Affordability. Value. Taste. Fast-food buyers seem to have simple needs, but they’re actually pretty demanding. So when one chain finds a new menu item or strategy that proves to be a hit, others quickly jump on board. The current jostling for novel offerings is particularly fierce. From deluxe ingredients to bizarre flavour combinations, these are the innovations that today’s top quick-service restaurants are betting on to get hungry mouths through the door.
1. Mini sizes: With fast-food customers increasingly popping in for snacks between meals, restaurants help to assuage their guilt (while feeding their cravings) by offering smaller portions of their most popular products. From the McMini sandwich to Dairy Queen’s Mini-Blizzards to Starbucks Petites pastries, mini sizes can boost sales at outlets by up to 20%.
2. Upscale ingredients: “Black Angus,” “artisan” and “bistro” aren’t the sort of terms that used to appear on fast-food menus, but QSRs are increasingly adding fancier (or at least fancier-sounding) items to attract new customers and get existing ones to pay higher prices. Tim Hortons is offering “specialty” bagels (such as Sun-dried Tomato Asiago Parm), while at McDonald’s in Paris you can now buy the McBaguette.
3. ‘Healthy’ treats: Consumers tell pollsters they want healthy fast food—then they don’t buy it. Which helps explain why Wendy’s now offers apples padded with 340 calories worth of caramel and ice cream. And while smoothies, the fastest-growing item, may have real fruit, it’s often in the form of purees as sugary as pie filling.
4. A little spice: Spice is hot because it’s an easy way to reduce salt without losing flavour. And tests have found Canadian fast food to be saltier than U.S. and U.K. versions. The chains are trying to find their own spins on the spice trend, with KFC recently adding a spicy Double Down sandwich called the Zinger, while Wendy’s spicy chicken club comes with a fast-food rarity: guacamole.
5. Beer and wine: Alcoholic drinks are common at fast-food restaurants in many parts of the world, and for a simple reason: beer and wine draw customers in the evenings beyond meal times, and come with high markups. Some chains, including Starbucks, Burger King and burger chain White Castle, are testing alcohol sales in their U.S. outlets. In Canada, you can get a beer or a glass of wine with your meal at a chain like Pizza Hut, but only in dine-in locations.
6. Bacon!: Burger King’s bacon sundae (yes, you read that right) may only be available in the southern U.S. for now, but consumers on both sides of the border have been pigging out lately on this salty meat. Bacon burgers are everywhere, Burger King is offering poutine with bacon, and you can order bacon on the side at McDonald’s.
7. Gluten-free options: Only 1% of the population is seriously gluten-intolerant, but interest in eliminating the protein to improve digestion led to a 61% increase of gluten-free menu items in the U.S. last year. That trend has now reached fast food: Subway is testing gluten-free bread and brownies, and McDonald’s offers gluten-free buns in Europe. In Canada, the easiest fast food to get without gluten is pizza—Pizza Pizza, 241 Pizza and Pizzaiolo all have safe crusts.
8. Late-night bites: Midnight to 5 a.m. is the fastest-growing time segment for fast-food consumption, and restaurants such as Burger King, McDonald’s and Dunkin’ Donuts are increasing store hours to cash in on night owls. The most popular late-night food under the golden arches? The classic Big Mac.