Evolving tastes pave way for plant-based offerings, all-day availability, ethnic flavors and variety.
Vegetables, specifically onions, were an integral ingredient on the hamburgers served at the U.S.’s first fast-food chain: White Castle, which opened nearly a century ago in 1921 in Wichita, KS.
Fast forward to 1948, potatoes, in the form of chips, were the only vegetable on the menu at a walk-up hamburger stand in San Bernardino, CA, started by the McDonald brothers. A year later, French fried potatoes substituted for the chips.
In 1965, Subway started as a submarine sandwich and salad fast food franchise in Bridgeport, CT. From the start, customizable additions included fresh lettuce, tomatoes, onions, cucumbers and green peppers. This gave Subway, today the largest QSR (quick-serve restaurant) chain in terms of number of outlets with more than 42,000 worldwide, a health halo while more traditional chains like those serving burgers increasingly took the blame for high-calorie, high-fat, low- or no-fresh produce menu offerings that promoted obesity.
“Ten years ago, when health became more of a buzzword in the QSR space, chains responded with more nutritious offerings, like salads, to meet consumer demand,” explains Sam Oches, editorial director for Durham, NC-based Food News Media, publisher of QSR and FSR magazines. “After a few years, some of these were abandoned because while customers said they wanted more healthful choices, they still ordered burgers and fries. Nowadays, we see drivers other than health, like freshness, flavor and a desire for more upscale ingredients, especially by Millennials, which is putting more produce on QSR menus. This is a trend that won’t go away.”
Consumer demands for plant-based food, ethnic flavors, all-day availability and variety are driving trends for fresh produce on QSR menus. This is creating challenges and lucrative opportunities for operators going forward.
1. THE QUEST FOR FRESHNESS
An important consumer driver for greater use of produce on QSR menus is a demand for freshness, according to Jackie Rodriguez, senior project manager for Chicago-headquartered market research firm Datassential. “We don’t track ‘fresh’ unless it’s actually used in a menu description. Three examples from 2018 are Del Taco’s Beer Battered Fish Tacos with a fresh-cut lime wedge, Jack in the Box’s Asian Fried Chicken Sandwich with fresh cucumbers, and Wendy’s Berry Burst Chicken Salad with fresh strawberries and blueberries.”
Fresh is the most commonly used descriptor on American menus, says Amy Myrdal Miller, MS, RDN, FAND, founder and president of Farmer’s Daughter Consulting, Inc., in Carmichael, CA. “Diners see it as an indicator of better quality and ‘better-for-me’ attributes. But using fresh produce is challenging in QSRs. Depending on the item, individual units may need very small pack sizes, atmosphere-controlled packaging to extend shelf life, and value-added items to reduce labor associated with dealing with fresh produce. Despite the many challenges, QSRs are using more and more produce to meet consumer demand.”
A good example of this is at Sonic Drive-In, a 3,600-plus unit fast-food chain based in Oklahoma City, where onions rings are hand-cut from whole fresh onions, battered by hand and cooked fresh every day.
At Farmer Boys, a 92-unit QSR headquartered in Riverside, CA, Larry Rusinko, chief marketing officer, says, “We see a growing interest in fresh produce, scratch-made food and customization as customer palettes change. For example, a salad assembled from pre-cut lettuce, tomato and cabbage doesn’t have the same crisp bite of a salad made from whole heads of lettuce and cabbage cut the same day. One thing in common with all of our top-selling menu items in each category is hand-cut, fresh produce prepared daily in our restaurants. One example is our Harvest Salad, which includes hand-chopped iceberg and green leaf lettuces, hand-chopped red cabbage, hand-shredded carrots, whole red grapes and sliced apples.”
2. PLANT-FORWARD FARE
More than half of Americans eat plant-based meals at least once daily, according to OnePoll, a UK-based market research firm that surveyed 2,000 Americans and published data in October 2018.
“Plant-forward diets are trending,” says Steve Solomon, foodservice director for the Redwood Shore, CA-based The Mushroom Council. “Consumers may not be familiar with the term, but many now follow a ‘flexitarian’ lifestyle. They don’t want to eliminate meat, but they want to eat more veggies. The Blend, which features chefs blending freshly chopped mushrooms with ground meat, is the perfect way to ‘have your burger and eat it, too’ and really embrace this concept that all foods fit.”
Sonic Drive-In launched QSR’s first blended burger, its Sonic Signature Slinger, as a limited time offer (LTO) in March 2018. The Slinger was so successful that the chain brought it back to the menu last fall. It features a burger patty with 35-percent blended mushrooms, fresh lettuce, tomato and onion. Beyond this, Sonic has introduced its new Hearty Chili Bowl, made with beef and kidney beans, plus a variety of vegetables, including mushrooms that put a full serving (approximately 119 grams) of vegetables in every serving.
Meat and mushroom pairings were widespread in QSR chains in 2018. These included Shake Shack’s ’Shroom Burger and Shack Stack, Wendy’s Bacon Portabella Mushroom Melt, Whataburger’s Mushroom Swiss Burger, Checkers and Rally’s Crispy Mushroom Steak Burger and Steak and Shake’s Swiss N Mushroom Steakburger.
“We anticipate seeing more specialty mushrooms at QSR (i.e. portabella, Shiitake), because of growing interest in world and specialty flavors,” says The Mushroom Council’s Solomon.
True to expectation, Farmer Boys has run a Portabella & Swiss Burger and Portabella & Swiss Omelet as LTOs.
Taco Bell, a 400-plus-unit chain based in Irvine, CA, and a subsidiary of Louisville, KY-headquartered Yum! Brands, Inc., brings a veggie-forward sensibility to its menu by offering 13 selections certified by the American Vegetarian Association. These include a 7-Layer Burrito with lettuce, tomato and guacamole.
“With 38 certified vegetarian and vegan ingredients, the options can be customized eight million ways, many of which involve fresh produce,” says Missy Schaaphok, RDN, manager of global nutrition and sustainability. “To make it even easier to access vegetarian products, we also recently launched a Make It Meatless button, so consumers can replace meat with refried beans on almost any menu item in just a click of a button on the website or through the app.”
Additionally, Taco Bell’s 2012-launched Cantina Bell now called Power Menu, includes plant-based choices such as the Power Menu Bowl – Veggie. This contains guacamole, Pico de Gallo, an avocado ranch sauce and Romaine lettuce with black beans, with the ability to customize with the choice of added jalapeno, onions, potatoes and tomatoes.
“We sell more than 175 million pounds of produce annually, and the introduction of the Power Menu resulted in a 20-million-pound increase in all produce offerings,” says Schaaphok.
3. EATING GLOBALLY
Mango’s status as a global fruit has so much potential to differentiate Asian menus that are popular with today’s consumer, especially Southeast Asian, Indian and Mexican street foods, where mango is a part of the culture, according to Angela Serna, communication and marketing professional for the National Mango Board (NMB) in Orlando, FL. “According to research reported in 2016, mango usage (all product formats) continued to grow in all restaurant segments and types, with the largest growth of mangos at QSR restaurants, with 100 percent growth from 2005 to 2016.”
One example is the Mango & Coconut Yogurt Bowl introduced by Starbucks, a Seattle-based company with nearly 30,000 units globally, as part of its 2017-launched grab-and-go salads, sandwiches and side selections under its Mercato line. The bowl contains fresh-cut mango on vanilla Greek yogurt, with coconut and chia seed topping.
Beyond mango, Starbucks’ Mercato menu features other fresh produce items with a world flavors twist. Examples include Za’atar Chicken and Lemon Tahani, accompanied by a cucumber tzatziki, marinated carrots and chopped Romaine; Grilled Chicken & Cauliflower Tabbouleh, with cauliflower, roasted red pepper, arugula and Romaine; and Seasoned Turkey & Green Pepper Pico, a Latin take on an American Cobb salad that features green peppers, diced tomatoes, an avocado cilantro dressing and roasted corn and quinoa salad.
Fresh roasted corn starred prominently in three new Latin-inspired menu items during the ‘Cornutopia’ promotion featured last fall at Fuzzy’s Taco Shop, a 100-plus-unit chain headquartered in Fort Worth, TX. These included: the Shuck It Brisket Taco, which also included poblano peppers and cilantro; Corn To Be Wild Quesadilla, also with poblano peppers; and Street Cred Corn, roasted corn with Parmesan cheese, cilantro and roasted poblano crema.
“We had spotlighted mango in our summer LTO and wanted to feature fresh corn in the fall,” says Linda Veatch, vice president of marketing.
Each September at Velvet Taco, a nearly dozen-unit Dallas-based chain, hatch chilies are a highly seasonal produce item that star in the WTF (weekly taco feature) the Hatch Chile Pig & Fig. Pulled pork teams with a roasted hatch chile fig salad, made with figs, arugula, red onions and the chilies themselves.
“Every week, 52 weeks a year, we have a WTF, and half of these are new,” says Grant Morgan, culinary director. “Ingredients like Napa and red cabbage are available year-round, so we incorporate these often. For other more seasonal ingredients, we work with our local and national suppliers 12 to 14 weeks out. In the summer, when Shishito peppers are at peak, our Hangover Burger is a WTF. It’s a hamburger patty smothered in pepper jack cheese, topped with an egg, ranchero salsa and blistered Shishito pepper.”
Consumers’ adventurous palettes will continue to expand as people eat more ethnic cuisines than ever before, many of which involve new vegetables, says Taco Bell’s Schaaphok. “In turn, this will unlock opportunities for QSR brands to embrace unique new flavor profiles and produce offerings. We’re always playing with new foods to introduce on menus, and given consumers’ increased interest in vegetables, we’d be interested in testing new items and figuring out how to incorporate produce in unexpected ways.”
4. ALL-DAY DINING
Breakfast and beverages are two newer opportunities for QSR operators to include fresh produce.
“Fresh California avocado also has found its way onto every part of the breakfast menu, from fruit- and vegetable-based smoothies to breakfast sandwiches to main courses such as omelets, hashes and breakfast pizzas,” says Jan DeLyser, vice president of marketing for the California Avocado Commission (CAC), in Irvine, CA. “Datassential data shows that the avocado toast is still in its adoption phase of the menu cycle, which means we may be seeing avocado toasts on more U.S. QSR menus soon. McDonald’s in Australia is testing avocado toast as a new Gourmet Breakfast menu item.”
Del Taco, a 560-unit Mexican QSR chain based in Lake Forest, CA, features fresh avocado in its Huevos Ranchos Epic Burrito breakfast selection. Interestingly, the chain worked with the CAC as it converted from processed to fresh fruit, with Del Taco tapping onto the Commission’s product resources and storing/handling information for its kitchens. This is a great example of a QSR moving to include more fresh produce on their menu.
Beverages are also becoming a fast-emerging vehicle for fresh produce.
“The overall increase of mango in non-alcoholic beverages since 2005 has been driven by substantial growth in the QSR segment, showing increases of more than 100 percent,” says the NMB’s Serna. “The most common uses of mango by item type in 2016 include: blended drink (49 percent), juice (17 percent) and iced tea (16 percent).”
Sonic Drive-In’s signature limeades are made with fresh limes that are cut and squeezed by hand into every drink, according to Scott Uehlein, vice president of produce innovation and development. “We also put a whole banana into our fresh banana shakes.”
5. BEYOND ONIONS & POTATOES
There is a wider range of fruits and vegetables being used not only in QSR sandwiches and salads, but in less traditional applications. Bowls are a good example, according to Datassential’s Rodriguez. “On the savory side, you might see a Mexican or Asian bowl with fresh peppers or broccoli, while on the sweet side you might see a breakfast bowl with berries and bananas.”
Subway is a QSR chain that set itself apart from the first, and before it was trendy, by using a variety of fresh vegetables on its menu.
“We cover a wide spectrum of vegetable offerings, from the expected — like lettuce, tomatoes and onions — to sweet peppers and chilies,” says Andy Dismore, the North American director for menu management & culinary innovation, at the Milford, CT-based chain.
The world’s largest QSR chain is a good example of what volume can mean to the produce industry.
“One of our biggest challenges is our scale,” says Dismore. “Of note is that some years ago, when we decided to switch from yellow onions to red onions, we couldn’t make that move until the next growing season since many of our suppliers needed to switch their fields from yellow to red onions. Otherwise there wouldn’t have been enough onions available for our restaurants. Even a small purchase or change we make has a long amplification factor.”
Broccolini, a broccoli-Chinese kale hybrid, first starred on the menu at Chick-fil-A, a 2,300-plus chain based in Atlanta, in 2016. The Superfood Side contains broccolini, kale, dried cherries and a blend of nuts with maple vinaigrette. The chain worked with Mann Packing Co., Inc., in Salinas, CA.
On the fruit front, Wendy’s, a global, 6,000-plus-unit chain based in Dublin, OH, introduced its first fall-inspired salad in September. The Harvest Chicken Salad is made with fresh Romaine, iceberg lettuce and the company’s proprietary spring mix, as well as red and green apples and brown sugar walnuts. Greater variety and volume of fresh produce is becoming an industry standard, says Shelly Thobe, Wendy’s director of culinary product innovation. “From seasonal, summer berries and vine-ripened, greenhouse-grown tomatoes to on-trend fruits such as avocados, consumers are asking for more options and more innovation with everyday fruits and vegetables.”
Smoked watermelon will star in a poke bowl as part of an LTO at Copper Branch, a Montreal-based plant-based QSR chain that opened its first U.S. location in New York City in November and anticipates chain growth in North America to 80 units by year’s end.
“I think we will see watermelon usage grow at QSR moving forward,” says Megan McKenna, director of foodservice and marketing for the Winter Springs, FL-headquartered National Watermelon Promotion Board. “I think the growing trend of using watermelon in place of protein could become more popular with poke bowl establishments. I could see QSR highlighting watermelons’ freshness cues with straightforward watermelon salads, maybe the addition of some Feta and spice to make it a side dish.”