As we settle into this, our sixth month of 2012, QSRweb decided to take a look at the top culinary trends that have emerged in the quick-service segment. Some of these trends have accelerated from last year, some were predicted as part of the National Restaurant Association's 2012 industry forecast, and some are making a strong debut. Below is a list of the top six that have stood out so far.
More consumers are heading to restaurants for a snack, according to market research firm Technomic, and QSRs are adding smaller portions to their menus in response. Many of these items are being marketed as "bites."
McDonald's, for example, launched new Chicken McBites in January and has also tested Fish McBites in select markets.
Whataburger introduced its new Whatachick'n Bites in April, complete with a variety of sauces for dipping.
Also in April, Pretzelmaker's BBQ chipotle and sundried tomato basil Pretzel Bites made it onto the menu. The bites were already available in cinnamon sugar, garlic ranch and parmesan flavors.
In January, Dunkin' Donuts re-launched its sausage pancake bites, a sweet and savory portable item featuring sausage links wrapped in a maple-flavored pancake. Dunkin' Donuts' sister chain Baskin-Robbins has yielded same-store sales growth in part because of its recently launched line of cake bites.
And Popeyes' snack-friendly Rip'n and Dip'n Chick'n limited-time offers have been among the chain's most popular ever.
2. Kids' meals
After a tumultuous couple of years in which QSR kids' meals were the No. 1 target of health advocacy groups, chains began adding items such as apples and milk in response. The healthy kids' meal makeover was listed as the top trend for 2012 by the NRA and the industry is right on track with that prediction.
McDonald's slimmed down its Happy Meals last year, cutting the classic item's calorie count by 20 percent. McDonald's Canadian system followed in April, with the automatic inclusion of yogurt.
Arby's rolled out a new kids' meal in the fall that includes Chiquita apple slices and strawberry yogurt dipping sauce instead of french fries. Jack in the Box also moved toward apple slices last year.
Perhaps the biggest makeover came in January, when Chick-fil-A introduced grilled chicken nuggets as a healthier entrée alternative for kids' meals.
"The reality is that we live in an on-the-go world where parents have limited healthy meal options for their kids on the way to and from recreational activities, school or other events," said Woody Faulk, vice president of brand strategy and design, Chick-fil-A. "Our new kid's meal reflects our commitment to helping parents strike a balance between nutrition, convenience and price."
Adding another dimension to the trend is the growing number of QSRs joining the NRA's Kids LiveWell initiative, created in partnership with Healthy Dining. There are now 68-plus restaurant brands involved in the program, compared to the 19 that originally signed on less than a year ago, including Burger King. The initiative focuses on increasing consumption of fruit and vegetables, lean protein, whole grains and low-fat dairy, and limiting unhealthy fats, sugars and sodium.
The QSR segment is spicing things up with ingredients such as jalapeños and chipotle sauce. Notably, "spicy items" was listed as No. 7 in the NRA's 2012 trend forecast.
McDonald's is testing jalapeño salsa breakfast sandwiches in select markets, while Subway is reportedly testing Doritos Nachos with jalapeños. Subway has also rolled out a jalapeño tuna sandwich, while Charley's Grilled Subs recently launched a chipotle chicken sandwich with jalapeño bacon.
Burger King recently added a new jalapeño BBQ dipping sauce for its crispy chicken strips, while Sonic added a Fiesta Steak Breakfast Burrito that includes Carne Asada-seasoned sirloin steak and sliced jalapeños.
In February, Carl's Jr. and Hardee's launched the Southwest Patty Melt, which features a charbroiled beef patty, sliced jalapeños, grilled onions, pepper jack cheese and spicy Santa Fe sauce, all served on grilled sourdough bread.
A handful of QSRs are kicking things up with guacamole. Subway is currently celebrating "Bravocado" season with a focus on offerings such as the turkey and bacon avocado sub.
Wendy's spicy guacamole chicken club made it onto menus in March, inspired by consumer demand.
"Consumers tell us they're willing to try bold new products, so we created an exciting flavor profile that will awaken your taste buds," said Gerard Lewis, Wendy's senior vice president of Product Development.
The Oreo cookie is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year and there have been plenty of promotional opportunities surrounding its centennial milestone. Dairy Queen is marking the birthday with a location-based, social media-driven contest while highlighting Oreo Blizzards.
White Castle just rolled out an Oreo parfait, while Wendy's took its classic Frosty item and created the Oreo Frosty Parfait.
Tim Hortons co-branded Cold Stone Creamery restaurants in Canada have rolled out a new premium ice cream line, including the Oreo Indulgence – Sweet Cream ice cream blended with Oreo cookies and fudge sauce and topped with more Oreo cookie pieces.
At the end of 2011, Carl's Jr. added a new Hand-Scooped Oreo Ice Cream Sandwich throughout the western U.S. And Jack in the Box launched a new coffee-flavored Java Cookie Shake made with real vanilla ice cream, coffee-flavored syrup and Oreo cookie pieces.
5. Beverages – hot and cold
Although increasingly saturated thanks to heavy hitters, such as McDonald's, Tim Hortons and Dunkin' Donuts, the QSR coffee market has still not peaked.
The competition, in fact, is heating up even more as new and nontraditional brands jump in the coffee space.
Krispy Kreme is planning on accelerating its new signature coffee platform and hopes the line makes up about 12 percent of in-store transactions by 2015. Wendy's is trying its hand at a proprietary coffee blend as is increases its breakfast presence, with the Redhead Roasters. An iced version is also available.
Even smaller chains, such as fro.zen.yo, are developing their own blends to grab a piece of the market.
Meanwhile, longtime supplier brand Seattle's Best Coffee added a new dynamic to the competition with the launch of its new drive-thru concept in March in Illinois.
Frozen beverages experienced a successful first quarter thanks to mild weather in most regions. Dunkin' Donuts and Tim Hortons continue to promote and expand their frozen coffee lines, while others are moving in a fruitier direction with innovations such as McDonald's Cherry Berry Chiller, Sonic's popular Chillers line, Krispy Kreme's flavored Frozen Chillers and new smoothies from Burger King and Jack in the Box.
Speaking of fruity, numerous QSRs are incorporating more fruit-centered items onto their menus, especially in time for the summer bounty.
Popeyes just introduced a new Cane Sweeeet Peach Iced Tea and Southern Peach Pie. Wendy's has brought back its Berry Almond Chicken salad, while also rolling out a new Strawberry Shortcake Frosty Parfait.
Krispy Kreme has launched a 'fruit stand line," complete with a Strawberry Cake Doughnut and Strawberry Kreme Pie doughnut, while McDonald's is promoting a "Flavors of Summer" menu, including its Cherry Berry Chiller and new Blueberry Banana Nut Oatmeal.
Dunkin' Donuts is also going with blueberries this summer, releasing a new Blueberry Streusel Bagel Twist topped with coffee cake streusel and white dipping icing drizzle.
Sweet potato fries were listed as No. 20 on the NRA's forecast list. So far this year, Sonic has introduced sweet potato tots and Wendy's has unveiled baked sweet potatoes. White Castle, Chick-fil-A, Culver's, Good Times, El Pollo Loco and Burgerville have also spotlighted sweet potatoes as side items recently.
Greek yogurt is on trend mostly because of its health benefits, and chains such as Ben and Jerry's and TCBY have introduced their own versions this year accordingly. TCBY's Greek Yogurt, introduced in April, has since surpassed every previous flavor launch in the brand's history.
Taco Bell's Doritos Locos Taco has also broken sales records, and is now officially the brand's most successful launch ever. The item made its debut in early March and other versions, including Ranch Doritos-flavored tacos, are expected to follow.
Read more about trends and statistics.