Rumor has it that some QSR giants have been testing variations of pretzel bread recently, creating enthusiasm and curiosity among fans and foodies alike. The idea fits in with the broader trend of premium ingredient use (it's not white or wheat bread, after all) and a greater focus on bread in general (think flatbread, artisan, sourdough, Panini-style, etc.)
QSRweb even listed new styles of bread as one of the big culinary trends to emerge in the segment in 2013. Since that prediction, a pretzel bun has been spotted on some bacon cheeseburgers at Wendy's locations in Miami. Pretzel-based subs have also been reported at some Subway units.
In October, Wendy's chief marketing officer Craig Bahner told QSRweb that "breads are a focus and we think bread carriers are a way to leverage our capability and a way to differentiate."
But while these players test the waters, two brands have solidly established a pretzel bread presence on their menus — Blimpie Subs and Cousins Subs. They have provided a glimpse into their experience with this still-unique offering.
Blimpie could very well be considered the QSR pioneer for pretzel bread, having first introduced the option in 2009. The company supplies its breads from J&J Snack Foods.
According to Steven Evans, vice president of Marketing for parent company Kahala, pretzel bread was only found at bakeries or casual dining restaurants at that time.
"Since no other QSR sub chains were serving this type of bread, Blimpie wanted to be the first in the industry to offer the signature product," he said.
The bread was introduced by the research and development chef and initially rolled out as a limited-time offer. It is now a permanent item; however, Blimpie continues to reintroduce the product by featuring it with a new or existing item as an LTO.
Evans said the initial introduction and subsequent LTO introductions have been favorably received by Blimpie's franchise base.
"They love to offer new and innovative products to their guests looking to try something different. It's a great product popular with our franchisees as it's easy for them to execute operationally," he said.
While it does take time for franchisees and crew members to become familiar with a new product, pretzel bread has similar operational procedures as the other bread platforms on Blimpie's menu, making its deployment relatively smooth.
In addition to its franchise base, Blimpie's customers have also responded favorably.
"Consumers have been very receptive to the product for a couple of reasons — they are unable to get it any other QSR sub shop and also it offers them a new and unique taste profile than the typical sub roll," Evans said.
That said, he would not be surprised to see more QSR brands — within the sub category and beyond — adopt a pretzel bread platform.
"Breads are fun to innovate with," Evans said. "Due to the many forms and flavors they now come in, it is easier to implement these novelty breads in a QSR setting."
At Cousins, pretzel bread was introduced as part of the limited-time offer "Twisted Subs" promotion that launched on Oct. 22, 2012, and ran through the end of the year.
There was no official "test" of the product before the broader rollout. Instead, Kim Kofler, vice president of Operations, recognized that pretzel-type food was among the top 10 innovations in the industry and introduced pretzel bread to "Kitchen Time." Kitchen Time is Cousins' corporate test kitchen where management, franchisees and other business partners meet with the menu development team to sample food and provide feedback. The pretzel bread, Kofler said, was a "huge hit."
Although it has only been offered as an LTO promotion, the company will consider bringing it back for another promotion, Kofler added.
"Pretzel bread was a very popular bread in a long line of satisfying breads that is the cornerstone of our brand," Kofler said. "We received a lot of positive feedback from customers through product reviews and social media."
To quantify, "Twisted Subs" accounted for 5.53 percent of all subs sold during its offer. Pretzel bread could also be substituted as a bread choice on other subs, and accounted for 3 percent of all subs ordered.
Read more about food and beverage trends.
Photo provided by Cousins Subs.
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.