Innovation Heats Up in Quick-Service Restaurant Industry

    From drive-thru to social media, brands are racing to win over guests.

    The Travis Scott meal includes the fresh beef Quarter Pounder with Cheese, sizzling bacon, and crisp lettuce; medium World Famous Fries with BBQ Sauce to dip, and a Sprite.
    McDonald's
    The Travis Scott collaboration was a big hit for McDonald's.

    In the last year and a half, quick-service restaurants have radically transformed as a result of ever-changing governmental regulations, supply chain disruptions, and new priorities such as the health of consumers. Perhaps more than any other industry, the pandemic forced consumer-facing brands to evolve in real-time almost daily. Unprecedented change also brings unparalleled opportunity. As the world reopens and consumer testing resumes, quick-serves can sustain their momentum by forming a dynamic understanding of their products and consumers to spark intuitive fast-food experiences and menu extensions.

    Once walking up to a counter and ordering a burger was a thing of the past, quick-service chains had to figure out how to continue making money—and fast. The race to connect as many consumers as possible with their products (safely) began. Initially, this manifested in partnering with third-party delivery services, extending dining outdoors, and perfecting the art of curbside pickup (the darling of the pandemic). After a taste of elevated convenience, consumers craved more. Chains across the country started treating their drive-thrus to facelifts and boosting their online presence to replace physical transactions and increase efficiency.

    Shake Shack introduced a prototype with a lane exclusively for customers who ordered ahead on their app. Panera partnered with Google Maps, so consumers searching for the nearest bite to eat could click on their location and immediately hit “order now.” Some restaurants turned to process efficiencies to augment the consumer experience. Ono Hawaiian Barbecue launched a limited drive-thru-only menu that highlights menu items that travel well and are easy to serve, decreasing consumers’ wait time. Though the world might be reopening, consumers used to this new level of convenience are unlikely to return to their old habits.

    Unsurprisingly, the rise of drive-thrus and contactless ordering trickled down to consumer insights testing. Since parking lots and passenger seats replaced their meticulously designed in-person dining areas, quick-service restaurants suddenly felt far less in control of their consumers’ experience. Consumer insights firms provided brands with a window into consumers’ minivans from first drive-through interaction to trash disposal. Armed with a comprehensive product and packaging narrative that illuminates consumer needs and desires, chains could evolve quicker and align more confidently with their consumers. Consumer insights empower a new quick-service standard, from special packaging developed to keep French fries pristine after a car ride and innovative cup design that prevents spilling during transportation.

    Amid the pandemic’s chaos, consumers reached for products that provided a sense of comfort and connection to simpler times. Some quick-serves capitalized on this pattern. Insomnia Cookies launched an ice-cream flavored cookie line and a new brand, Big Kids, emerged with gourmet twists on childhood favorites like macaroni and cheese and Icees. However, comfort-seeking consumers played just one role in deterring restaurants from extreme menu innovation. Widespread closures of consumer testing firms caused in-person and sensory testing to be impossible for months. Once insights were more readily available, brands needed to focus on more pressing problems at hand—such as how to serve their food efficiently. Issues with the supply chain also made it difficult to add new vendors and ingredients to their circulation. Comfort food was consumers’ go-to, but it also worked in favor of quick-service restaurant companies.

    With fewer exciting new product rollouts, quick-serves needed to find new ways to reintroduce established menu items. These marketing needs coinciding with a massive uptick in platforms such as Instagram and TikTok provided the perfect opportunity for influencer partnerships. McDonald’s launched the “Travis Scott Meal.” Though the meal wasn’t exactly out of the ordinary (a quarter pounder with cheese, bacon, lettuce, fries, and a sprite), it got a new celebrity stamp of approval and a huge social media following. Likewise, Roti utilized social media to start a “National Hummus Month” campaign to draw fresh attention to an established menu staple. With digital marketing as one of the only ways to connect with consumers during the pandemic, brands channeled their inner millennials and dived headfirst into the social media game.

    Now that quick-service restaurants and consumers alike are catching their stride and returning to their everyday routines, operators will be able to learn more about this new post-pandemic consumer and how they interact with their products. If we’ve learned anything from history and the period of economic and social resilience of the 1920s that followed the Spanish Flu of 1918, the next few years will be filled with vitality and growth. Consumer insights are the bridge that will connect brands with their consumers and inform strategic innovation.

    Sean Bisceglia is the CEO of Curion. Sean specializes in accelerating growth, establishing market leadership positions, and launching disruptive technologies for various industries spanning from marketing and staffing to human capital. He founded and led four companies that achieved rapid market acceptance and global distribution of its products and services.