Fast Food Chains Put More Produce on the Plate

The freshness of its tomatoes is one of the key factors determining whether or not a franchisee of Jersey Mike’s Subs gets the green light to expand, says Michael Manzo, chief operating officer of the Manasquan, NJ-headquartered quick serve restaurant (QSR) chain with 2,500-plus locations nationwide.

“The freshness of the produce, the lettuce, tomatoes and onions, for example, is a good indicator of the quality standards of an individual restaurant,” says Manzo. “For over 40 years, we’ve washed, sliced, and diced all our produce in-house and it’s a part of the brand we stay true to.”

Fresh produce isn’t typically the first thing associated with QSRs or even fast-casual concepts.

However, “most actually do incorporate fruits and vegetables consistently across their menus — even the most die-hard burger and chicken joints. Potatoes and onions feature prominently, but other ingredients such as avocadoes, tomatoes, salad mixes, bell peppers, corn, and fresh juices are integral to menu items like burritos, salads, cocktails, sandwiches and pizzas,” says Nelia Alamo, vice president of marketing for the Markon Cooperative, Inc., in Salinas, CA.

The Markon Cooperative debuted its Ready-Set-Serve Harvest Crisp Street Taco Salad Blend this fall.

A good example is Chipotle Mexican Grill, a 3,300-plus fast-casual restaurant chain based in Newport Beach, CA. Chipotle purchased some 332 million pounds of produce in 2022, according to the chain’s 2022 Sustainability Report. Top items, in descending order of quantity, were avocados, tomatoes, onions, romaine, lime, lemon, jalapeno, bell peppers, cilantro, and supergreens (romaine, baby kale, and baby spinach), used in regular menu items such as tacos, burritos and quesadillas.

Another great example is Jersey Mike’s Subs. Manzo says that the chain buys and uses 100 million tomatoes a year sourced from 14 repackers across the country, 1,400 acres worth of iceberg lettuce grown by long-time family farms in California and Arizona, and 10 million pounds of Spanish onions from three growers in the Idaho-Eastern Oregon region.


FOR STARTERS: There are beverages. Last summer Wendy’s added to its menu of Dave’s Craft Lemonades by offering its Blueberry Pomegranate Lemonade. The drink is made with real fruit juices and purees. As for salads, the Dublin, OH-headquartered burger chain with over 7,000 restaurants worldwide, offers four produce-rich salads as regular menu items in the fall. These include a Taco Salad, Grilled Chicken Cobb, and Parmesan Caeser as well as Apple Pecan Salad with fresh apples, dried cranberries, and roasted pecans on a bed of lettuces along with grilled chicken and blue cheese. The chain also brought back its seasonal Summer Strawberry Salad this year. It’s made with fresh strawberries, grilled chicken, applewood smoked bacon, candied almonds and a Tuscan cheese blend all on spring mix greens.

 PIZZA: Pizza is the ideal platform for produce and some fast-casual chains have taken full advantage. The Super Shroom Pizza, which starts with a mushroom pesto base topped with mozzarella, pork sausage, fresh mushrooms, fresh spinach, and a rosemary garnish, served as an LTO last winter for MOD Pizza, based in Seattle, WA, with nearly 600 locations in the U.S. and Canada. In September, the Mega Mushroom Pizza, with triple the mushrooms over mozzarella and sauce, was listed as the “What’s Hot” monthly value special by Blaze Pizza, a Pasadena, CA-headquartered chain with 300-plus locations. It’s no wonder mushrooms were the topping of the year according to the 2023 “Slice of the Union” report from Slice, a New York-based technology platform powering the nation’s largest network of pizzerias, appearing on 9% more pizzas than the previous year.

SUBS, BURGERS & SANDWICHES: Mushrooms have made their way into handhelds as well.

“From subs to burgers, mushrooms deliver flavor, boost umami, and provide satisfying ‘meatiness’ in a familiar, well-loved package even a plant-based version,” says Pam Smith, foodservice consultant for Lee’s Summit, MO-headquartered The Mushroom Council.

In the summer of 2021, Jersey Mike’s Subs debuted its Grilled Portabella Mushroom & Swiss hot sub.

“We wanted to have a meatless option on the menu but didn’t want to go the soy route. At first, we tried portabellas in a marinated sauce that we could freeze and slice, but it was messy. So, we went to 17 different mushroom growers with our specs. We wanted only portabellas, caps, and part of the stems, and sliced. Since we wanted the mushrooms sliced, we could use caps that weren’t uniform in size, as a restaurant needs for the center of the plate. We have 11 growers that supply our distributor, which supplies our stores. The product starts with a 14-day shelf life, with at least five days left when it gets to the individual stores. It’s become so popular that we also added a Portabella Cheesesteak and Portabella Chicken Cheesesteak to our menu,” says Manzo.

Last March, diehard mushroom lovers met their match with the new Fried Mushroom Buford LTO at Checkers and Rally’s, an 800-plus location chain of double drive-thru restaurants owned by Checkers Drive-In Restaurants, Inc., in Tampa, FL. Ingredients include two large beef patties topped with Swiss cheese, crisp batter-fried baby portobello mushrooms, a savory mushroom sauce, and caramelized onions on a toasted bun.

“The idea developed as a broader appeal barbell strategy to offer their Mushroom Swiss Burger, made with a rich mushroom sauce, as a value offering and then the Buford to appeal to the higher dollar occasion customer. Unexpectedly, customers started asking for fried mushrooms as a side dish. That was a shock since we are known for our fries. But it’s now created both a value and more premium burger offering, plus a side dish on the menu. In the future, we may consider other fried produce items on both a build as a value offering and as a side. In addition, we are working on another item that will feature fresh produce and be introduced in 2024,” says Andrew Ruga, senior research and development manager and corporate chef.

Fresh California-grown avocado has starred in both seasonal burgers and as additional topping selections at Super Duper Burgers, a 15-location fast food burger chain headquartered in San Francisco, CA.

Ruga says the combination of a mushroom supplier who wanted to expand the markets it served and therefore flexible with its minimum order requirement and a breading and batter company that desired to broaden its repertoire beyond seafood were two keys to sourcing that enabled the chain to put its fried mushrooms on the menu.

Fresh California-grown avocado has starred in both seasonal burgers and as additional topping selections at Super Duper Burgers, a 15-location fast food burger chain headquartered in San Francisco, CA. There’s a call-out on the menu that says, “We proudly serve California-grown avocados.”

“Fresh produce is a key component of our menu. Four times a year, we create a new seasonal item that almost always leverages fresh, in-season produce.”

— Edmundo Oñas, Super Duper Burgers, San Francisco, CA

“Fresh produce is a key component of our menu. Four times a year, we create a new seasonal item that almost always leverages fresh, in-season produce,” says Edmundo Oñas, vice president of operations. “Our guests enjoy avocado as an add-on item to their burgers, salads and sandwiches, and we love being able to source ingredients locally when we can. It’s always helpful when produce groups like the California Avocado Commission remind us of the crop timing, market conditions, and even menu suggestions. Getting those details right helps us be successful.”

Fans also love the Sooo Cali, a hot dog in a bun with California-grown avocado in season, plus tomato, fried onions, and a spicy basil aioli served at Dog Haus, a fast-casual hot dog concept founded in Pasadena, CA, with 50-plus locations.

“We love to support our partners like the California Avocado Commission and their growers in promoting our menu offerings that feature their produce. Using locally grown produce falls right in line with our brand’s quality statement,” says Marilyn Perkins at Champion Management, which represents Dog Haus.

Based on the Irving, CA-headquartered CAC’s Patron Preference research, almost 90% of consumers perceive dishes using California Avocados to be fresh and high quality, says Terry Splane, vice president of marketing. “Over half of consumers also say they would probably or definitely pay more for a menu item with California Avocados.”

For something a little different, blueberries starred in the Blueberry BBQ Ringer as a new flavor for Spring 2022 at Buffalo Wings & Rings, a Cincinnati, OH-based sports restaurant franchise with 80 locations across the globe. The beer-battered chicken breast sandwich is served with Blueberry BBQ sauce, spicy slaw, candied pecans and dried cranberries.

“We’re seeing blueberries show up in sauces and salad dressings, which makes for an approachable and familiar, yet still innovative twist on classics like balsamic vinaigrette and barbecue sauce. Nearly two-thirds of QSR patrons (63%) agree that blueberries brighten up the flavor of sauces and dressings, so this is an obvious choice for operators in the space,” says Kasey Cronquist, president of the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council, in Folsom, CA.

New too is cauliflower on the fast-food scene. Earlier this year, Chick-fil-A, an Atlanta, GA-headquartered chain with 2,800-plus locations, began testing its Cauliflower Sandwich at restaurants in three markets in Colorado, North and South Carolina. The sandwich is made with a tender filet cut from a whole head of cauliflower, which is prepared similarly to the original Chick-fil-A Chicken Sandwich meaning it is marinated, breaded with a signature seasoning, pressure-cooked, and served on a toasted bun with dill pickle chips.

Cauliflower is one of the top growing fruits and vegetables on restaurant menus, according to Datassential, a Chicago, IL-based market research firm, with a 12.7% penetration in all restaurants, 7% growth in the last year, and 35% growth over the last four years. In the No. 1 position of produce on fast food menus is Elote, with a scratch-the-surface menu listing of only 1.4%, but up 13% over the last year and a whopping 491% over four years.

The Elote Bowl, starring roasted corn and veggies like peppers, cabbage, tomatoes, cilantro and arugula, started as a summer season offering and now has joined the menu full-time at Sweet Green, a 221-unit fast-casual chain that originated in Los Angeles, CA. Other new menu items featuring fresh produce include the Miso Glazed Salmon Plate, with avocado, cucumbers, pickled onions and spicy cashews, and summer LTOs like Peach and Goat Cheese Salad, with the peaches sourced from Frog Hollow Farm, in Walla Walla, WA.

The Elote Bowl, starring roasted corn and veggies like peppers, cabbage, tomatoes, cilantro and arugula, started as a summer season offering and now has joined the menu full-time at Sweet Green, a 221-unit fast-casual chain that originated in Los Angeles, CA.

“One of our biggest differentiators as a brand is our end-to-end supply chain where we build direct relationships with our growers, farmers and partners that we trust. We look to more than 200 sustainable farmers, producers and distribution partners to supply us with fresh produce every day. Our growers dedicate year-round acreage on their farms for our core ingredients and create regional programs for our seasonal LTOs,” says Jenny Seltzer, communications manager, Sweet Green.

Certain produce slightly skews to the QSR consumer, according to Datassential’s Consumer Preferences platform, says Claire Conaghan, associate director of publications. “These are currently still very new trends and not yet or very rarely offered, but include algae, kabocha, ube, cucamelon, horned lemon, pasilla peppers, piquillo peppers, saba bananas, mulberries, manzano peppers and shishito peppers,” she says.

SWEETS. Walnuts have been the most popular on QSR menus as inclusions in salads, desserts, and bread and baked goods, says Robert Danhi, chef-in-residence for the California Walnut Board & Commission, in Folsom, CA. “Walnuts provide texture, a rich flavor and are a nutritional powerhouse.”

Burgerville, a 40-unit fast-casual burger chain based in Vancouver, WA, offers an Apple Crumble Sundae LTO in September using walnuts as an ingredient. A recurring seasonal LTO at Au Bon Pain, a 180-plus fast-casual chain headquartered in Richardson, TX, is the Pumpkin Blonde, also made with walnuts.


Eating too much fast food is linked with heaping helpings of calories, fat and sodium, all nutrients that when consumed in abundance are linked to chronic diseases. This can be easy to do considering two in three Americans consume fast food at least once a week, according to the 2023 Fast Food Consumer Report, released in September by Drive Research, in Syracuse, NY. Fresh produce contains a minimum amount of these nutrients, plus puts disease-preventing vitamins and minerals on the plate.

“Adding fresh produce to the menu brings a health halo to any operation,” says Amy Myrdal Miller, MS, RDN, FAND, founder and president of Farmer’s Daughter Consulting Inc., in Sacramento, CA. “Consumers are increasingly seeking food that offers real or perceived health benefits, and fresh produce is a wonderful way to entice a diner to try something that they believe will taste great and offer better nutrition. But price is an important consideration. Inflation has caused both operators and diners to be cautious.

“Operators are paying more for labor in many parts of the country. Meanwhile, consumers are reticent to spend their hard-earned money on an item that may not deliver great taste or great value. However, some insights suggest some consumers are willing to trade up for a premium experience. Offering a burger or sandwich with butter lettuce versus iceberg is an example of this. There is also a lot of consumer support for local, so if an operation can promote local sourcing of a produce item on their menus that will attract the attention of some diners.”

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New Produce Opportunities For Food Service

Fresh produce isn’t the easiest ingredient to add to a menu, especially in high-volume, limited-assortment fast food chains.

“Produce is extremely challenging,” says Andrew Ruga, senior research and development manager and corporate chef for Checkers and Rally’s, an 800-plus location chain of double drive-thru restaurants owned by Checkers Drive-In Restaurants, Inc., in Tampa, FL. “It’s highly perishable. There are the logistics of different growing regions. If you’re anywhere except maybe in California, you’re usually working with three to four growing regions during the year. Quality standards can vary, costs fluctuate and there are logistics challenges. That’s why we look for a front-to-back partner in the sourcing and supply chain process.”

Here’s a sampling of five produce items new to or ready to find a home in foodservice, including fast food operations:


NatureSweet now provides the recognizable premium retail brands of Cherubs, Glorys and Constellation tomatoes for use in food service. “We are seeing more restaurants switching over from field-grown tomato varieties to greenhouse programs. This allows more visibility to upgraded food safety programs and consistent quality with better flavor,” says Kris Gibson, director of sales and strategic initiatives for the San Antonio, TX-headquartered grower.

The company is currently piloting its food service-ready tomatoes with two national restaurant chains. All three tomatoes are available in either 10-ounce or 32-ounce packaging.


Arctic apples were specifically developed for sliced applications since they naturally retain their color, freshness, and flavor with a 28-day shelf life rather than the 18 to 21-day industry standard. According to an Arctic Apples patron study conducted last year, 76% of those surveyed wished “more menu items included apples.”

Specifically, patrons would like to see more apples in salads, charcuterie/cheese/antipasti boards and pancakes/French toast/waffles/crepes. “Tart or sweet, the flavor and texture of Arctic apples compliment mixed green and prepared salads, sandwiches, baked goods and desserts,” says Neal Carter, president and founder of Okanagan Specialty Fruits, in Summerland, British Columbia.

“Other chef-created inspirations for QSR operators include sweet and savory versions of blender-made apple sauces using diced Arctic apples, a curried chicken Arctic apple, and mango salad, or Cashew Tofu Stir-fry with Arctic apples and coconut rice,” adds Rebecca Catlett, director of marketing and communications, Okanagan Specialty Fruits.

Arctic Golden Delicious and Arctic Granny Smith apples are available in 20- and 40-ounce food service packs.


Crunch Pak has cracked the code for producing high-quality pre-sliced pears. The Cashmere, WA-based company uses the D’Anjou variety with a fresh-cut shelf life of 12 days. Three pounds of fruit is washed, peeled, and sliced to make 2-pound trays that save 60-minutes in prep-time, and 1-pound of waste. “We see our sliced pear program useful in deli food service applications such as tossed into a salad, or in deserts such as deep-fried pears in an ice cream sundae,” says Andy Kimbrel, vice president of sales and marketing.


Wonderful Citrus introduced its Seedless Lemons in 2019.

No pesky seeds or prep work means they can be easily integrated into dishes to add color and flavor, with no fat, cholesterol or sodium. “Because of the seasonality of citrus, demand will often be maximized by limited-time offers (LTOs), such as seasonal beverages and/or special sauces. Introductions of these LTOs, such as fresh lemonades and functional citrus smoothies can help generate excitement and trial that ultimately lead to more loyalty and sales for the operator,” says Zak Laffite, president of the Los Angeles, CA-based company.


The Markon Cooperative debuted its Ready-Set-Serve Harvest Crisp Blend this fall. The blend, which is prewashed and ready to use, combines kale leaves, shredded broccoli, carrots and radishes. “We’re very excited about this blend that was created at our Chef Summit because it is so versatile. It can be used raw (salads, rice, veggie bowls, slaws) or cooked (omelets, stir-fries, pasta, fried rice) across all day parts in a wide range of cuisines (California, Greek, Italian, Chinese, Indian, West African, Middle Eastern and more),” says Nelia Alamo, vice president of marketing for the Salinas, CA, company.

The blend is shipped in four 1-pound packs and is available year-round.