Erin Brereton

The Shift in Counter Culture

To many consumers, eating healthy used to mean simply cutting back on fat and calories.

Now, healthy has a different meaning—particularly in the quick-service space, where customers are more interested in nutritious and natural menu options, according to a recent Transparency Market Research study.  

Fresh ingredient use has emerged as one of the top value drivers for foodservice consumers; research from data provider The NPD Group found it can significantly influence where diners choose to eat, with two of the largest consumer segments, foodies and restaurant regulars—who make up 58 percent of the market—caring less about price and more about quality and freshness.

The New Competition 

Fast-casual eateries, which NPD reports experienced consistent customer visit growth for the past several years through spring 2016, may have helped fuel the freshness trend.

“You place your order, and they prepare it while you wait; the fast-casual segment has been delivering on the need for freshly prepared food made with fresh ingredients,” says Bonnie Riggs, restaurant industry analyst for NPD’s foodservice division. “[That’s why] it has grown so strongly.”

However, grocery stores and other retail outlets increasingly offering in-store dining options have crowded the competitive landscape, particularly because many sell prepared meals that cost less than restaurant fare, Riggs says. 

Retail outlets that provide prepared food, in-store dining and take-out have seen consumers increase their spending on these types of meals by nearly 30 percent since 2008. This translates to nearly $18 billion being spent on prepared meals and snacks from these retail outlets in 2016. Additionally, NPD forecasts that grocery and other retail prepared food purchases will grow 10 percent by 2022.

The message is clear: Food prepared with fresh—not frozen—vegetables, high-quality meats and cheeses, and other flavorful, additive-free ingredients attract customers looking for convenient, healthy options.

A Better Burger Bun 

In the past few years, fast food chain Jack in the Box, which has more than 2,200 restaurants in 21 U.S. states and Guam, has introduced a number of menu changes to differentiate itself in the market. Burgers, in particular, have been a focus. 

“In-N-Out and Whataburger were getting a lot more credit for quality than we were,” says Jeff Zwally, Jack in the Box's vice president of culinary development. “We wanted to understand what needs we were not delivering on, and how we could make that better.”

Earlier this year, Jack in the Box debuted roughly 30 retooled menu items. Alterations included adding another iceberg lettuce layer to enhance its Jumbo Jack burger’s texture, topping burgers with 100 percent mayonnaise instead of the chain’s traditional onion-mayo sauce and developing a new split top bun.

When the chain released its Jack’s Brewhouse Bacon Burger in July, designed to echo a pub dining experience, the burger’s potato poppy-and-sesame-seed bun was a compelling selling point, according to Zwally.

“We’re finding customers really eat with their eyes,” he says. “You don't see that [type of bun] in fast food; not even in fast-casual. It just looks visually striking.”

“We went through a time when speed of service was a higher priority than delivering on quality,” Zwally says. “Now we’re trying to drive that back into our restaurants. The way we look at fresh is not just about raw ingredients, but how we toast our buns; how we make our sandwiches to order.”

Fast Forward into Freshness  

Today, more than 8 in 10 restaurant operators say guests pay more attention to food’s nutritional content than they did two years ago, according to the National Restaurant Association -potentially good news for QSRs. 

“[The] consumers-looking-for-quality-and-fresh-ingredients trend is not going away,” Riggs says. “It’s going to help drive your business.” For some, however, there will be a transition period.

Sourcing new ingredients can present challenges. For example, if your current vendors can’t accommodate your need for produce or other fresh ingredients, you may need to search for a new supply chain member. 

Cost can be another issue. Distinctive ingredients can result in higher production expenses. Because the QSR industry’s concept has traditionally centered on convenience and price, passing the cost on to consumers can be tricky.

Luckily, some fast-casual fans do place a premium on fresh options, according to Riggs. “Even though fast-casual is higher-priced, to them, it’s reasonably priced,” she says. As a result, QSRs should be able to add fresh menu items without having to fully absorb the expense.

“To deliver the higher-quality, better eating experience consumers are looking for, the ingredients may cost a bit more,” Zwallysays. “But we’re finding guests are willing to pay for that.”