With the first half of the year (already!) in the books, QSRweb has taken a look at the top menu trends that have shaped the quick-service segment so far.
Some of these trends have accelerated from last year, some were predicted as part of the National Restaurant Association's 2013 industry forecast, and some are making a strong debut.
Maybe the biggest (but unsurprising) story thus far is chicken sandwiches now outnumbering hamburgers on QSR menus. This shift slowly began in 2010 and has a lot to do with the rising cost of beef. Since the New Year, Dunkin' Donuts has added chicken sandwiches, Burger King introduced a Philly chicken sandwich, the chipotle chicken club sandwich returned to Jack in the Box, Wendy's launched flatbread grilled chicken sandwiches and more.
Below is a list of the other top menu trends (in no particular order) that have stood out.
Wendy's new Pretzel Bacon Cheeseburger is the company's most anticipated product launch in "recent history." Its artisan-baked, authentic pretzel bun is made using the same process as traditional soft pretzels. Earlier this year, Wendy's also added an artisan flatbread to its offerings. In August, CMO Craig Bahner said, "We think bread carriers are a way to leverage our capability and a way to differentiate."
Pretzel bread has also been picked up as a permanent offering on Blimpie's menu, as the base for two sandwiches at Cousins Subs and to house beef hot dogs for Sonic's new pretzel dogs.
Wraps are also becoming a more ubiquitous sandwich carrier. McDonald's has had early success with its Chicken McWrap, which has even boosted the chain's "healthy brand perception," according to recent research by BrandIndex. Chick-fil-A, Burger King and Dunkin' Donuts have also added wrap options to their menus.
And in April, Arby's introduced its partnership with King's Hawaiian for a King's Hawaiian Roast Beef sandwich. Scott Boatwright, SVP operations at Arby's, said the LTO far exceeded the company's expectations.
"We expected to ship 7,000 cases a week; we shipped 30,000 cases last week," he said, in May.
The Arby's partnership with King's Hawaiian illustrates another trend — going big, particularly with innovation and partnerships. Perhaps brands are taking a page from Taco Bell's Doritos Locos Tacos success last year. Taco Bell itself spring boarded from that launch with the Ranch Doritos Locos Tacos launch in March. Rita's teamed up with Starburst for a new flavor, introduced in May, and Carl's Jr. and Hardee's rolled out a new Jim Beam Bourbon Burger. Carl's Jr. and Hardee's also introduced a Superman-themed burger that includes six slices of bacon.
But the crown goes to Dunkin' Donuts and its Glazed Donut Breakfast Sandwich, a permanent item that includes a fried egg and two slices of bacon served between a sliced glazed donut.
Some innovations weren't as indulgent, but are worth mentioning nonetheless. Dairy Queen and Wendy's introduced waffle cones for their respective signature Blizzard and Frosty, while Baskin-Robbins added a mixed berry waffle cone.
Sticking to desserts, Sonic introduced 25 new shake flavors in the spring, including peanut butter and bacon, and peanut butter and jelly.
Rarely has the value menu been in a bigger spotlight than it has been so far this year. A report from Rabobank cited macroeconomic pressures as one of the main factors driving this trend, with constraints on disposable income and falling consumer confidence. David Novak, CEO of Yum! Brands, said offering value is now a necessity because of today's economy.
Since the beginning of this year alone, Dairy Queen introduced a value meal, Taco Bell is preparing for a system rollout of its $1 Cravings Menu, Wendy's updated its value menu to include up to 18 items, Krystal launched a breakfast value meal, Church's Chicken put some marketing muscle behind its value offerings and Subway introduced a $4 meal deal.
A shift toward healthier offerings has been occurring in the QSR segment for the past couple of years, driven by consumer demand. The early part of this year is no exception. For example, McDonald's introduced an Egg White McMuffin, as well as Chicken McWraps — its first offering to include cucumbers.
Carl's Jr. added two premium salads to its lineup, while Chick-fil-A introduced three new entrée salads and new salad dressings. Dairy Queen debuted light smoothies and, for the first time in brand history, Burger King added a turkey burger.
On the kids' meal side, Wendy's expanded its options by introducing the Grilled Chicken Wrap, while KFC launched the Li'l Bucket Kids Meal, with 210 calories and 4 grams of fat.
The focus on beverages has intensified, perhaps because they're the "holy grail" of profitability as Dunkin' CFO Paul Carbone described earlier this year. Dunkin' Donuts continues to hold a leadership position in the beverage category, with frequent Coolatta and K-Cup flavor introductions. The brand even leveraged its sister brand, Baskin-Robbins, recently to rollout new flavors inspired by that brand's ice cream — Mint Chocolate Chip Iced Coffee and Old Fashioned Butter Pecan.
Also increasing its beverage exposure is Jack in the Box, which came out with an iced coffee line in June. Sonic put green iced tea on the menu in April, while Cinnabon just added a trio of summer beverages, including the Reese's Peanut Butter Cup Chillatta. McDonald's continued to diversity ifs McCafe lineup, most recently adding a Blueberry Pomegranate Smoothie and Dulce de Lech Shake.
According to market research firm Technomic, breakfast sandwich appearances on chain restaurant menus increased 8.1 percent during the early part of the year as compared to last year. There still remains a lot of white space in the QSR breakfast daypart and chains are starting to find their footing. TacoTime introduced its breakfast menu in March, while Krystal added a value platform to its morning menu. Popeyes tested a breakfast menu in a North Carolina market with a two-day sampling event in May.
Colorado-based Good Times reported double-digit sales increases after launching its new breakfast daypart. And McDonald's plans to expand its signature breakfast offerings past midnight.
As for individual breakfast item efforts, Sonic added Cinnasticks, Tim Hortons upgraded its bacon supply and Jack in the Box now offers blueberry muffin oatmeal. And then there's that new Waffle Taco in test at California Taco Bells ...
Some limited-service chains have spread their wings into the retail space this year. Whataburger's signature condiment line, including Fancy Ketchup, Spicy Ketchup and Original Mustard, is now available at all Texas and Mexico H-E-B stores. H-E-B and Whataburger also teamed up to introduce Whatafries, french fries cut from real potatoes that can be heated or eaten straight out of the bag.
Baskin-Robbins launched a new line of shelf-stable, sherbet-flavored freezer bars at about 15,000 major national retailers throughout the country. This is the first freezer bar treat from Baskin-Robbins that guests can purchase from supermarkets and drug stores.
And, Cold Stone Creamery has thrown its hat into the chocolate bar space, featuring 12 different varieties for sale online.
Read more about restaurant 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.