Most fast-casual pizzerias emulate Chipotle’s wildly successful model, with premium or organic ingredients used to create pies, including build-your-own versions, along an assembly line. The pizzas are baked in a few minutes in very hot ovens.
Fast-casual pizza brands are mostly regional for now, but operators spent 2013 selling franchise rights to seemingly every major market in the U.S.
Pretzel bread becomes the “it” ingredient
The last year was a banner year for new product launches and limited-time offers. Operators carefully combined new ingredients to create menu items that grabbed the attention of consumers seeking more flavor, healthier components, and better value.
Perhaps no item captured the public’s attention this year quite like the pretzel bun. These salty-sweet rolls have been carriers at some regional and casual eateries for years, but the Pretzel Bacon Cheeseburger at Wendy’s this summer pushed them into quick service in a major way.
“We were able to discover an artisan bakery that could produce a great product and still supply 6,200 restaurants,” Lynch says, noting that the brand first succeeded with flatbread offerings. “We tested [the Pretzel Bacon Cheeseburger] in three markets in January, and people began talking about it on social media.”
Sonic followed suit by adding hot dogs on pretzel buns, dubbed Pretzel Dogs. Wendy’s went on to put chicken on its bun, and Dunkin’ Donuts rolled out its Pretzel Roll Roast Beef Sandwich.
“The pretzel bun and other creative bread carriers are an offshoot of the artisnal trend that has been growing,” says Mary Chapman, director of product innovation for Chicago-based restaurant research and consulting firm Technomic. “People are interested in trying different types of breads, and these pretzel buns have a great taste and texture.”
Line between quick service, fast casual continues to blur
More restaurant companies and entrepreneurs used 2013 to open new fast-casual concepts. Among the many fast-casual eateries to greet customers this year were Built Custom Burgers from the Counter; Two Madres Mexican Kitchen from Wienerschnitzel’s parent, Galardi Group; and SlowBones Modern BBQ from Boston Market founder, Kip Kolow.
Add to that a multitude of fine-dining restaurant chefs across the country who expanded their own fast-casual eateries, like Spike Mendelsohn with his Good Stuff Eatery—which announced a franchise program in October—and Rick Bayless, whose Tortas Frontera is opening in Philadelphia after years of growth in Chicago.
“There was a lot of scaled-down dining after the recession, and fast-casual restaurants, by focusing on quick service and fresher, higher-quality ingredients, have been the place to go for many of these consumers,” Hartman Group’s Abbott says.
Quick-service restaurants fortified their menus with more premium items to compete, although some are going beyond that to create their own fast-casual concepts. Yum! Brands’ KFC, for example, opened KFC Eleven in Louisville, Kentucky, featuring “hand-crafted food.”
On the other hand, Red Lobster decided to cut bait with its Seaside Express, a fast-casual lunch concept being tested at two of chain’s full-service restaurants in Florida.
Better-for-you foods steal more menuboard real estate
Making kids’ meals healthier was a big deal in 2012, and better-for-you menu items for adults moved to the front this year.
“Consumers are looking for ligher, healthier choices,” NPD’s Riggs says. “You have to have these choices on the menu for those who want them, although most people eating out want to indulge. Even diners not eating light say they want those options on the menu.”
The federal government’s announced intention to ban trans fats could impact some limited-service restaurants, but many of the largest ones already moved away from using the saturated fats. Increasingly, most operators are featuring at least some healthier options.
McDonald’s, which put calorie counts on its menuboard in anticipation of another federal regulation, unveiled McWraps, which are made-to-order wraps with chicken, greens, cucumbers, and sauce. Burger King launched lower-fat, lower-calorie Satisfries, and Chipotle added tofu Sofritas.
Concurrently, consumers are seeking to discover more about their food. Chipotle, known for its commitment to local produce and naturally raised meats, now labels its ingredients with genetically modified organisms on its website.
“Transparency is clearly foremost in many consumers’ minds,” Abbott says. “Does their meat come from a happy cow? What are the sustainable measures being used? Chipotle has clearly raised the bar and put a spotlight on this issue.”
Chipotle stirs up conversation with viral video
When Chipotle developed “The Scarecrow” game and companion animated short film, the idea was to get people thinking about the source of their food and how it is prepared. What the chain got was a lot of buzz and controversy, particularly for the innovative and emotional Moonbot Studios–produced, anti-factory farm film, which went viral with 7.5 million views on YouTube.
The short depicts food production literally as a factory with unappealing cartoon images of animals being treated inhumanely. At the end, the idea of making burritos with fresh, natural products wins out.
Some critics loved the film and its message of sustainable farming, while others thought it unfairly depicted modern farming. Vegetarians saw an anti-meat message, while others found Chipotle hypocritical, because the chain sells a lot of beef, chicken, and pork.
For the company’s part, the film and game were created “to simply show that there are different ways of growing and raising food,” says spokeswoman Danielle Winslow, “and our goal at Chipotle is to constantly look for better, more sustainable practices.”
Political battles spill into quick service
As the country’s politicians have grown increasingly more partisan, those clashes have spilled over into the business world, including in the restaurant space.
“This whole idea of taking political stands has been growing, for good and bad,” says Technomic’s Chapman. “One group protests a company, and another rallies behind it.”
Whether it stems from a request from one chain to refrain from bringing firearms into its stores or viewpoints expressed about the Affordable Care Act, customers’ reactions to companies' political opinions are often angry and can be lasting.
Most restaurants strive to remain above the fray. That was even the case in August, when hundreds of quick-service restaurant workers conducted one-day strikes and walkouts in 50 cities to protest low wages.
Companies generally responded with measured comments about the strike, which had little impact, but which did earn several national headlines. The most conciliatory may have been from McDonald’s, which issued a statement, saying, “We respect our employees’ rights to voice their opinions,” and welcomed them back to work.