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QSRs' menu meets demand for variety, health


Fast food menus have come a long way since the earliest drive-in restaurants offered limited - but fun - menus of burgers, shakes and fries.


Fast-food restaurants have come a long way from the days when the only thing you could get there was a burger, fries and a shake. Now you can get Mandarin oranges, hazelnut lattes and a wide range of healthful options.

The favorite foods from the earliest days of quick-service restaurants remain, but they have been joined by many other dishes not formerly considered part of this genre. Everything from salads with Mandarin oranges and edamame to flame-grilled chicken to hazelnut lattes now crops up on drive-thru menu boards.

In certain cities, such as New York, calorie counts and other nutrition information are posted in the restaurants, as required by law. Some chains in other locales have voluntarily posted nutrition content, eliminated artery-clogging trans fats and in some cases even cut back on the ubiquitous high-fructose corn syrup.

According to recent consumer surveys conducted by the National Restaurant Association, three in four adults said they are more focused on eating healthy in restaurants than they were two years ago. Quick-service operators surveyed by the NRA said that increasing healthy food choices for children is their top priority this year.

"People are asking for fresher food, foods that make them feel good and more creativity on the menu," said Maria Caranfa, registered dietician with Chicago-based Mintel Menu Insights. "It is also about QSRs being more transparent about their food."

Dawn Jackson Blatner, registered dietician and a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, said, "I think there is a good percentage of the population - 20-to-30 percent - who don't care about nutrition, but the majority of people do care.

"It's perfect that restaurants offer a range of things because they serve the whole population, but having a few healthy options is a very smart thing to do," she added.

She commended several chains' nutritious choices, including Taco Bell's Fresco Menu of nine items containing 9 grams or less of fat and low calorie counts, Pizza Hut's "The Natural" pizza with a whole-grain crust and vegetable toppings; and Dunkin' Donuts' breakfast flatbread sandwiches.

Dunkin' Donuts' flatbread sandwiches are part of the DDSmart Menu, the latest in a series of new product introductions for the 60-year-old company that has expanded its concept far beyond its coffee-and-doughnut origins. Some of the newest items are a multi-grain bagel, reduced-fat cream cheeses and egg white flatbread sandwiches and omelets.

Some of these items were already on the menu but were not marketed as part of what Stan Frankenthaler, Dunkin' Donuts' executive chef, termed "the big health and wellness trend. We wanted to provide clear choices, so we did a branded platform with our 'America runs on Dunkin' slogan," he said.

Dunkin' has added products that made sense to the brand's heritage, Frankenthaler said, and fit into consumers' everyday lifestyles. Part of today's lifestyles is on-the-go convenience.

Dunkin's' sister brand, Baskin-Robbins, also has jumped on the health and wellness bandwagon with new lighter treats called BRight Choices, which are fat free, dairy free, no sugar added or light ice cream. They range from 80 to 140 calories per 2.5 ounce scoop.

"Our new Bright Choices flavors are perfect for customers who are looking for a lighter treat but still crave Baskin-Robbins quality ice cream," said Scott Colwell, brand marketing officer.

Subway may be the prime example of making a success of items that were long-time menu staples, but not promoted in any special way. Its low-calorie sub sandwiches were not particularly strong sellers until a guy named Jared came along. Jared, who is not an actor, was formerly described as "morbidly obese" and lost 245 pounds after a year of eating at his next-door Subway. He became a Subway spokesman, a role he still holds today.

"We began promoting what was already there," explained Subway's Les Winograd. "We were hesitant to say they were low-fat; we were concerned that people would associate low-fat with diet food that didn't taste good."

After succeeding in increasing sales of low-calorie signature sandwiches, Subway revamped its kids' menu with alternative sides. Then, to increase options still further, Subway began offering toasted sandwiches, which effectively doubled sandwich choices.

Seasoned breads and signature sauces increased choices even more. "It was a natural progression," Winograd said.

Subway is one of the QSR industry's biggest success stories - it had $3.5 billion in worldwide sales and 14,000 restaurants at the end of 1999. By 2007 sales reached $11.3 billion, and at the end of 2008 it had 30,000 stores.

Jason's Deli, another sandwich and salad chain that has offered heart-healthy selections for a long time, recently added organic ciabatta bread and will introduce an organic wrap this spring, said Pat Herring, director of concept development. Jason's long-time salad bar is a particularly good fit for today's more health-conscious customer.

"Consumers are becoming more demanding. They like naturalness and healthy foods," Herring said. Customers also like to have the control of Jason's "build-your-own" sandwich options.

Jason's will more aggressively promote its half portions, in light of "obesity and diabetes health initiatives," Herring said.

Other health-oriented innovations at Jason's are elimination of high-fructose corn syrup in everything except soft drinks and a spring launch of nitrite-free sandwich meats for kids' meals.

McDonald's, still the world's largest restaurant chain, also has been a leader in expanding both menu variety and healthy choices, with everything from its Asian Chicken Salad to Apple Dippers, a small side dish of sliced apples with a low-fat caramel dip, especially promoted in Happy Meals as an alternative to fries.

Yum! Brands' KFC is nearing completion of the rollout of its latest non-fried chicken product, Kentucky Grilled Chicken. Although its signature deep-fried bone-in chicken is expected to continue to be its best seller, the non-fried product appeals to more health-conscious consumers who may have avoided KFC in the past.

When it comes to chicken, El Pollo Loco prides itself on its positioning between fast food and fast-casual, said Karen Eadon, senior vice president/chief marketing officer. "We have value-priced and premium products; we're all about chicken," she said.

Falling somewhere between Taco Bell on the low end and fast-casual players such as Chipotle Mexican Grill, Qdoba Mexican Grill and Baja Fresh on the high end, El Pollo Loco combines the freshness and quality products associated with fast-casual with QSR conveniences such as drive-thru.

"About five years ago I revamped our approach to product development with more premium products, such as whole-muscle chicken burritos instead of shredded chicken, working with our director of research and development. Customers have started looking for higher-quality products," Eadon said.

Unlike QSR brands that specialize in sandwiches, El Pollo Loco experiences an even split in transactions between lunch and dinner, she noted. Like competitors, the flame-grilled chicken concept offers both premium and value-priced items.

Coffee beverages are another area where QSR has made major inroads as chains like Starbucks have helped to upgrade Americans' tastes for both espresso-based and fresh-brewed coffees. In addition to Dunkin' Donuts long-time policy of using fresh-ground coffee beans for its brews, other chains, including McDonald's, Burger King, Carl's Jr., Chick-fil-A and Del Taco have upgraded their coffees to more flavorful roasts and even attempted to serve lattes in a drive-thru format.

Still more food and beverage upgrades undoubtedly are in the test kitchens of QSR chains, as they strive to become all things to all palates and pocketbooks. Stay tuned.

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