On the outside, it may look to you like fast food hasn’t changed too much in the past year. And unless you’ve been actively following restaurant industry news or been eating at McDonald’s weekly, you can certainly be forgiven for that: Chipotle has spent the year recovering from its foodborne illness outbreak, McDonald’s has been settling into its all-day breakfast menu, and things seem pretty steady. But if you look at the trends, you’ll notice that the fast-food landscape has been irrevocably changing this year — in many cases for the better.
As chains begin to recognize that public perception of what’s healthy has shifted from “low in fat and calories” to “made with high-quality ingredients,” they’ve begun to make some subtle (and not-so-subtle) changes. McDonald’s, for example, has begun experimenting with fresh beef, and it’s also removed preservatives from items including McNuggets, rolled out buns without high-fructose corn syrup, and introduced antibiotic-free chicken. Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. also became the first fast-food chains to offer all-natural chicken and beef.
Not only are chains beginning to use higher-quality ingredients, they’re also becoming more open about from where they’re sourcing those ingredients. McDonald’s is working hard to combat the perception that its offerings are overly processed by taking steps like completely reformulating its McNugget recipe and — along with chains including Wendy’s, Bob Evans, Chick-fil-A, and Dairy Queen — switching over to cage-free eggs.
Chicken sandwiches are on track to become just a popular as burgers, and chains are stepping up their game accordingly. Shake Shack introduced a chicken sandwich with much fanfare in January, Wendy’s completely redesigned its chicken sandwich, The Habit Burger Grill introduced its first fried chicken option, and even Arby’s has started offering chicken sandwiches.
In looking at the success of chains with bare-bones menus like In-N-Out, more chains are beginning to realize that the simpler they go, the better. McDonald’s high-concept “Create Your Taste” customization platform, which allowed guests to customize their burgers at high-tech kiosks, was discontinued after the idea failed to take off and it’s being replaced by a much simpler menu of “Signature Crafted Recipes.” And Chipotle is going all in with its new super-simple burger concept, Tasty Made, which will sell only burgers, fries, and milkshakes.
Gimmicks may finally have jumped the shark this year. Trying to reconcile a commitment to healthier, responsibly sourced food with menu items like Cheetos Chicken Fries is just about impossible, and Burger King’s (the brains behind that and other gimmicks like Mac N’ Cheetos) sales are beginning to slip because of it.
One of the major stories to emerge from the restaurant industry in recent years is the emergence of fast-casual chains and their growing market share over the fast-food industry, and that shows no signs of slowing down. Fast-casual officially became the fastest-growing foodservice segment globally, and some of the country’s best-known chefs got into the fast-casual game this year, including Roy Choi and Daniel Patterson (LocoL) and José Andrés (Beefsteak).
As dollar menus continue to go the way of the dodo, chains are getting creative with their meal deals. McDonald’s rolled out its “McPick 2 for $5” deal, Burger King introduced a “2 for $10 Whopper Meal,” Wendy’s has a “4 for $4” deal, Carl’s Jr./ Hardee’s rolled out a “$4 Real Deal,” and Checkers/Rally’s introduced a “$2 Meal Deal.”
The introduction of all-day breakfast at McDonald’s in late 2015 sent shock waves through the industry, and it was such a success that the menu has only expanded since then. In response to that (and Taco Bell’s wildly successful breakfast menu), other chains are stepping up their breakfast game as well. Burger King introduced an “egg-normous burrito,” and Subway is trying to raise more awareness of its breakfast offerings by offering coupons and other incentives.
Fast-food chains are taking advantage of technology in order to make it easier for customers to place their orders. Some come across as gimmicks (a temporary tattoo introduced by Pizza Hut contains a QR code that will order you a pizza), but the majority are anything but. At least half of all sales to Domino’s and Papa John’s are through digital channels (Pizza Hut is at 46 percent), according to Business Insider. Starbucks, the mobile ordering pioneer, sees about a quarter of all its orders come in through its app, and McDonald’s announced earlier this month that it would be rolling out a mobile order-and-pay app in 2017.