Change Is Abundant In This Competitive Sector

The competition in quick service restaurants (QSRs) has always been stiff. Now more than ever the world of fast food is exploding with new ideas and concepts that are making it hard to keep score of who is leading the race. The need for this innovation stems from the various targets that can be captured within this segment. From breakfast to late night, to the persnickety to experimental consumer, and everything in between – there are so many facets of the consumer audience to take advantage of. Sorting through the various tactics QSRs employ to capture the vast audience they serve is no small feat, but seven defined areas of innovation seem to make up the greater part of what is driving QSRs.

Nutritionists and trainers push small meals throughout the day and the on-the-go consumers grab what they can, when they can, which means snacking is big business. For consumers watching their wallets or waists, smaller yet filling, options are a win-win in quick service. Snacking is a category where the diversity of fast food menus shine. Snacking can be small wraps such as the McWrap at McDonald’s, Wendy’s 4-piece nuggets or the plethora of Jamba Juice Smoothie concoctions. It’s also an opportunity for QSRs to provide a taste of their products that will hopefully yield consumers to other dayparts.

Co-branding with Celebrities and Chefs
Chef Lorena Garcia for Taco Bell and Carl’s Jr.’s many beauties such as Heidi Klum and Kim Kardashian highlight two different ways co-branding with the likeness of a celebrity can help boost a brand by furthering the awareness through two fan bases. Co-branding with celebrities is nothing new, as it is an age-old tactic that still works effectively, especially when there are so many channels to promote through such as social media. The celebrity chef also does double duty, as they bring both their namesake and the perception of high-quality food with their stamp of approval. Some companies such as Bruegger’s Bagels are even revealing who their corporate chefs are to lend authenticity to their kitchens and inform the consumers who is overseeing the development of new products. Third-party endorsements lend another source of credibility to the food and company. Chefs and celebrities are costly but smart ways to create a new following for QSRs.


Healthy and Special Diet-Friendly Alternatives
Fast food and healthy used to be two words that didn’t coexist, but healthy and diet-friendly options that taste good are now a must in the world of QSRs. Recent launches that promote this include Dunkin Donuts’ gluten-free donuts and egg white sandwich options, Burger King’s Veggie Burgers, and a plethora of QSRs with artisan salads, oatmeal and apple slices or carrots as sides for kids. Taco Bell is also rolling out high-protein options hoping to appeal to a young male audience focused on high protein, low-carb diets. There’s also all the sub shops with lettuce in lieu of bread, evolution4burrito bowls without the burrito and lattes with soy, coconut, almond and other milk alternatives. The idea is the more options, the merrier consumers of all diet restrictions are. And it’s only expected to grow as calorie counts become mandatory, revealing to customers the reality of what they are consuming and propelling them to make better-for-you choices.

Rebranding, Packaging & Redecorating
At some point, brands and/or stores require a makeover. Whether it’s to stay relevant with the times, fit a new vision or audience, to cut costs or simply because it’s time to try something new, rebranding and remodeling are endeavours many QSRs are undertaking. In terms of remodeling, many are attempting atmospheres that create a comfy, “stay awhile” feel, meaning more seating in terms of couches and chairs as well as more tech-friendly places with outlets for laptops. They are also finding it’s time to redo the 70s and 80s décor that has plagued many fast food restaurants for far too long. There’s also flow to account for, with registers on one side and a waiting area on the other.

In terms of branding, there are iconic QSR logos such as McDonald’s “golden arches” and the Starbucks mermaid that will forever stay, but sometimes even these iconic brands require redesigns for everything around the logo. There are also companies that have not created as strong a mark or their mark has become so dated that a refresh is needed. Wendy’s has recently updated “Wendy’s” character and role as well as their packaging, and Burger King is another company embarking on this big change.

Looking back further, when Styrofoam was discovered to be a major environmental problem, all of the QSRs turned to paper. Biodegradable and/or fully recyclable packaging is a new trend, and it’s almost certain that many fast food restaurants will conform to demands of environment-conscience consumers to move to these solutions. The trend of going gourmet is another example where QSRs are offering dishware that can be washed and reused for dine-in patrons.

In a society that is changing to customized everything, QSRs are facing more pressure than ever before to rapidly update and conform branding, packaging and store fronts with the changing times.

Drinks, Drinks, Drinks
America must be thirsty because the drink options are an ever-growing area in fast food as well as the greater food industry that doesn’t show signs of slowing down. From hot and cold beverages such as coffee, tea and smoothies for breakfast to spirits and shakes for a night cap, drinks are in demand.

Customized drinks to consumers’ liking are one reason for this success. Another is simply that the more options provided, the more opportunities to meet more needs. For the non-coffee drinkers, Starbuck provides Refreshers, Panera has added flavored teas such as açaí and hibiscus and almost every frozen yogurt shop has a coffee. These menu items not only allow for diverse consumption but options for any time of day. A morning coffee drinker may crave a refreshing non-caffeinated drink in the evening and they can get both. Coca-Cola has also fueled the drink revolution with their Freestyle machine, taking soda fountain customization to the extreme with varieties of flavors and combos. Drinks are perhaps the easiest addition to menus with low overhead and quick implementation.

Indulging in Desserts and Beyond
More shake, sundae and dessert options are making their way into fast food. Items such as Chocolate Molten Lava Cake at Arby’s, Taco Bell’s Churros and Sonic’s Fudge Brownie Molten Cake Sundae are all examples of new and even gourmet desserts growing on menus in the fast casual and QSR sectors. Stand-alone dessert franchises such as TCBY, Baskin-Robbins and Red Mango also continue to do well. This success proves that there is money to be spent on desserts, and competing in these segments is simply about diversifying offerings. The challenge for fast food retailers is to offer desserts that can stand against the dessert-specific chains and offer something different from other chains in terms of desserts. It’s also important that desserts complement the rest of the menu – whether a fast food joint or fine dining, the ultimate success for a restaurant is that all courses work together creating an experience from start to finish.

Regional, Seasonal & International Flair
The final area of innovation for QSRs is targeted dishes that create an experience authentic to specific regions, seasons and international destinations. As access to information grows, people want to experience the cuisines they had on a trip, from back home or tied to a season or holiday anytime and anywhere. Every fall, coffee sales soar as temperatures lower and fall-inspired flavors such as pumpkin and toffee enter into QSRs. In the spring and summer, lighter and refreshing fare such as salads, fruit parfaits and cool shakes enter the picture. And, don’t forget the regional and international tributes such as barbecue from the South, cheeses from Italy and spicy additions inspired from Latin America.

Being on the cusp of trends is what fuels competition, and regional and international fare is important to pay attention to as QSRs look to menu expansion. Diverse tastes are gaining momentum and having options that span beyond “Americana” make chains more global and accessible. These options are also great for limited time offers (LTOs) to test popularity and not fully commit to bringing on new fare.

Seasonal is also a must as American buying habits are dictated by seasons. Every industry is affected by the seasons and holidays as Americans crave the nostalgia associated with changing temperatures.To stay relevant and competitive, chains and franchises must look to not only implement seasonal items but to also get creative each year. Pumpkin as mentioned previously has been done and will yield sales, but the question is what else can create a buzz and a huge following. This is the challenge each season for QSRs.

QSRs are shaping the way Americans perceive, choose and consume food. Not everyone can afford cuisine from the top chefs of the world, but they can shell out a few bucks for what’s right around the corner. Fast food chains and franchises are the trendsetters and the competition is thick. But competition fuels innovation, and the fact that seven areas are just covering the gamut of ideas being thrown into the fire is a good indicator that QSRs have the greatest challenge to continue to impress consumers.