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.’”
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.