With March and April comes Lenten season, Easter, NCAA basketball madness, St. Patrick's Day and more, and quick-service chains have launched a barrage of limited time offerings and campaigns to celebrate the busy season. Guests can expect everything from egg-shaped doughnuts to green ketchup and menu item tournaments.
This jump in promotions is no accident. Darren Tristano, executive vice president at market research firm Technomic, said first quarter spending typically increases because of the use of gift cards that are purchased and given out during the holiday season.
"Many chains are using LTO's in March to launch springtime menus, seasonal offerings and especially items to entice consumers who are looking for a venue for March Madness," he said.
Also, chains are inclined to step up their promotional efforts to woo guests heading outdoors when temperatures rise.
"Northern climates are experiencing warmer weather and consumers are coming out of hibernation, leaving the house, and there is a greater opportunity for away from home dining occasions," Tristano said.
St. Patrick's Day promos
March 17 brings out a different side in many and this year, Arby's has joined in on the fun, temporarily changing its name to "O'rbs" across its digital channels. The chain also has moved the Irish favorite Reuben into the spotlight, offering a buy-one-get-one free deal through March 18.
As it does for most major holidays, Dunkin' Donuts' product innovation team has rolled out new themed items for St. Patrick's Day, including the Lucky Mint and Green Shamrock donuts.
The Lucky Mint is a glazed chocolate cake donut topped with chocolate icing and a mint chocolate bark topping. The Green Shamrock is a yeast ring donut garnished with green icing and shamrock-shaped sprinkles. Both are available through the end of March at participating restaurants nationwide.
"We know that donuts bring fun and joy to any event, and we specifically designed these donuts to make the holiday even sweeter for our guests this year," said Stan Frankenthaler, Dunkin' Brands' executive chef and vice president of Product Innovation.
Green ketchup may seem unusual, but this weekend, it'll complement the free french fry giveaway at participating Burger King restaurants nationwide.
Burger King Corp. is celebrating St. Patrick's Day with free value-sized fries for guests March 17 and 18 at participating restaurants. The fries will include a one-of-a-kind green St. Paddy's Sauce from Heinz.
In keeping with the March/green theme, Dairy Queen's Blizzard of the Month is the Mint Oreo, featuring Oreo cookie crumbles in mint and vanilla soft serve ice cream. Dairy Queen also is offering a BOGO deal for guests who purchase a 99-cent Blizzard in March.
Finally, McDonald's popular LTO Shamrock Shake has gone national this year for the first time. The green-colored, mint-flavored shake is available in all 14,000 U.S. restaurants through March 25 for the suggested price of $1.89.
The Shamrock Shake debuted in 1970. Prior to now, its availability was left up to individual operators. In 2011, about 7,000 restaurants offered the item.
According to a McDonald's spokesperson, the national rollout was completed in response to customer feedback. National ad and social media campaigns for the Shamrock Shake also have been introduced this year.
While many consumers gravitate toward bars or "social" food opportunities such as pizza to enjoy the NCAA basketball tournaments, some QSRs are creating big buzz for the Big Dance.
For example, Baskin-Robbins' March Flavor of the Month is 3-Point Chocolate, which includes chocolate ice cream with salty caramel ribbon and orange-colored caramel pretzel balls.
"3-Point Chocolate combines some of America's favorite flavors – chocolate and caramel with salty pretzel bites – and is a fun way for our guests to get into the college basketball spirit and celebrate one of America's favorite pastimes," Frankenthaler said.
In addition to celebrating college basketball season with its new flavor, Baskin-Robbins stores are offering customizable ice cream cakes for select college basketball teams.
Bojangles', Wendy's and Carl's Jr. have launched a "tournament" on their Facebook pages to see which menu item comes out as the fan favorite. The pages highlight several face-offs throughout the next few weeks, as fans vote on their favorites to push them through to the next round.
White Castle's Facebook page has added a $3 off coupon for its Crave Case menu item to "enjoy some Sliders while you enjoy the games."
Other brands – such as Culver's and Hardee's – have facilitated March Madness–themed conversations on their Facebook pages to generate consumer engagement.
While some QSRs are celebrating college hoops or Irish traditions, others have focused on the general arrival of spring and the bigger Easter holiday.
Rita's Italian Ice is hosting its 20th annual Free Ice Day for the first day of spring, March 20. All guests who visit a Rita's Italian Ice on that day will receive a free regular Ice of their choice. They can choose from traditional Italian Ice (often referred to as water ice), available in more than 50 flavors, or a Cream Ice, which doesn't include the heaviness of ice cream.
Cold Stone Creamery is going with the Easter theme, partnering with Jelly Belly jelly beans for its new sweepstakes promotion on Facebook. The campaign offers fans the chance to win a one-year supply of ice cream and Jelly Belly jelly beans, and has introduced a jelly bean-infused derivative of five signature Cold Stone Creamery flavors.
Krispy Kreme also has embraced the spring holiday, rolling out egg-shaped doughnuts this week in coordination with the Blu-ray and DVD release of Universal Pictures' Easter-themed family comedy HOP.
The new Sprinkled Chocolate Iced Egg with Kreme Filling and Drizzled Iced Egg with Chocolate Kreme Filling Doughnuts are available through April 8 at participating Krispy Kreme U.S. and Canada locations.
And, leading up to Easter, a majority of QSRs have started the heavy promotion of their seafood staples for the Lenten crowd.
Although it seems like a busy promotional period for the QSR segment, March is average when it comes to new item introductions, totaling about 8 percent of the full year, according to Technomic. Expect more next month, as April makes up 11 percent of the promotional calendar, tied with June for third overall (behind November and January, respectively)
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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.