There were plenty of intriguing culinary stories that emerged in the QSR segment in 2013 — from upgraded bread platforms to dessert innovations. All of the stories are tethered to one overreaching theme: product pipelines are deeper than ever.
Brands such as Dunkin' Donuts, McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's and Arby's all touted their historically deep rosters this year, driven by consumers' quickly changing preferences. Perhaps this is why 2013 was a year of menu diversity, originality and risk-taking.
QSRweb.com's top food stories of the year are below.
In March, Wendy's introduced an artisan flatbread sandwich platform. Wendy's put forth a bigger effort, however, in pushing pretzel bread into the mainstream with its Pretzel Bacon Cheeseburger and Pretzel Pub Chicken Sandwich rollouts. The pretzel cheeseburger was called "one of the most anticipated product launches" in Wendy's history by the company. The chain is following it up with a new brioche bun for its new Bacon Portabella Melt.
Cousins also brought back its pretzel bread this year, and also introduced parmesan garlic bread as part of its Hot Italian subs rollout.
Blimpie added pretzel bread as a permanent option, Dunkin' Donuts added a pretzel roll in August, Sonic added a pretzel bun option for its beef hot dogs, while Auntie Anne's rolled out mini pretzel dogs in June.
Aside from the pretzen bread trend, Sonic also introduced the Asiago Caesar Chicken Club Sandwich, with a whole grain ciabatta bun.
In April, Arby's partnered with King's Hawaiian for two new sandwiches, which "far exceeded" expectations.
A Quiznos' LTO featured its new jalapeno cheddar baguette, and Subway introduced a garlic bread option.
Long John Silver's launched a Ciabatta Jack sandwich in September, with both fish and chicken options. Culver's also went for the artisan bun with its Pepper Grinder Pub Burger. Jersey Mike's brought back its rosemary parmesan bread option in October.
Carl's Jr. and Hardee's began baking its buns in store. According to the company, the raw bun dough is given time to rise and is then baked, cooled, sliced and served in store. They are denser, a little sweeter, baked, then grilled so that each one is served hot.
Spicy flavor profile
A recent report from market research firm Technomic shows that, for the first time, a majority of consumers (54 percent) say they prefer hot or spicy sauces, dips or condiments, compared to 48 percent of consumers in 2011 and 46 percent two years earlier. QSRs have answered the call this year.
In June, McDonald's added varieties to its Quarter Pounder lineup for the first time, including a bacon habanero ranch version. McDonald's Mighty Wings launch in September also featured a spicy flavor profile.
Wienerschnitzel heated things up with a new jalapeno dog. Good Times launched a Green Chile Lovers menu. Popeyes unveiled a new Cajun chili garlic sauce to serve with its Dip'n Chick'n LTO.
KFC launched Hot & Spicy bites, an extension of its boneless chicken line, while sister brand Taco Bell's third iteration of its Doritos Locos Tacos featured Fiery Doritos.
Carl's Jr. and Hardee's launched Buffalo Blue Cheese Burgers, through a partnership with Frank's RedHot Sauce. The burgers feature the flavor of spicy Buffalo wings, according to the brands' parent company CKE Restaurants.
Sonic unveiled a new lineup of spicy menu items in October, including Island Fire Spicy Chicken Sandwich, Classic Spicy Chicken Sandwich, the Island Fire SuperSONIC Cheeseburger and new Southwest Chipotle Breakfast Burrito with smoked chipotle sauce and fire-roasted red and green peppers.
Whataburger rolled out Green Chile Burgers. Cousins added the chipotle cheese steak and chipotle chicken subs in November.
Subway introduced two sandwiches featuring Sriracha hot sauce — the Sriracha Chicken Melt and Sriracha Steak Melt. And, Dunkin' Donuts launched a spicy smoked sausage breakfast sandwich in early November.
French fries moved from a signature side dish to the center of attention in some instances. For example, Checkers and Rally's launched loaded fries (as well as potato skins), topped with cheese sauce, ranch and bacon.
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Burger King not only came out with a French Fry burger — a burger topped with French fries — it also brought its Satisfries to the market, with reduced fat and calories compared to most QSR fries. They are available alongside the brand's classic fries.
Sonic also underwent a fry makeover, launching skin-on, natural cut fries made from whole russet potatoes.
Carl's Jr. came up with Buffalo Blue Cheese Crisscut Fries, waffle-cut fries topped with blue cheese crumbles, ranch dressing and hot Buffalo sauce.
As a variation on the staple potato side, Arby's rolled out house-made potato chips, created as part of an intra-company program incentivizing menu creations.
According to Technomic, dessert consumption is up — 40 percent of consumers report they're eating desserts after a meal at least twice a week, compared to 36 percent in 2010. In response, efforts have been made to make dessert sexier.
This year, Dairy Queen began offering its signature Blizzards in a waffle cone in the spring for the first time. DQ also introduced a S'mores Blizzard, a product that tested "off the charts."
Wendy's also added waffle cones for its signature Frosty, and Baskin-Robbins introduced a mixed berry waffle cone.
Baskin-Robbins launched its version of the classic American dessert, Whoopie Pies. Rita's, which is typically known for its Italian Ice flavors, debuted sundaes for the first time.
Sonic introduced 25 new shake flavors in the spring, including peanut butter and bacon. And, Carl's Jr. created the Hand-Scooped Strawberry Pop-Tarts Ice Cream Sandwich, with hand-scooped vanilla ice cream centered between a halved Strawberry Pop-Tart pastry.
Much of the dessert experimentation this year came from co-branding efforts with other brands. Rita's, for example, announced a partnership with Starburst for a new flavor launch. Culver's teamed up with Snickers and M&Ms for new Concrete Mixers, and Krystal added a Nutter Butter-flavored shake.
Cinnabon, Baskin-Robbins, Carvel and Krispy Kreme all introduced offerings featuring the Oreo cookie. Carvel also unveiled Reese's and Heath sundaes. Cinnabon also teamed up with Beam Inc. to launch Pinnacle Cinnabon Vodka.
TCBY partnered with Silk to release a new, dairy-free, almond milk- based frozen yogurt option, which generated as much as an 80 percent sales lift at some stores during its first week of availability.
On the main menu, Popeyes once again partnered with fellow New Orleans' brand Zatarain's to bring back the Zatarain's Butterfly Shrimp LTO.
Following Taco Bell's Doritos Locos Tacos success last year, the brand introduced two iterations in 2013 — the Cool Ranch Doritos Locos Tacos and the Fiery Doritos Locos Tacos. Taco Bell introduced the "House of Dew" lineup featuring three Mountain Dew-inspired beverages. As it extends its breakfast menu, the chain is also featuring Cinnabon Delights.
Carl's Jr. and Hardee's rolled out a new Jim Beam Bourbon Burger. The sister chains also partnered with Hillshire Farm for a new breakfast sandwich.
Beverage innovation remains a top story, as it has been for the past several years. This year, Rita's Italian Ice added frozen lemonade to its lineup,while Sonic added green iced tea, with five new flavor mix-ins.
Dunkin' Donuts added caramel to its K-Cup flavor lineup, and also introduced dark hot chocolate as a permanent beverage offering. The brand cooled things down in the summer with three new Coolatta frozen beverage flavors, and added red velvet and salted caramel flavors as the holidays approached.
Krispy Kreme added Ghirardelli White Chocolate Sauce to its mocha and hot chocolate drinks.
Burger King launched its new Smooth Roast Coffee. It also revealed 10 new specialty coffees blended by Seattle's Best Coffee.
Cinnabon introduced an Oreo Mint Chilllatta in the spring and, for the summer, added three new drinks including the Reese's Peanut Butter Cup Chillatta. Cinnabon also added a multiyear agreement with Green Mountain Coffee Roasters Inc. to bring Cinnabon-inspired coffee to the K-Cup space.
Jack in the Box introduced a new pina colada smoothie for the summer, and also launched an iced coffee line. Furthermore, the brand extended its coffee line for the first time ever in October, featuring pumpkin spice flavor.
Tim Hortons added a sustainable coffee platform, Partnership Blend, to its existing signature coffee menu. The company also jumped into the K-Cup space in the fall.
Through its longstanding partnership with Orange Julius, Dairy Queen debuted light smoothies in May.
Healthy vs. not-so-healthy dichotomy
Another interesting theme in QSR this year was the dichotomy of "healthy" (or perceived healthy) options alongside not-so-healthy, or super-sized items. For example: Carl's Jr. and Hardee's debuted a charbroiled fish sandwich early in the year, and claim to be the first national QSR chains to offer a charbroiled fish option. The sister brands, however, also added a Superman-themed burger with six slices of bacon, as well as a Jim Beam Bourbon Burger.
Quiznos did the same thing earlier in the year, introducing a Honey Bourbon Chicken Sandwich that had under 400 calories, alongside a new Steakhouse Beef Dip sandwich with French Onion sauce and Au Jus dipping sauce.
Healthy/perceived healthy launches
Other examples of healthy/perceived healthy efforts this year include:
Good Times launched a line of antibiotic-free, hormone-free, responsibly raised chicken tenderloins from Springer Mountain Farms.
Auntie Anne's introduced a whole grain pretzel nationwide. McDonald's egg white McMuffin hit restaurants in April. McDonald's also added McWraps with chicken, greens, cucumbers (the veggie's debut on the Golden Arches menu) and sauce.
Burger King began offering turkey burgers for the first time ever in March. Dunkin' Donuts added a turkey sausage breakfast sandwich to its DDSMART Menu, coming in at under 400 calories.
Jack in the Box added oatmeal.
White Castle rolled out grilled chicken versions of its signature Slider burgers. The brand also introduced three new medley salads.
Tim Hortons Café and Bake Shop now offers a gluten-free coconut macaroon, and Subway now offers Yopa! Authentic Greek Yogurt in all 26,000 restaurants nationwide.
Sonic added an egg white option to the breakfast menu.
KFC launched the Li'l Bucket Kids Meal, with grilled chicken drumsticks, green beans and a GoGo squeeze applesauce. Wendy's also added a grilled chicken wrap to its kids' meals.
El Pollo Loco expanded its Tostada Salad line, including the new citrus mango tostado salad. Carl's Jr. added two premium salads to its lineup, while Chick-fil-A introduced three new entrée salads and new salad dressings.
Not-so-healthy, super-sized launches
On the flip side, Jack in the box promoted its Hot Mess burger, and added the Monster Taco to its permanent menu.
Taco Bell introduced a smothered burrito, combining an enchilada with burrito fillings.
Long John Silver's introduced the Big Catch in May, the brand's largest fish offering ever. The menu item was later removed after the Center for Science in Public Interest called it the "Worst Meal in America," mostly for its use of transfats.
Church's Chicken debuted a "Texas Chicken," a half chicken marinated in seasonings and cooked without batter or breading. Jack in the Box expanded its "Really Big Chicken" sandwich line, with a BBQ version.
Other menu stories:
- Pork and BBQ. 2013 also featured many pork and barbecue launches. Hardee's added a pork chop 'n' gravy biscuit to the breakfast daypart. Cousins Subs added Memphis-style and Cubano pork subs. Quiznos new Executive Chef Nick Graff came up with a spicy BBQ Pulled Pork Sub, and a Southern BBQ Pulled Pork Sub. Dunkin' Donuts added a barbecue chicken sandwich to its bakery sandwich menu in June. Arby's debuted a smokehouse brisket sandwich in the fall, and one of Burger King's numerous menu launches this year was a "regionally-inspired BBQ menu."
- Bites. KFC's April launch of its Original Recipe Boneless chicken was called a "game changer" by the company. Pretzelmaker launched Buffalo Blue Cheese and Cracked Pepper and Sea Salt Bites in April. Auntie Anne's added mini pretzel dogs, as well as a line of Pretzel Nuggets in three flavors. Cinnabon rolled out CinnaSweets, bite-sized doughnut treats rolled in the brand's signature Makara cinnamon and sugar.
- Cheeses. As brands tinkered with premium breads, some did the same with cheese. Wendy's added asiago cheese, while Arby's began using Gouda. Biscuitville teamed up with the Original Stan's Pimento Cheese to roll out a new biscuit sandwich.
- Late-night munchies. McDonald's began testing an "After Midnight" menu in some markets, while White Castle and Wendy's both launched campaigns promoting their late-night menus. Jack in the Box went a step further, creating a separate menu for customers who come in between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m., complete with a "party atmosphere" and staff uniform changes.
- The differentiators. In addition to Taco Bell's Doritos Locos Tacos extension, 2013 will also be the year known for launch of Dunkin' Donuts Glazed Donut Breakfast Sandwich, with a fried egg and two slices of bacon served between a sliced glazed donut. And, Popeyes' introduction of chicken waffle tenders was the brand's most successful LTO in the past five years.
Read more about menu trends.