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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.”