At fine-dining restaurants and even some trendy new fast casuals, chefs have become unexpected rock stars—sought by restaurateurs, investors, and consumers alike. For this reason, it’s somewhat ironic that chefs and menu developers at the largest and most recognizable quick serves are rarely in the spotlight. Instead, they tinker away in kitchens, travel to new cities for inspiration, and collaborate with operations, marketing, and other departments to breathe life into their creations.
Consumers and even other industry professionals may assume that these chefs do not innovate the way their counterparts in smaller restaurant systems do. But that’s not necessarily true; instead of cooking a seasonal offering that will feed thousands of patrons, they must conceive of menu items that can meet the demand of millions in a single week. From sourcing the raw materials to executing the recipe in a high-quality, quick manner, these chefs are pushing the envelope to deliver fresher, more interesting food that is still affordable and fast.
They may not be television celebrities or rock stars, but these unsung heroes are driving new trends through the industry’s largest, most influential brands.
Chief Food Innovation Officer
From pizza sliders and Fire-Baked Flatbreads to flavored crusts like ginger and curry, Pizza Hut has a menu strategy that is decidedly outside the (delivery) box. In January, the brand revealed its newest creation: a crust composed of 16 cheese-stuffed garlic knots.
So where does such off-the-wall thinking come in?
If you ask chief food innovation officer Claes Petersson, it stems from an unbridled enthusiasm for the product. And a bit of inspiration from James Bond.
“I love to eat—that’s why I’m on the planet. I eat a lot, I take my team out to eat; we travel together,” Petersson says. He and his team will do these dine-around trips about six times a year, while also sampling the competition about once a quarter. “I think the best way to get to know the future is eating. … It’s also very important to link that to the DNA of your food and brand.”
Petersson’s team consists of four leaders, one of whom, Chef Wiley Bates, he calls his “Q,” referring to the fictional inventor behind 007’s most impressive gizmos. Bates is always on the lookout for new trends, and Petersson says he tries not to restrict his ideas, especially since Bates works with suppliers and knows what can and cannot be executed on a large scale.
But even as creative as Pizza Hut is, Petersson and his team know that certain food trends in fine dining or even smaller concepts cannot be applied to a chain of some 13,000 global stores.
“We won’t next month put fresh white shaved truffles on our pizza with fried rock shrimp … but we are learning and eating our way through innovation. And then we take the ideas we think fit with the DNA of our food,” Petersson says. “We have so many great suppliers, and every supplier has their own Q in their organization, so when all those experts come together, they know what we can execute in the store and not.”
Originally from Sweden, Petersson had worked at Sonic Drive-In and Godiva before joining the Pizza Hut team last May. He ascended to his current role in January, making the Stuffed Garlic Knots Pizza his first “baby” with the brand.
Looking ahead, Petersson says consumers can expect to see Pizza Hut continue to improve the building blocks by fine-tuning ingredients to create the best dough, sauce, cheese, and “the best of everything.” Overall, it is the direction the industry is heading, he says, and over the next decade, U.S. foodservice will be using less sugar.
“I think it’s a beautiful challenge and opportunity for all of us to use less sugar. Make tasty and beautiful food and drinks without all the artificialness or the sugar that has been in the business many years,” he says.
Vice President of Research and Development
El Pollo Loco
When it comes to picking a menu item or platform she’s most proud of, Chef Heather Gardea, vice president of R&D for El Pollo Loco, has a tough time.
“I think of the new items kind of like a new boyfriend: I always like the one I’m with right now the most,” she says, adding that her favorites today are burritos and quesadillas. “It’s such a great landscape to get to play in. They’re forms that allow you to put unique textures and flavors and add a little mystery in there.”
El Pollo Loco’s eclectic background offers no shortage of inspiration, from its California roots to its Latin fare to its chicken-centric menu. Gardea says the brand purposely created an environment that championed new and different flavors and encouraged guests to take part in flavor exploration.
To ensure that an unfamiliar flavor does not alienate customers, Gardea recommends combining it with something well known. Whether it’s a familiar carrier, like a burrito or salad, or a familiar product, such as the Fire-Grilled Chicken, the dichotomy offers customers a safe way to expand their palates.
Recent feathers in the brand’s cap include limited-time Baja Shrimp (featured in tacos, an enchilada, salad, and bowl) and four varieties of Hand-Carved Chicken Salads.
Gardea says inspiration can appear just about anywhere: traveling to a new place, picking up a magazine, or perusing local produce at the grocery store. Brick-and-mortar restaurants are no longer the sole originators of new culinary trends.
“The ideas come from everywhere. Certainly we pull from fine dining down into our category, but you’re also seeing it the other way: pulling from the food trucks up and elevating that cuisine to something a little bit more. They’ve done a great job of opening the door—especially in California—for more high-end flavor profiles at the quick-serve area,” Gardea says.
No matter the origin of a trend, the two biggest challenges in executing them across the system are quality control and speed of service. Many El Pollo Loco locations include drive thrus, and customers expect their orders to be prepared quickly. Because meal prep like fire grilling takes more than an hour, the staff must anticipate volume ahead of time. Management and cooks are trained to find the right balance between high-quality, unique items and a quick turnaround time.
And while El Pollo Loco does deliver on its promise to be quick, Gardea predicts that slower ways of eating will make a resurgence.
“I see a lot coming from forms even more so than flavors,” she says. “We’re seeing a lot of bowls and knife-and-fork items coming back versus all hand-held. … Previously everything in quick service had to be eaten in a car or eaten with one hand.”
Senior Director of Product Development and Innovation
The origins of Arby’s “Fast Crafted” platform can likely be traced back to a single item: the Smokehouse Brisket. While its launch in 2013 was an instant success, the path leading to the final product was a longer, more meandering one.
“We tried to crack this code around barbecue, knowing people love barbecue sandwiches and it’s a popular thing. But through many, many failures, we realized that barbecue is, for all intents and purposes, a very regional play. … We weren’t given permission from guests saying that we could pull off barbecue,” says Neville Craw, Arby’s corporate chef and senior director of product development and innovation, who has been with the brand for nearly a dozen years.
The team tried to create layers of smoky flavors with its roast beef, in-house meats and sauces, but Craw says it wasn’t hitting the mark. Then he and his team reconsidered the equation.
“What’s the one thing we know would deliver on smoky flavor? Smoked meats. What’s the one smoked meat that makes the most sense and is trending?” Craw says the answer was brisket. Brisket allowed more flexibility for consumer tastes because it could be imbued with barbecue flavors and sauces or not. Arby’s partnered with a company that had used the same smoking method for more than 40 years, and Craw says it’s definitely on the premium side in terms of quick-service offerings, but also as authentic as any neighborhood smokehouse or barbecue place.
Consumer taste was an integral factor in creating the Smokehouse Brisket, and it continues to inspire and guide the menu strategy. Craw is proud (and happy to repeat) that Arby’s culinary endeavors begin and end with a conversation with the guest. Everything from guest surveys and panels to in-person panels help inform what flavors customers would like to see, what combinations pique their interest, and how much they want the brand to push the envelope.
Limited-time offers have become a strong component of the Arby’s menu, and Craw says that any LTO has the possibility of becoming a permanent menu item, although factors like how complex it is to execute and seasonality do play a role.
LTOs also provide another test round for any new items to gauge customer interest, particularly for foods that are outside the brand’s usual wheelhouse. The Smokehouse Brisket certainly surpassed expectations, and Craw also has a soft spot for the gyro LTO, which was introduced in 2006 and then offered again in 2014.
“On the surface it sounded very nichey, but the flavors just worked. We were able to marry what we do best with our roast beef with flatbreads and a sauce that’s got a great cucumber flavor, and kind of make it our own without really tarnishing what a gyro stands for: the portability and the soft bread and the great flavors,” Craw says. The newest version was slightly tweaked from the original, he adds, with an enhanced bread carrier to get “that right amount of bite and chew and softness.”
Because Arby’s menu rests so firmly on its meat selection, Craw imagines that future changes will build from that foundation. As with the Smokehouse portfolio, he’d like to see the brand do something equally pioneering.
“We’re scouring the world for things like short rib, and [they’re] maybe not ready for today, but who knows in the future? It might be something we might be able to do in the right context—come up with a cool short rib sandwich,” he says.
If one brand came roaring out of the 2016 gates with a hot new product ready to go, it was KFC. In January, the brand launched its limited-time Nashville Hot Chicken and took a food truck tour to eight lesser-known Nasvhilles, from Kansas to Minnesota to North Carolina, to promote the special.
A major brand undertaking a food truck road trip is noteworthy itself, but the real story is in the chicken. Nashville Hot Chicken is one of those rare trends in today’s globalized, foodie world that is more or less confined to the state of Tennessee, if not the Music City limits. Only small, specialty concepts like Carla Hall’s Southern Kitchen in New York have embraced the dish; no large chain had co-opted the regional favorite ahead of KFC.
“We did some extensive testing with consumers. We drove to Nashville, hit all the places that you can find on the Internet that sell Nashville Hot,” says KFC’s corporate chef Bob Das. He adds that different restaurants had different approaches to the taste and the heat level. “We got back to Louisville, and we really just sat down on the bench and cranked out a bunch of different flavor profiles that were similar, adding different elements of smokiness, touches of sweetness, and so on. We probably went through 50–60 different versions before we really came out with the one with the right heat level and the right flavors.”
KFC tested it with customers in the Louisville, Kentucky, and Dallas markets. And while Das says his team had to go back to the drawing board a few times, the process from start to launch was a mere 10 months.
As is the case with most larger chains, the idea to explore Nashville Hot Chicken was first sparked as a result of consumer feedback. Das says customers were looking for something spicy on the menu, and it turned out the trend wasn’t limited to Millennials; Nashville Hot appealed to a broad swath of consumers.
The discussion around menu strategy at KFC also extends to franchisees (many of whom Das says have amazing ideas) and supplier chefs, with whom he meets on a quarterly basis. Like Yum! sister brand Pizza Hut, KFC also makes “food safaris” to other restaurants, including small mom-and-pop stores, to identify great-tasting products and encourage fresh ideas.
“It really helps to just get out of your own kitchen,” Das says. Nevertheless, there are certain challenges unique to bigger brands. “When you’re smaller and there’s only five or 10 units, you can fail fast, and if it doesn’t do well, move onto the next thing. But for 4,000-plus restaurants, you really have to do extensive testing. Not only do you have to make sure the consumers love the idea and the product, you also have to make sure it can work in the back of house.”
KFC still champions its two bone-in chicken stars—Original Recipe and Extra Crispy—but that doesn’t preclude the brand from “ideating around our fried chicken.” Das says authentic barbecue is on the uptick the way artisan pizza and tacos were in years past. He adds that the trend plays well with KFC, which, like barbecue, draws from Southern heritage.
Director of Research and Development
In an industry that often rewards brands that execute very well within a specific daypart or even value range, Del Taco stands confidently contrarian.
The California-based, Mexican-inspired chain has boasted a breakfast program for 30 years—long before it was a buzz-worthy meal—and last year it launched a new Platos platform to bulk up its dinner entrées. At the same time, Del Taco plays the full range of quick-service pricing, with 16 items on its Buck & Under menu, as well as more premium selections like the Epic Burritos and Handcrafted Ensaladas going up to about $8.
“We are uniquely positioned to really deliver that fresh, quality food on par with fast casual,” says Anne Albertine, director of R&D for Del Taco. “Our menu is diverse. It meets a real broad range of consumer needs and occasions.”
But how does Del Taco manage to play across so many different dayparts and price points? If you ask Albertine, it’s a combination of a small but mighty R&D group and creative, flexible counterparts on the operations side. Without these two teams working in concert, execution would fall flat or prices would skyrocket.
Albertine cites last year’s launch of the freshly grilled Carne Asada steak platform, which included several new dishes like the Carne Asada Street Taco and the Carne Asada Epic Scrambler.
“It comes in marinated, but we cook it in-house, and it’s an expensive protein. We really had to work with ops on creating that so that we had the right mix of profitability, as well as ability to execute,” she says. Operations also helped make fresh slices of avocado a regular part of the menu, which Albertine says has become a huge differentiator for Del Taco. “The reality is the chef can only do so much without collaborative partnership with ops. … Our ops team was really able to deliver this without compromising speed and ... quality.”
Moving forward, Del Taco will dig deeper into its roots and enhance its authenticity. This year it will replace the breakfast sausage on its menu with a signature chorizo sausage, which Albertine says will differentiate the brand and pay tribute to its Mexican heritage. She also sees a great deal of potential in mining the brand’s heritage for new sauces like the Del Fuego Sauce and new salsas like the new Roasted Chile Salsa, made of four chilies, including chile de árbol and chipotle jalapeño.
“Everyone has a different perception of spicy,” Albertine says. “But our consumers skew tolerant and they want and accept and just really crave the spicy flavor.”