The growing demand for customization in quick-service can be attributed to consumer insistence on a “me society” and operators’ intense battle for food-share.

Customization in fast food began with the burger wars. The early McDonald’s model launched a take-it-my-way attack, with a batch and bin management method of burger delivery. Archenemy Burger King countered in 1974 with the popular “Have It Your Way” campaign to differentiate its brand with an assemble-to-order system. “Burger King’s success with ‘Have It Your Way’ was due to its ability to create a customer-centric product without delay in order-to-delivery time and without an increase in price,” says Dennis Lombardi, executive vice president of foodservice strategies for WD Partners, a nationwide design and development firm for multi-unit operators.

McDonald’s fought back, but not until 1998, with “Made For You,” its version of an assemble-to-order system that added considerable expense to franchisees and more time in line for customers.

Today, menu customization remains a critical business strategy for competing in the fast-food industry. “Increased mass customization is indigenous to our modern culture. It transcends the restaurant industry,” Lombardi says. Think iPods, cell phones, Dell computers, and cable television channels. Even the Food Network narrowcasts with programming to fit individual tastes and preferences.

“There are simply more opportunities to hear about food in print or broadcast media,” says Steven Goldstein, president of FoodThinque consultancy in New York. “People are more knowledgeable about food. And this plays into the consumerism of ‘I want what I want,’” Goldstein says.

According to Goldstein, another driver of customization is diet—whether it’s a perceived or real medical condition or food restriction, food allergy, or a weight loss plan prescribed to by Atkins, South Beach, Zone followers, and the like.

Jeff Sinelli, president of Which Wich based in Dallas, adds that customers have become increasingly concerned about what they eat. “A more enlightened consumer is driving demand for customization,” Sinelli says. “Diet companies like Jenny Craig, Weight Watchers, and NutriSystem have directed a spotlight on the content of our foods. More restaurants are adding caloric count and fat content for certain items on their menus.” And, he adds, the consumer has spoken on the issue of trans fat, saying “No thank you,” and requiring many manufacturers and restaurants to take the offender out of their products.

According to the QSR® Consumer Survey, 32 percent of Americans eat fast food at least once a week. Eating out is a function of a mobile society, perpetuating more irregular eating times and feeding the demand for easy eat-in or take-out options. “Customers want to be able to personalize their menu choices to their tastes. Getting the exact flavor you want increases the likelihood of a repeat visit,” says Mark Godward, president of Strategic Restaurant Engineering, an operations consulting firm.

Lombardi adds that consumers will persist in their freedom to choose. “Quick-serves face the challenge of continuously introducing new products—with the ability to customize them. Consumers consider it their right and the attitude is, ‘If you can’t do it, I’ll find someone who can.’”

Quality Factor

Customized hamburgers and warm deli sandwiches have paved way for the customized hot dog. “Quick-serves are quick to observe that consumers are willing to pay for quality and variety,” says Howard Eirinberg, president of Vienna Beef in Chicago. For example, hamburger chains charge more for using Angus beef in their products. McDonald’s offers grilled chicken strips as a more expensive and healthier alternative to its fried chicken nuggets, while Quiznos prime rib steak sandwich costs more than other toasted varieties.

From a marketing standpoint, the hot dog is in the right place at the right time. Fast food and fast-casual inquiries for the Vienna hot dog have skyrocketed as operators seek ways to turn a low-ticket item ($2) into a higher one. This is possible with the right breads and condiments, and with a focus on converting the hot dog from kid to adult status and asking $4–$5 for the premium menu item. “It’s tough to pay the rent in quick-service for a $2 hot dog,” Eirinberg says. “But if you take one of America’s favorite foods and customize it, you can command up to $4 and more. Plus you’re in a position to expand your audience to kids and adults.”

Three-year-old Which Wich concept took the cold sandwich to the next level with its line of 40 hotwiches, available through a low-tech ordering system that puts a new spin on brown bagging it. Customers order by checking off pre-printed menu items on sandwich bags. They can customize from type of fresh baked bread to choice of cheeses and meats, additional ingredients and spreads. Customer requests for heat (jalapeño) or sweet (bell peppers) further enable the customization process according to Sinelli. “We are providing the core product—a sandwich—and customers finish it off to their liking,” he says.

The menu at El Pollo Loco, a 371-unit concept based in Southern California, consists of meals and combos centered on its citrus marinated flame-grilled chicken. Customers pick from a dozen side dishes, flour or corn tortillas, and then visit the salsa bar to flavor up their custom dish. Salad bowls, burritos, nachos, and other Mexican favorites complete the chicken line-up and can also be modified by the customer. “We cook-to-order to meet the guest’s taste expectations,” says Karen Eadon, chief marketing officer at El Pollo Loco.

Taco John’s, based in Cheyenne, Wyoming, has 430 locations with recipes dedicated to combining seasoned meats—beef or chicken, crisp potato o’les, and cheeses in a variety of tacos, burritos, quesadillas, and salads. The customer can call for bold spices, sauces, and toppings that accent the core menu items. President Brian Dixon says Taco John’s is introducing the salsa-bar concept to its locations to put the exclamation point on customization. “It has a powerful appeal to customers.”

Lombardi anticipates that continued upscaling throughout the industry will feed the fury over customization. He believes the modern quick-serve will improve kitchen functionality and re-design its interior to create a more inviting dine-in space to attract customers. Upscaling will lead to enhanced job satisfaction and a new breed of customers who are willing to pay an extra $2–$3 to enjoy a unique, custom experience.

In the end, custom branding—and delivery on the brand promise—will secure a space for quick-serves beyond the 99-cent burger wars.


Sidebar: Custom Opportunities
There’s more to customization than bread, spread, filling, and garnish.

Culture: “The single biggest operational challenge to customization is culture,” remarks Steven Goldstein, president of FoodThinque consultancy in New York City. The “This is the way we’ve always done it” mentality does not work here. Goldstein says operators have to define what customization means to them at the highest level of the organization and then reach into the crux of the operation to those who do the work. “People tend to support what they help create,” he asserts. “You have to foster an inclusive environment when change is in order, as line employees are the ones who can control outcomes and respond to unintended consequences of even the smallest changes on a menu.”

Create A Common Language: Starbucks has created a cult rich with its own language by which customers order their overtly customized beverage. Can you say “double tall, nonfat, one-pump, mocha with light whip?” At In-N-Out Burger customers call their eats by name—“3×3,” “Protein Style,” “Animal Style”—and then tweak the hamburger from there. “Once you realize it is a customized order, control the dialogue, and close the loop on it,” explains Mark Godward, president of strategic restaurant engineering for WD Partners. “There should be a consistent structure for what is being asked of the product.”

Order Entry/Flow: “The clarity of the ordering process directly affects the production line and ultimately ensures a satisfied customer,” says Karen Eadon, chief marketing officer at El Pollo Loco. In her opinion, an order taker who is properly trained and listens intently will make it easier for the kitchen to assemble the item and save critical seconds in order flow time. Taco John’s President Brian Dixon says the biggest issue in point of sale is training the employee that “yes” is always the right answer to a customized discussion. For example, “Yes, and would you like to have extra nacho cheese with that?” This customer interaction is highly important and can provide opportunities for up-selling items and incremental profitability. A point-of-sale system also has to be in-sync with back-of-the-house product display, monitoring, and communication systems.

Standardize For The Masses: Which Wich, El Pollo Loco, Taco John’s, and In-N-Out Burger are all focusing on their core competency first, then customizing things from there. Standardizing ingredients and portions across the menu makes it easier for employees to get the order right. And simplifying prep work and having standard procedures for handling products saves critical seconds in order fulfillment.

Delivery Process: Dennis Lombardi, executive vice president of foodservice strategies for WD Partners talks about three types of product delivery in quick-service: cook-to-order (In-N-Out Burger), assemble-to-order (Burger King), pre-assembly or pick-and-pay (Jack in the Box). The latter, also known as bin management, makes customization very difficult. Each of these models and their variations dictate the type of equipment that is used. For example, in assemble-to-order, meat items can be cooked slightly ahead of service, held at appropriate temperatures in special drawers, and assembled for delivery. Simply holding a wrapped product requires bins and heat lamps situated near the front of the house. The kitchen will be engineered completely differently for a cook to process orders. There is no question that product quality improves as an operation comes closer to cook to order. Godward says the current trend of toast-to-order is catching fire and giving new meaning to the term fresh made.

Engage The Customer: Which Wich’s brown bag ordering system creates a unique interaction with the customer by putting them in control of product delivery. (There are still employees at the counter to help wayward customers.) Early adopters of mass computerization are testing and installing walk-up kiosks with a touchscreen and payment handling system for customers to place orders. And already, the Internet is being used by customers to pre-order their food for pick up. Which Wich founder Jeff Sinelli notes that mass computerization does not come cheap nor does it replace human interaction—or “true hospitality”—in the restaurant business.

Regional Variances: Each year, Sinelli conducts a menu analysis to find ways to finish his hotwiches according to regional customer tastes. For instance, in the Midwest, giardiniera is a popular condiment. The growing Hispanic population is bringing a spicier palate to the table in the form of pepperoncini and jalapeño peppers, among others. Eadon says that while the citrus-marinated chicken has broad appeal and consumer acceptance, El Pollo Loco modifies its salsa bars according to specific customer tastes for mild, spicy, or hot in different parts of the country. “People are more sophisticated about flavors,” Eadon says. “Customization helps us bridge regional differences.”

Other regional considerations: LTOs, value menus, lighter appetites, and premium beverages. Even seasonal differences might call for new products, e.g. Starbucks’ pumpkin spice coffee in October or peppermint-flavor in January.

Sidebar: Serving a Haute Dog
Vienna’s Executive Chef Mark Sobczak offers a few things to think about.

Upsizing: Half-pound dogs are turning up on menus versus quarter-pound and smaller.

Toppings: Consider cheeses, chili, bacon, and unexpected ingredients like roasted peppers, seasoned black beans, fresh spinach, and onion straws. A variety of flavored mayonnaises, relishes, and barbecue sauces also deserve a second thought.

Bread Selection: Take the hot dog off the bun and use a sub roll, onion roll, wrap (tortilla or pita), pannini, ciabatta, or sourdough bread.

Cooking Method: Steaming, flat-top, char-grilling, or deep-frying are all options.

Presentation Options: A hot dog can be served open face, butterflied, or even skinless. 

Consumer Trends, Fast Casual, Health & Wellness, Menu Innovations, Story, El Pollo Loco, McDonald's, Taco John's, Which Wich