In the beginning, man created fast food. Now the world had access to burgers, fries, hot dogs, pizza, fried chicken, and soft-serve ice cream, all from the convenience of a walk-up window or drive thru.
And it was good.
If only things today were so simple. Gone are the days when a simple burger with cheese and ketchup retained customer loyalty. Today, guests are demanding much more complex and creative menu items, and hundreds of eager competitors are clamoring to give those to them.
With more pressure on operators than ever to innovate on the menu, we thought you might need some R&D inspiration. We asked professionals from around the industry to tell us what they thought were the most innovative menu items in America, and the following are their picks—along with some of our own—to help spark some ideas.
Think we missed something? Give us a shout on Facebook, where we’ll highlight more of the industry’s most innovative menu items throughout the summer.
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General Tso’Boy’s General Tso’s Sandwich
Battered all-natural chicken thigh, sweet and savory General Tso’s sauce, shredded lettuce, mayonnaise, fresh-baked bread
“We draw a lot of inspiration from our heritage. [My husband Gary and I are] both American-born Chinese. We grew up eating General Tso’s Chicken, much like the rest of America. After many years working in New York City, we wanted to create American Chinese food that was fun, interesting to eat but also convenient, affordable, and made with better ingredients. Our interpretation focuses on all the things we love about General Tso’s Chicken—crispy, savory, sweet, a bit spicy—eaten with our favorite carb, French bread. We keep our batter super light and crispy so that when you’re enjoying the sandwich, you don’t feel guilty. The flavor is still what you’d expect, with less sugar and a touch more ginger.” —Jessica Wu, Cofounder, General Tso’Boy
Capriotti’s The Bobbie
Capriotti’s most popular sandwich is legendary among loyal customers, squeezing a taste of Thanksgiving between two slices of bread. The sandwich includes Butterball turkey (roasted 12 hours each night), cranberry sauce, stuffing, and mayonnaise.
Slapfish’s Clobster Grilled Cheese
Crab and lobster come together in a gooey, cheesy combination on this sandwich, served on grilled sourdough bread and with a drizzle of Jersey sauce.
[SPAGHETTI SANDWICH FACE-OFF]
Burnt Crumbs’ Spaghetti Grilled Cheese
Spaghetti with meat sauce, sliced mozzarella, sourdough bread
“I came home from work one night and was looking for something to eat in the fridge. I saw a plate of leftover spaghetti and some sourdough bread. I thought, ‘I love spaghetti and I love garlic bread, let’s try putting it together.’ I sliced the leftover spaghetti into a patty to fit the sliced bread and added some mozzarella, then toasted it with butter and garlic. I took photos of it and sent it to my partners, and everyone thought I was crazy. Fast-forward three years; we were thinking of adding a grilled-cheese sandwich to the menu, but wanted a refined version that still fit within our theme of creating sandwiches that evoke childhood memories. I pitched the idea for the Spaghetti Grilled Cheese and made it for the entire team. Everyone loved it, and we decided to add it to the menu, thinking we’d be happy if we could sell 10 of these a day. People started taking pictures of it and posting it on social media, and within a couple of weeks, we were part of something that went completely viral.” —Paul Cao, Chef & Founder, Burnt Crumbs
The Carving Board’s Spaghetti and Meatballwich
Meatballs, garlic basil marinara, melted mozzarella, parmesan spaghetti
“The Spaghetti & Meatballwich can be eaten like any traditional sandwich. It consists of spaghetti ‘bread,’ which is made in-house by combining cheese, garlic, cooked spaghetti, and egg whites to help hold it together. The spaghetti bread is then layered with fresh basil, house-made beef meatballs, and mozzarella cheese, and topped with fresh-made marinara sauce and another spaghetti bun. We went through dozens of variations, but they ended up lackluster. My brother suggested we try making the bread entirely out of spaghetti. From there, we experimented with all different combinations, trying to create the right formula for the ‘bread’—ensuring it had the stability to be held like a sandwich and wasn’t a carb overload where the pasta overpowered the dish.” —David Adir, CEO, The Carving Board
[A TASTE OF PLACE]
Souvla’s Lamb Sandwich
Superior Farms lamb leg, pita bread, yogurt, cucumber, feta cheese, radish, pickled red onion
“At Souvla, we mix some traditional and nontraditional elements for our signature Lamb Sandwich. Interestingly enough, pork and chicken are more commonly used in the gyros and souvlaki sandwiches in Greece, but Americans always associate Greek food with lamb. Lamb leg from California’s Superior Farms is spit-roasted and served on Souvla’s fluffy, proprietary pita bread with harissa-spiked yogurt, a slightly spicy yet cooling sauce that complements the lamb well. We top it with chopped cucumber and crumbled feta cheese, two staples of Greek cuisine, and finish with shaved radish and pickled red onion. It’s a sandwich that best reflects Souvla overall: a Greek sandwich shop and wine bar with nods to the traditions of Greece, but with a modern, Californian sensibility.” —Charles Bililies, Founder & CEO, Souvla
Velvet Taco’s Shrimp & Grits Taco
Inspired by a research trip to Charleston, South Carolina, the R&D team at Velvet Taco wanted to offer a spin on the Southern staple that was more accessible to everyday customers. This taco stuffs remoulade sauce, pepper jack corn grits, and blackened shrimp into a corn tortilla, then tops it with tomato-poblano salsa and micro cilantro.
Burger 21’s Bayou Burger
Chef Mike Remes was looking to do a surf-and-turf burger when he came up with the idea for the Bayou Burger. The LTO featured homemade Andouille sausage and turkey burger topped with whole blackened grilled shrimp, sriracha, and remoulade sauce, all of it served on a bed of “Ragin’ Cajun” slaw on a toasted brioche bun.
Tocabe’s Bison Ribs
The Denver-based fast casual Tocabe is known for its traditional Native American cuisine—one of the only multiunit concepts to take so unique an approach—and has earned rave reviews for its Bison Ribs. The ribs are cured for 24 hours, then braised in a house-made bison stock, grilled, and glazed with a seasonal berry barbecue sauce.
KFC’s Georgia Gold Fried Chicken
After the success of its Nashville Hot Chicken, KFC took regionality a step further with the Georgia Gold Fried Chicken, a chicken that’s highlighted by a tangy honey mustard barbecue sauce favored in Georgia.
Your Pie’s Peach Prosciutto Pie
Atlanta-based Your Pie’s pizza ode to Georgia earned the brand a trip to the World Pizza Games in Parma, Italy, to compete against some of the world’s best pizza makers. The pizza features peaches, a house-made balsamic reduction, prosciutto, and parmesan.
Pincho Factory’s Toston Burger
Miami’s Pincho Factory brings Latin vibes to this burger, piling an all-natural beef burger, jack cheese, lettuce, tomato, and homemade cilantro sauce between two fried plantains that serve as the buns.
[THE BIG GUYS GET CREATIVE]
Burger King’s Chicken Fries
Are they chicken nuggets? Chicken tenders? Chicken fingers? No; they’re chicken fries. Burger King’s menu item, made up of white meat chicken, is coated in seasoned breading and molded into easily dippable shapes.
Wendy’s Black Bean Burger
The quick-serve industry’s first major black-bean burger, Wendy’s patty was made of peppers, grains, corn, carrots, and a blend of spices, and was then topped with pepper jack cheese and parmesan ranch sauce on a multigrain bun. Alas, the Black Bean Burger was only a test in a few markets, and the company does not have plans to bring it back.
Starbucks’ Bacon & Gruyere Sous Vide Egg Bites
Starbucks, in its quest to enhance its food offerings, rolled out Sous Vide Egg Bites earlier this year. This option includes sous vide eggs and aged Gruyere and Monterey jack cheese, and is topped with applewood-smoked bacon.
Taco Bell’s Doritos Locos Taco
Perhaps the industry’s best menu addition in the last five years, the Doritos Locos Tacos took a seemingly obvious mash-up—come on, who hadn’t thought of Doritos as taco shells before?—and made it one of the chain’s most popular menu platforms, with literally billions of them sold.
Chick-fil-A’s Superfood Side
Chick-fil-A recruited Atlanta chef Ford Fry to develop this new side, made with a blend of kale and broccolini, tossed in a sweet and tangy maple vinaigrette dressing, and topped with dried sour cherries, then served with a blend of roasted nuts. The Superfood Side replaced coleslaw on the menu.
Arby’s Venison Sandwich
Arby’s rolled out its LTO Venison Sandwich last year to honor hunters in more than a dozen markets. The sandwich features a thick-cut venison steak and crispy onions topped with a juniper berry sauce on a toasted specialty roll. The venison—grass-fed red deer from New Zealand—is marinated in salt, pepper, and garlic; sous-vide for 3.5 hours to medium; and then seared quickly to lock in flavor. The juniper berry sauce is a Cabernet steak sauce infused with juniper berries.
[BECAUSE FRIES ALONE ARE BORING]
Smoke’s Jamaican Jerk Poutine
This LTO from Canada’s Smoke’s includes grilled chicken, jerk sauce, red peppers, gravy, and cheese curds on top of a bed of fries.
Carl’s Jr./Hardee’s Budweiser Beer Cheese Fries
Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s complemented their Budweiser Beer Cheese Bacon Burger with this side, which includes the same beer-cheese sauce—a hot and creamy cheddar sauce blended with Budweiser—and is sprinkled with crumbled bacon.
Chi’Lantro BBQ’s Original Kimchi Fries
Emerging from Austin, Texas’s late-night eats scene, this dish includes caramelized kimchi, cheddar and Monterey jack cheeses, onions, cilantro, “magic sauce,” sesame seeds, sriracha, and a choice of five proteins piled onto french fries.
The Hummus & Pita Co.’s Dessert Hummus
Hummus is becoming a sensation in the U.S., but who’s ever had a dessert version? This hummus made of chickpeas and almond butter comes in chocolate, cake batter, and cookie dough flavors.
Good Stuff Eatery’s Toasted Marshmallow Milkshake
This milkshake is for those who ever wanted a taste of the campfire in a frozen treat; toasted marshmallows are blended with milk, sour cream, and vanilla ice cream.
Piada’s Cannoli Chips
What Italian restaurant would be complete without cannoli? Piada gives the traditional dish an authentic touch, with crispy Italian cookies rolled up and tossed in powdered sugar, then served with chocolate chip cream icing.
Cauldron Ice Cream’s S’Mores & Churro Puffle
More on the campfire front: For this dessert, Cauldron’s signature Puffle—a sort of reverse waffle cone—is stuffed with chocolate ice cream, graham cracker crumbs, and torched marshmallow fluff, all of which is made to order with liquid nitrogen.
Veggie Grill’s Beyond Burger
Beyond Meat’s plant-based burger, grilled onions, melted American “cheese,” tomato, iceberg lettuce, signature sauce, sesame bun
“Since our launch in 2006, Veggie Grill has become the go-to destination for veggie-centric food, and this partnership is a bold affirmation of Veggie Grill’s mission to bring innovative, craveable, affordable veggie-centric food to the U.S. This new burger blows away perceptions of what veggie food can be.” —Steve Heeley, CEO, Veggie Grill
Beefsteak’s Beefsteak Burger
The veggie-forward fast casual extends its philosophy to the Beefsteak Burger, which includes a marinated beet, tomato, pickled red onion, sprouts, leaf lettuce, and chipotle mayo on an olive oil brioche bun.
The Chickery’s Cauliflower Sandwich
For those who visit a chicken-focused restaurant without the craving for chicken, there’s The Chickery’s Cauliflower Sandwich. The dish boasts deep-fried cauliflower served between a bun with fresh tomato, buffalo sauce, and ranch.
[SOUP WITH A BITE]
Zoup!’s Rattlesnake Stew
The hearty stew, which took seven months to develop, is made with rabbit and rattlesnake sausage, peppers, brown rice, and spices. The idea for the soup, according to the company, was inspired by its customers’ interest in new and different flavors and ingredients.
Au Bon Pain’s Bacon & Cheddar Kolache
A popular Czech treat that came to the U.S.—and particularly Texas—with immigrants in the mid-1800s, kolaches are a sweet pastry topped with fruit that evolved state-side to include savory meats and cheeses. Au Bon Pain’s recent take on kolaches has a warm, sweet-and-savory dough filled with bacon and melted cheddar.
Shouk’s Breakfast Pita
The Breakfast Pita at this vegan Middle Eastern fast casual starts with a mix of chickpea flour, mushroom, asparagus, potato, and onion that’s fried on the griddle like an egg, then layered on a pita with crushed avocado and a chopped salad of roasted red pepper, tomato, cucumber, onion, and arugula.
With one of the more, ahem, unique names in the restaurant industry, the Slut from Eggslut is unlike anything in limited service. An egg is coddled and then placed on top of a potato purée, poached in a glass jar, topped with gray salt and chives, and served with baguette slices.
Biscuit Head’s Biscuit Donuts
Biscuits are great, and so are doughnuts. But together? It’s a breakfast match made in heaven. Asheville, North Carolina’s Biscuit Head combines the two with a sweet dough that’s fried, rolled in cinnamon sugar, and coated with powered sugar. The shareable Biscuit Donuts are then served with fresh fruit and a tart homemade lemon curd.
Del Taco’s Huevos Rancheros Epic Burrito
Grilled eggs, slow-cooked pinto beans, chorizo, roasted chile salsa, avocado, cheddar cheese, sour cream, corn and flour tortillas
“This burrito was inspired by a simple question: How can we deliver what is typically a sit-down, brunch-style dish in a portable form? We had all the fresh and great-tasting ingredients to create the experience. What we needed to overcome was how to deliver that signature corn tortilla flavor while also making it easy to eat for guests on the go. The breakthrough came when we learned that the best way to accomplish this was to start by heat-pressing two corn tortillas into an oversized flour tortilla on our grills. Layering in the authentic corn taste brought it all together.” —Anne Albertine, Director of Research and Development, Del Taco
[MILLENNIAL TRENDS COLLIDE]
Pokeatery’s Pokecado Toast
Wondering what would result when you combined the ever-popular poke with the ever-more-popular avocado toast? Wonder no more. Pokeatery’s Pokecado Toast offers artisan whole-wheat sourdough toast topped with a customer’s choice of fresh fish, avocado, and extra toppings.
Need more inspirational eats? Here are some other innovative menu items from around the limited-service restaurant industry.
• Which Wich’s Classic Superfood Wich
• Melt Shop’s Fried Chicken Sandwich
• Schlotzsky’s Tex-Mex Brisket Sandwich
• White Castle’s Chicken & Waffle Slider
• ’Wichcraft’s Pork & Slaw
• Freebirds World Burrito’s Tempeh Calabacitas
• Xoco’s Braised Goat Caldo Torta
• Biju’s Little CurryShop’s Masala “Dosa” Waffle
• Qdoba’s Knockout Tacos
• World Street Kitchen’s Korean BBQ Beef Short Rib Bangkok Burrito
• Little Caesars Bacon-Wrapped Crust DEEP! DEEP! Dish Pizza
• PizzaRev’s Cauliflower Power Pizza
• Blaze Pizza’s Salad Pizza
• East Side Pie’s Working Man Pizza
• Brenz Pizza’s Tres Amigos
• Mooyah’s Double Diablo
• Larkburger’s Chimichurri Bacon Cheeseburger
• Gott’s Roadside’s Kimchi Burger
• Grindhouse Killer Burger’s Hillbilly-Style Burger
• Zombie Burger’s The Walking Ched
• Crushed Red’s This Pear Is On Fire Salad
• Chopt’s Warm Hatch Chile Grain Bowl
• Burrito Beach’s Avocado Is for Lovers Bowl
• MAD Greens’ Genghis Khan Salad
• Mixt’s Sombrero Grain Bowl
This story originally appeared in QSR's June 2017 issue with the title "The Showstoppers."