Special Report | January 2012 | By Robert Lillegard

Top 7 Quick Serve Trends for 2012

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5. Emphasis on Handmade

Some concepts are taking a “homemade” approach to differentiate themselves from their competitors and even take some market share from full-service restaurants.

Moe’s Southwest Grill Brand President Paul Damico says that as the burrito fast casual introduced more artisanal quality products, it’s gained a lot of customer support.

“We have received feedback via e-mail, Facebook and Twitter from customers who were pleasantly surprised to discover they could get that level of quality protein from a fast-casual restaurant,” Damico says. “Guest response has been overwhelmingly positive.”

Suzy Monford would agree. As the president of EZ’s Brick Oven and Grill, she’s focused on do-it-yourself products like Caesar salad with from-scratch dressing and hand-formed pizzas with dough made fresh daily. She says that when done right, making condiments and entrées from scratch attracts customers and is cheaper than buying from suppliers.

“Customers will reward you and shop your concept if you’re culinary is credible,” Monford says. “You’re going to see more fast-casual chains making more of their menu mix from scratch.”

However, credibility and authenticity is key. Brands should introduce changes one at a time and make it believable.

Liz Aviles, the vice president of market intelligence for Chicago-based marketing agency Upshot, says Domino’s recently provided a pitch-perfect example of what not to do. Aviles says the brand’s strategy of creating pizzas with slightly different ingredients and using the term artisanal in marketing efforts makes consumers feel like the term is “overplayed.”

6. Bargain Hunting

While most of the experts QSR talked to were optimistic about consumer confidence in 2012, they were quick to caution that the recession is still on everyone’s mind. Next year’s consumers will be spending more but looking for bargains.

“There is a loosening of the wallet, but the key is that consumers are much more informed.”

“There is a loosening of the wallet, but the key is that consumers are much more informed,” Aviles says. “I don’t think we’re going to go back to any sort of pre-recession [spending] levels.“

Social media discounts, one-day-only promotions, and coupons will continue to be a draw, as will value menus (see trend 1). Aviles says deal sites like Groupon will continue to grow in popularity as chains begin to learn what deals work for them.

“We will see more national brands tapping into Groupon, and I think they’ll be smarter and more strategic about it,” Aviles says. “The consumer is still very promotionally driven.”

7. Online Ordering and Mobile Tech

Finally, mobile technology and online ordering will continue to expand.

Danny Bendas, a managing partner with Synergy Restaurant Consultants, says that both ordering and price comparisons will increasingly happen through mobile devices.

“There’s going to be a much stronger notion to use your phone to place orders or to shop for values,” Bendas says. “I think the iPad and other handheld technology is only going to increase in all venues, but in particular fast-casual and quick-serve restaurants.”

Did QSR’s predictions for last year’s seven hottest trends come true? Here’s what we heard from experts at the beginning of 2011.

  1. Mobile technology will be integrated into in-store operations.

  2. Social media gaming technology will bring interactive advertising to customers.

  3. Quick serves will be more transparent about menu and pricing information.

  4. Companies will use crowdsourcing to design menus and signage.

  5. Sensational menu items will decline as brands focus on signature items.

  6. Nontraditional locations will become more popular.

  7. Prices will gradually rise.

Pizza places like Papa John’s have already made wide use of online ordering, and it’s spreading to other quick serves as well. Specialty’s Café and Bakery, which has locations in California, Illinois, and New York, offers a number of online ordering options, including in-store pickup, delivery, and even CookieGrams where customers can e-mail a free coupon for a cookie to their friends.

Wow Bao is another chain picking up on this trend. Through itswebsite, the company takes orders for pickup and also ships its bao (steamed buns with Asian fillings) nationwide. Online ordering has an advantage for chains besides convenience—automatic upselling.

“The ticket average typically is higher because there’s more cues given to have people add on,” Bendas says. “You’re not relying on a human to ask those questions.”

Finally, Hahn-Griffiths of Leo Burnett, expects location-based services to become more popular. Map apps will allow customers to find the nearest outlet of a chain but also give operators the option to push lunchtime sales with immediate e-coupons delivered directly to cell phones.

“Location-based services are really critical,” Hahn-Griffiths says. “You can electronically tap people on the shoulder. You get that impulse of hunger—anything that can help you navigate is going to be a significant value.”

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