When it comes to fast food, customers are craving more flavor — and brands are happily serving it up
There's a reason why fast food continues to reign supreme generation after generation. Well, more like reasons. After all, fast food is cheap, convenient and incredibly tasty. What more could you ask for?
Turns out, a lot actually. Cult-favorite fast food brands have been able to sustain their popularity for years now, thanks to their reliable menu offerings. But with different times also comes different cravings. So, as expected, customers are looking to be surprised — shocked even — and, in response, fast food brands are upping their game.
Take, for example, drive-in fast food restaurant chain Sonic, which combined tater tots and chips to make its BBQ Chip-Seasoned Tots (which were available from Feb. 27 to March 26). There's Dominos, which added three types of loaded tots to their menu: The Philly cheese steak, which includes steak, Alfredo sauce, onions, peppers and a cheese blend; the cheddar bacon, which includes bacon, mozzarella, cheddar and garlic Parmesan sauce; and the melty three-cheese tots, which include mozzarella, cheddar provolone and Alfredo sauce. There's also Taco Bell, which launched their limited-time-only crispy melt taco following a popular test run in Birmingham last year. The limited-time item features a crispy taco shell with a choice of beef or black beans and adds nacho cheese sauce, their three-cheese blend, lettuce, diced tomatoes, sour cream and extra cheddar cheese.
We also can't forget Papa Johns and their limited-edition, thin-crust Crispy Parm Pizza, which flaunts shredded Parmesan and Romano cheeses on the bottom of the pie to increase its crunch factor. And Burger King's international chicken sandwiches, a trio of sandwiches that includes the returning Italian and American original chicken sandwiches and the new Mexican original chicken sandwich.
McDonald's also rolled out a series of broader upgrades after experiencing a drop in sales. In the second quarter of 2015, McDonald's saw its sales and earnings per share (EPS) fall, according to Investopedia. Former CEO Steve Easterbrook, who was appointed that same year, managed to turn the stock price around considerably. But as of 2022, Easterbrook had "yet to bring innovation to the stalling fast-food giant, leading to deficiencies in operations that are frequently noted by consumers and franchise owners as areas that need improvement," the outlet noted.
The brand's recent menu improvements include softer buns, meltier cheese and grilled onions, which will be added to the patties right on the grill. As for its Big Mac sauce, McDonald's is allowing fans to order dipping cups of the famed burger sauce for the first time ever, beginning at the end of April.
"We found that small changes, like tweaking our process to get hotter, meltier cheese and adjusting our grill settings for a better sear, added up to a big difference in making our burgers more flavorful than ever," said chef Chad Schafer, senior director of culinary innovation of McDonald's USA, in a statement to CNN. The changes specifically apply to the Big Mac and the McDouble burger as well as the classic cheeseburger, double cheeseburger and hamburger. They'll also be available nationally by early next year.
The upgrades follow a series of major menu changes that McDonald's introduced in recent years. In 2018, the brand swapped frozen beef for fresh beef in its Quarter Pounder, which subsequently increased sales by 30% in one year's time.
"Our customers are loving it," Marion Gross, McDonald's senior vice president of supply chain management, said in a 2019 interview with USA TODAY. "We sold 40 million more Quarter Pounder burgers nationally in the first quarter of this year compared to the quarter in 2018."
In addition to the taste, customers appreciated the increased transparency regarding their foods' ingredients. The new upgrade gave McDonald's a leg up amongst its competitors, who continued to use frozen meat in their burgers.
"Our customers tell us they have an interest in understanding where it comes from, what goes into it and how is it prepared," Gross said about the company's food. "We're trying to be more transparent and make some necessary changes to delight our customers as we embark on our journey to be a better McDonald's."
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In 2021, the brand released its own crispy chicken sandwich, thus diversifying their menu options and putting them in competition with Popeyes. They also served up nostalgia with their new, limited-time adult Happy Meals.
Consumers once again reacted favorably, which expectedly boosted sales — in the US, sales at stores open at least 13 months "jumped 5.9% in the fourth quarter of 2022, rising 10.3% for the whole year," CNN noted.
"We are gaining market share in both chicken and beef," said McDonald's CEO Chris Kempczinski during a January analyst call with CNN. "In an environment where our customers are looking for the simple and familiar, our core menu items have never been more relevant."
Of course, the changes have all been met with both positive and negative reactions. But for the most part, fast food companies seem to be heading in the right direction when it comes to satisfying their customers. At the core of it all is reliability and familiarity sprinkled with a bit of extra flavor and uniqueness.
It's also worth mentioning that consumers love controversial menu offerings — it gives them something to enjoy and debate about, which creates online buzz. Some people may hate extra onions on their burger while others may love it. Still, will both consumers continue coming back to their go-to fast food joint? Probably. And they'll definitely be keeping an eye out for what's coming next…
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