Pork was promoted for years as “the other white meat” to boost its exposure and dispel consumer perception that it’s too fatty. These days, pork is anything but “other” at many limited-service restaurants, though it’s often under the guise of specific ingredients: Menus mention items like sausage at breakfast, pepperoni for pizzas, and ham on sandwiches. And of course there’s bacon, a foodservice staple made from pork bellies.
Pork is increasingly finding a home on quick-serve menus due to consumers’ evolving tastes and the product’s flexibility and cost-effectiveness.
Statistics developed by market research firm Technomic Inc. found that pork volume at limited-service restaurants increased 2.6 percent over the past two years. Pork mentions on regular menus remained little changed last year from 2012, but limited-time offers featuring pork other than bacon soared 61 percent at the top 500 quick-service and fast-casual eateries, Technomic found. LTOs with bacon rose 28 percent.
The firm dubbed pork “the latest protein star” in its 2014 trends predictions, since the meat is used so many ways: in traditional American dishes, in Hispanic and other ethnic fare, and in regional items like barbecue, which is a growing category unto itself.
Price has a lot to do with it, says Elizabeth Freier, a Technomic editor. “Rising beef prices are definitely influencing menu development, and many operators are trying different proteins, including pork,” she says. Pork also fits with consumers’ desire for comfort foods, Freier adds.
Stephen Gerike, director of foodservice marketing for the National Pork Board, says the protein is ubiquitous in the morning meal. “We own breakfast,” he says.
Of course, pork shares that title with eggs. According to market research firm Datassential, three-quarters of limited-service eateries serve eggs in breakfast sandwiches, followed by bacon, ham, and sausage.
Hardee’s has all three of those meats, including a maple-flavored sausage, in breakfast biscuit sandwiches. The chain has also offered a limited-time breaded pork chop and gravy biscuit.
Another burger brand, Krystal, offers bacon and sausage in its breakfast sandwiches and reintroduced its Sunriser, which has a square sausage patty steamed on the grill with the bun on top, similar to a Krystal burger. Egg and cheese are added.
“I made the sausage a little spicier this time around,” says Stan Dorsey, executive chef and vice president of culinary strategy at the Chattanooga, Tennessee–based company. “You have to be a little left or right of center, or you’re just like everyone else.”
Krystal spent “considerable time and effort” on breakfast items, including with its Scramblers, which are plate breakfasts, including sausage and bacon, in a bowl.
Bacon’s big advantage is its adaptability across the menu. It’s a key ingredient in many limited-service sandwiches and plays a role in various soups, salads, and side dishes. One big change in recent years is the proliferation of restaurants using thicker, wood-smoked bacons to provide deeper, richer flavor.
Gerike says consumers have high expectations for bacon, and “restaurants have learned they can’t get away with a thin slice of nondescript bacon.”
There are flavored bacons, as well. Caribou Coffee, for instance, has had a winter holiday Maple Bacon, Egg, and Gruyere breakfast sandwich on wheat ciabatta. And in Austin, Texas, the appropriately named limited-service restaurant Bacon has 20 different types of bacon, from vanilla pepper to Tabasco, with a different one featured daily.
“Bacon is the hottest thing out there,” says Dorsey, noting that Krystal uses a medium-cut, hickory-smoked variety. He’s testing smoked pepper bacon for new sandwiches, and “if this product line takes hold, I would like to try others, like maple- or applewood-smoked.”
Another product, pulled pork, has gained considerable traction in quick-service restaurants. Like bacon, pulled pork is extremely adaptable.
“It’s carnitas, it’s the base for Cuban sandwiches, the base for banh mi Vietnamese sandwiches, and much more,” Gerike says. “Pulled pork is the real workhorse of quick-service restaurants because of its versatility.”
Denver-based Noodles & Co. added pulled pork as a regular meat option in 2012.
“We were examining our menu, and pork was missing,” says Tessa Stamper, Noodles’ executive chef and registered dietician. Adding pork made sense, she says, because it is a global protein that could be used across Noodles’ menu. “It was almost an intuitive extension.”
After developing a set of parameters for the meat, Stamper’s staff met with suppliers to identify a product that had the taste and texture to work with both noodle dishes and sandwiches. They selected the pork cushion, a rich part of the shoulder.
“We really wanted the flavor of the pork to stand out, and with the addition of some seasoning, created a very savory product,” she says. After salt, pepper, oregano, and thyme are added, the meat cooks at least six hours “to seal in that extra layer of flavor.” The pork, which is hand-pulled in the stores, is also used in a barbecue sandwich and is part of limited-time offers such as the Pork Adobo Flatbread and Thai Hot Pot.
Carnitas refers to a Mexican slow-cooking process for meat, and pork carnitas have been on Chipotle Mexican Grill’s menu since the Denver-based company debuted in 1993. The current version uses pork shoulder seasoned with thyme, juniper, and cracked black pepper. The naturally raised pork is slowly braised and then shredded.
Salsarita’s Fresh Cantina employs pork from near the loin that is cooked slowly by a vendor using the chain’s proprietary recipe of cumin, citrus, garlic, and other ingredients. The tender, braised meat is finished in the stores by being pulled into chunks and then heated.
“We use a leaner meat than the pork butt typically used for pork carnitas,” says Tom LaFauci, menu development manager and chef for the Charlotte, North Carolina–based Mexican fast casual. “This fits us better.”
Chicken is the top protein in Salsarita’s burritos, tacos, quesadillas, and bowls, “but pork is starting to gain traction,” the chef says. “It’s one of those options that makes you still feel you are getting a great deal,” he says. “It’s nowhere near the price point of beef.”
Several of the chain’s units serve breakfast featuring hickory-smoked bacon and whole-hog sausage, but chorizo, a spicy Mexican sausage, was tested and rejected. “Our guests made it loud and clear they didn’t want anything over the top,” LaFauci says.
Chorizo is available at a handful of Moe’s Southwest Grill locations that serve the morning meal, but the company’s main pork item across the menu is meat pulled from a shoulder cut rubbed with spices and cooked slowly in a tomatillo-based sauce.
“It’s all about the tender, savory flavor of the pork,” says Pat Peterson, executive chef for the chain, based in Atlanta. “The verde sauce gives it an acidic brightness. There are real Southwestern notes, with brown sugar and garlic salt in the rub.”
Unlike heavier tomato-based barbecue sauces often used with pulled pork, “the tomatillo really lifts up the flavor,” he says. The company is looking at ways to use pulled pork in some new items and is considering chorizo for others.
El Pollo Loco, a quick-service restaurant company known for its Mexican-style chicken dishes, also has dabbled in pork. The chain featured pulled pork in several limited-time offers two years ago that did so well that they returned last year.
“We have the luxury of fitting in a spot in the market that appeals to both Hispanic guests and to the general population,” says Heather Gardea, executive chef and vice president of research and development for the Costa Mesa, California–based company.
“Pork plays well because it is traditional and harkens back to a homey aesthetic,” she adds. “For us, it’s a natural fit for tacos, quesadillas, and burritos.”
El Pollo Loco worked with different cuts of meats, spices, and marinades, layering flavors and textures to create flexible, but authentic, carnitas. A pork cushion was chosen because it provides “this great, deep flavor that develops over time,” Gardea says.
Pork is a major protein in a number of Asian nations, and it shows up in items like the egg rolls at Pei Wei Asian Diner, the barbecue pork baos at Wow Bao, and in pork and chicken meatballs at ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen.
Pizza makers have added a variety of new pork products, with many large and small players making pulled pork and chorizo part of their menus, which already include traditional varieties of sausage, bacon, meatballs, and pepperoni. Some fast-casual pizza operators have gone beyond that. Sbarro’s fast-casual brand, Pizza Cucinova, features toppings like prosciutto and soppressata, a dry Italian salami.
Pork products have been important to sandwich builders for years, and items such as ham, salami, and pepperoni remain popular among consumers. The three top-selling sandwiches at Firehouse Subs include pork, led by the Hook & Ladder, featuring Virginia honey ham from Smithfield Foods among its ingredients.
“Pork brings rich flavor,” says John Robertson, senior director of technical services for the Jacksonville, Florida–based sub chain. “The fat is great for the flavor and moisture.”
Firehouse Subs has also had success with pulled pork in LTOs, using meat from pork butts smoked by a vendor using hickory, pecan, mesquite, and oak woods. The pulled pork also will be part of a new regular sandwich, Thai Chile Pork, Robertson says.
The most popular sandwich at Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin–based Cousins Subs has long been the Ham and Provolone offering, while the most pork-centric is the Big Daddy, with two types of ham, cotechino bologna, Genoa salami, and pepperoni. Cousins has also featured home-state Johnsonville bratwurst in some limited-time specials and created others that use pulled pork.
“When we do LTOs, we usually run them in pairs, so we need something versatile,” says Justin McCoy, vice president of marketing.
One LTO duo last year included a sandwich with pulled pork and steak along with the Cubano, Cousins’ version of a Cuban sandwich, which included other traditional ingredients of that build: ham, Swiss cheese, mustard, and dill pickles.
Several limited-service restaurants have looked to their own Cuban-inspired menu items, including Dunkin’ Donuts. Even Moe’s tried a Cuban-style burrito.
Newk’s Eatery, based in Jackson, Mississippi, launched a Cuban sandwich and two other limited-time offerings last fall featuring pork tenderloin that was hand-rubbed with spices and brined at the restaurants before being roasted and sliced.
“We started playing around with the idea of a pork product for a Cuban sandwich that also could be paired with our ‘Q’ white barbecue sauce in another sandwich,” says Alan Wright, vice president of marketing and franchise development for the fast-casual chain. “We also offered it in catering, so it was a great extension to our menu—a win-win-win for us. The pork had a lot of good customer comments, and we’re going to have some variation on it in the future.”
One innovative use of pork in the limited-service industry is the brown sugar roasted pork loin at Fresh To Order, an Atlanta-based fast casual with about a dozen locations. The loin, listed at the top of the chain’s long-plate menu, is house-brined and then crusted with brown sugar, olive oil, rosemary, salt, and pepper. After being roasted daily, the pork is carved to order and served with sweet mashed potatoes and apricot chutney.
“The pork does fantastically well” with those sides, says Jesse Gideon, the company’s chief operating officer and corporate chef. “It is easy to manage, with a great meaty texture. It provides very good plate coverage and great value, because it’s not expensive.”
There’s a smaller, appetizer-size version of the pork loin plate, and the meat does double duty in sandwiches, salads, and the Brunswick stew. The pork panini, for instance, also features sweet potato aioli, caramelized onions, lettuce, and two cheese varieties.