Making Changes in Fast Food

By: Amanda Ray Filed under: Culinary

February 6, 2011

fast food wrap

Just like any other industry, fast food restaurants have to adapt to trends and consumer tastes in order to stay relevant. Ai InSite talked to a couple of the culinary professionals about fast food restaurant trends and changes in their menus and products.

Nancy Luna is a reporter for the Orange County Register in California, and her blog, The Fast Food Maven, is the go-to source for news and trends in the restaurant industry. She has been in the trenches, touring farms that provide produce for McDonalds, and was the first reporter to tour the super-secretive In-N-Out Burger grounds. Luna has also had the chance to interview food industry legends like Guy Fieri, Wolfgang Puck, and Tyler Florence.

Ai InSite also spoke with Chef Lesley Eckert, CCE, CWPC, chef instructor at The International Culinary School at The Art Institute of Tampa, a branch of Miami International University of Art & Design. As an instructor and owner/chef at her own catering company, she had a lot of input to offer.

Healthy Fare

The biggest shift that the fast food industry has seen in recent years is the push for healthier food. As more Americans become obese and face the resulting health problems, many people are trying to take control of their eating and want their favorite restaurants to follow suit. Chains like McDonalds and Wendy’s are not typically known for their diet-friendly meals, but they are making significant changes to their menus in order to cater to the health-conscious crowd. This can be seen with new menu items including oatmeal breakfasts, fresh salad options, and grilled alternatives to fried chicken.

Federal and public pressure

It’s not just the general public urging the fast food industry to lighten up their menus; the government is also pushing for higher health standards. The Food and Drug Administration often sets new guidelines for restaurants, giving recommendations for reducing sodium levels, as well as trans- and saturated fats.

“I personally think it is due to pressure from activist groups,” Luna says. “McDonalds has promised to reduce sodium in foods, for example. That’s a great sign, as many others will follow suit to keep up. Chains are also being forced to reevaluate their menus due to menu-labeling laws.”

Recession-proof food

One of the big advantages of the fast food sector is that it is, for the most part, recession proof. When money gets tight, consumers look to fast food restaurants for inexpensive meals on the go. This is why the dollar menu has become so popular over the last decade or so. Restaurants like McDonalds and Wendy’s have seen a shift from the popularity of large triple-decker sandwiches to buying multiple low-priced items from the dollar menu.

Service Shifts

The service model for fast food has been evolving as well. A restaurant category that lies between fast food and sit-down service has become more and more popular as consumers look for better quality food at a low price.

“This restaurant trend is trying to capture the market base hovering between fast food and full-service dining establishments,” Eckert says. “This trend to me appears to be yet another wedge of competition in the fast food market.”

Restaurants like Panera Bread, Cosi, and Qdoba fall into this category. Their food is slightly more expensive than McDonalds and Burger King, but customers perceive it as having better quality ingredients and food.

Local and sustainable

Consumers are concerned about the nutritional aspects of their food, calorie-wise, but they also care about where it came from and how it was treated and processed. In general, consumers are becoming more interested in finding food grown by local farms, in order to support the local economy. Many people are also concerned about the treatment of animals on factory farms and are demanding higher standards for their food. This is proving to be very difficult for the major fast food chains.

“Big chains are not able to take advantage of local/sustainable eating trends because they are usually locked into large commercial farming and growing accounts,” Eckert says.

However, one chain in particular is known for its dedication to using local farms as their source for ingredients. Whether it can sustain success with this business model is another question.

“Chains like Chipotle have struggled to expand while maintaining their ‘food with integrity’ mantra.  It's tough for large chains to source so-called natural meats and organic produce and meets the volume demands of a chain,” Luna says.

Away from the chains

Because it is so difficult for fast food companies to offer local ingredients and still remain competitive, many consumers are breaking free from the chains.  

“I believe a handful of consumers are looking elsewhere for fast food, specifically health conscious and sustainable eaters. Foods trucks are becoming the new fast food choice,” Eckert says.

Food trucks are just what they sound like, mobile restaurants that serve up homemade food, cheap and fast. They often use local ingredients and aren’t producing on the massive scale that the big chains are.

Luna agrees whole-heartedly.

“Consumers who love food are dedicated to finding alternatives to fast-food chains. That’s why food trucks are so popular — foodies are getting gourmet street food at fast-food prices.”

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