’ boys, and salads topped with seafood.

The grilled fish is $11, but most of the other items cost less than $8.50.

The use of premium ingredients extends to the fast-growing world of mobile dining, including Dim and Den Sum, a popular, locally sourced gourmet food truck serving chow with an Asian twist in Cleveland.

Formally trained chef and owner Chris Hodgson features a regular menu, but creates special items depending on availability of seasonal ingredients. Offerings can range from pigs feet burgers to foie gras tater tots.

“The goal was to bring a quality product to the masses at a more reasonable price point. You still can have great food without breaking the bank.”

“Last year we were able to get truffles, so we shaved truffles on everything,” he says. Another time, he and friends went to the woods and hunted for ramps, which he used in several menu items.

Hodgson tries to keep prices as reasonable as possible—often $6 or less—because of his experience working in white tablecloth restaurants. “None of my friends could ever come in to eat anything I made,” he says. “It was just too expensive.”

Other companies and entrepreneurs are trying to bring upscale ethnic cuisine to consumers in a quick-service setting. P.F. Chang’s China Bistro, for instance, migrated some of its menu items to its fast-casual creation, Pei Wei Asian Dinner.

Italian fare is important at one of the nation’s first fast-casual restaurants, Wolfgang Puck Express, which was launched in 1991 by the chain’s namesake celebrity chef. Many recipes came from Puck’s fine-dining places.

“It was a completely different type of operation,” says Joe Essa, president of Wolfgang Puck Worldwide. “The goal was to bring a quality product to the masses at a more reasonable price point. You still can have great food without breaking the bank.”

The chain’s open-kitchen design is now a mainstay of the fast-casual movement.

At the chain’s 41 locations, the pizza dough is the same used in Puck’s fine-dining restaurants. But the similarities don’t stop there; the chain also offers several staples from his fine-dining operations, such as the margherita and pepperoni pizzas, four-cheese ravioli, and the Chinois Chicken Salad.

Other celebrity chefs followed Puck into limited service, including Bobby Flay (Bobby’s Burger Palace) and Rick Bayless (xoco).

Although food ideas normally trickle down from fine dining to other restaurant sectors, there is now considerable cross-pollination. It’s become just as typical for ideas to trickle up, says Thomas J. Macrina, chairman of the American Academy of Chefs.

“Just look at the decision by the quick-service guys to remove trans fats from their menus, plus all the technological innovations they’ve made,” says Macrina, who is also executive chef at the Desmond Great Valley Hotel and Conference Center in Malvern, Pennsylvania.

Consumers are accustomed to choosing several small items—a burger, fries, and even dessert—at a quick-service meal, so it’s no surprise that small plates and mini-desserts are hot at many popular full-service restaurants, he says.

CIA associate dean Barnes also sees signs of the trickle-up theory.

“People are craving things not found in fine dining,” he says. “The fast-casual places in particular make delicious and attractive food, which has been at the core of what fine-dining restaurants have always done. That’s a big change.”