The restaurant industry has been rebounding nicely from the recession, but that doesn't mean operators aren't maintaining a conservative approach to business. Perhaps that best explains why 2012 was such a big year for chicken promotions – it's simply a cheaper protein than beef.
It seemed as though every QSR chain shifted their focus to a signature chicken item at some point in the past 12 months. Burger King anchored the trend, launching its largest chicken menu to date in the fall. Sonic and Wendy's introduced premium chicken sandwiches. McDonald's came up with Chicken McBites, while Whataburger came up with Whatachicken Bites. Culver's debuted antiobiotic-free chicken tenders and Hardee's expanded its line-up of hand-breaded chicken tenders with three new sandwiches.
Even the traditional chicken players got creative: Popeyes gave us Dip'n Chick'n, Rip'n Chick'n and Wicked Chick'n; KFC brought back its popular Chicken Littles for the first time in 20 years; Church's debuted a Big Tex Tender sandwich; and Chick-fil-A kicked off the New Year with its new Chicken Tortilla Soup.
Consequently, QSRweb's top food story of the year is chicken. And, at the risk of abandoning humility, this is consistent with our predictions at the end of last year.
Although chicken, on paper, sounds a bit bland, QSR menus this year were anything but.
The remaining product launches/menu stories of the year
2. Taco Bell's Doritos Locos. It didn't take long (about four months) for this offering to become the chain's most successful product launch ever. The item features a proprietary Doritos shell created in partnership with Frito-Lay, and more versions are expected to be launched soon, including a Cool Ranch Doritos version.
3. Bacon. As rumors emerged predicting a global bacon shortage in as early as 2013, restaurants stepped up their game. Wendy's introduced Bacon Portabella Melt cheeseburger on the heels of its Baconator/Son of Baconator. McDonald's added a Cheddar Bacon Onion Angus Burger, and Carl's Jr. and Hardee's rolled out the "Bacon Bacon Biscuit" and also topped their fries with bacon crumbles.
Pushing the envelope even further, Burger King introduced a sundae with bacon, a feat typically reserved for fine dining establishments. Seattle's Best crowdsourced for a new coffee and picked one that featured caramelized bacon flavor and hints of pumpkin pie spice.
4. Kids' meals. After a rocky few years in which QSR kids' meals were health advocacy groups' public enemy No. 1, many chains began adding items such as apples and milk in response. Healthier kids' meals were listed as a top trend for 2012, and again for 2013, by the NRA and the industry is right on track with that prediction.
McDonald's slimmed down its Happy Meals last year, cutting the calorie count by 20 percent. McDonald's Canadian system followed in April, with the automatic inclusion of yogurt. Arby's and Jack in the Box both rolled out new kids' meals late last year with apple slices, and in January, Chick-fil-A introduced grilled chicken nuggets as a healthier entrée alternative for its younger guests.
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 more than 100 restaurant brands involved in the program, compared to about 70 in June.
5. Barbecue. Throughout the past year, numerous restaurant brands have pushed limited-time offerings featuring barbecue flavors and preparation methods, according to Technomic.
"Barbecue is increasingly prevalent on menus," said Darren Tristano, Technomic executive vice president. "More than half of all operators we track (57 percent) menu at least one dish with barbecue sauce."
For example, Burger King launched a Memphis Pulled Pork BBQ sandwich, Carolina BBQ sandwiches and Texas BBQ sandwiches in the summer. Dairy Queen debuted a Sweet Apple BBQ GrillBurger, Taco John's gave us a Chipotle BBQ Chicken Salad, Subway promoted its new smokehouse BBQ chicken sub in the spring, White Castle rolled out three BBQ Sliders, and Carl's Jr. and Hardee's introduced a new Memphis BBQ burger, pairing saucy pulled pork with a classic charbroiled beef patty.
5. Snacks. The daypart between lunch and dinner continues to grow, buoyed by snack-sized launches such as McDonald's Chicken McBites, Jack in the Box's Mini Corn Dogs, KFC's Original Chicken Bites, Pretzelmaker's Pretzel Bites, Whataburger's Whatachick'n Bites, Popeyes' Wicked, Dip'n and Rip'n Chick'n, Dunkin' Donuts' Pancake Bites and Wienerschnitzel's Der Chicken Dippers.
6. Desserts. After a lull in indulgence spend during the recession, our collective sweet tooth is back. Taco Bell just launched a dessert menu, including a churro. Whataburger brought us a new lemon pie this year. KFC has created sweet and savory chocolate chip cookies. Jack in the Box launched Brownie Bites. White Castle has a Brownie on a Stick and Cheesecake on a Stick. In April, Chick-fil-A added four new desserts.
Baskin-Robbins debuted Waffle Chip Dippers, consumed similarly to chips and salsa, but with waffle cone "chips" and ice cream. Along those lines, El Pollo Loco just launched its chocolate dessert nachos.
Also this year, many chains leveraged Oreo's 100th anniversary by introducing items featuring the iconic cookie, including Dairy Queen, Baskin-Robbins, Cold Stone Creamery, Dunkin' Donuts, White Castle, Jack in the Box and Carl's Jr.
7. Breakfast. While breakfast sales have grown steadily throughout the past few years, Technomic data shows that the market is not yet saturated and there is still ample opportunity. Throwing their hat into the ring this year was Taco Bell, which began testing FirstMeal, including the MTN Dew A.M. (Mountain Dew and orange juice). Wendy's also continues to test its morning daypart offerings, including a propriety coffee brand, while Subway expanded and heavily promoted its breakfast flatbread line throughout the year.
Breakfast mainstays are also evolving their morning offerings to stay ahead. Burger King added breakfast burritos, Hardee's added a ribeye steak, egg and cheese biscuit, and its sister chain, Carl's Jr., added the Made from Scratch Biscuits. Tim Hortons Cafe & Bake Shop is now offering its grilled-to-order Panini sandwiches in the morning, and Dunkin' Donuts offered an Angus Steak & Egg Sandwich. McDonald's is going after the nocturnal crowd, testing breakfast after midnight. It's also reportedly testing a lower-calorie egg-white version of its popular McMuffin.
8. Healthier/fast casual. In a May earnings call, Wendy's CEO Emil Brolick directly identified fast casual as a driver of QSR innovations.
"We understand consumer reference points have changed. Today's consumers not only have traditional QSR options but they have quick casual options, the new QSRs, which are providing consumers that elevated food experience ... The competitive bar has been raised," he said.
Many QSR players are stepping up to the challenge, adding higher-quality products with a healthier perception — qualities fast casual has leveraged for its own growth. QSRs are especially invading the "better burger" space, traditionally dominated by Five Guys and Smashburger. Wendy's came up with Bacon Portabella Melt cheeseburger, for example, while Burger King now has a Wisconsin White Cheddar Whopper Sandwich and McDonald's has a Cheddar Bacon Onion burger.
QSRs also stepped things up in the non-burger categories; for example, Wendy's Mozzarella Chicken Supreme Sandwich. Arby's brought back its Pecan Chicken Salad sandwich and wraps, and is now focusing its ad campaign on freshness. And, Taco Bell's Cantina menu was cited by some analysts for the drop in sales forecast at Chipotle.
Specialty beverages could also fall under this trend. Although some may not qualify as "healthy" (peppermint mocha latte, anyone?), drink menus have been thrust into the spotlight since the advent of Starbucks. Innovation has accelerated beyond the heavy hitters such as McDonald's, Tim Hortons and Dunkin' Donuts, to Burger King frappes, Krispy Kreme-branded coffee, Wendy's All-Natural Lemonade and single-serve options such as K-Cups (Dunkin' Donuts' mocha, pumpkin or hot cocoa flavors, for example).
- Ethnic cuisine
- Spicy flavor profiles
- Dipping sauces
- Sweet potato fries
- Grilled proteins
- Bakery items
- Greek yogurt/grozen yogurt
Coming next: QSRweb's top non-food stories of the year.
Read more about food trends.
Alicia has been a professional journalist for 15 years. Her work with FastCasual.com, QSRweb.com and PizzaMarketplace.com has been featured in publications around the world, including NPR, Good Morning America, Voice of Russia radio, Consumerist.com and Franchise Asia magazine.