2014 wasn’t exactly a banner year for fast food. McDonald’s continued its slow descent into irrelevance, Burger King brought back its infamous Chicken Fries and discontinued its much-ballyhooed (and healthier) Satisfries, and KFC brought back its absurd Double Down. And while no new fast food menu item became a viral smash on par with the latter, 2014 saw some pretty wild new items that could mean that fast food is heading firmly in the direction of the weird.
If there was one trend that caught on with a vengeance this year, it was breakfast, which is currently a $50 billion market within the fast food industry. Just about every chain now serves breakfast of some sort, including new player Taco Bell, whose breakfast menu represents the largest menu overhaul in the company’s history.
Mashups are also a major fast food menu motif; drawing on the mega-successes of foods like the Cronut and Taco Bell’s Tacos Doritos Loco, just about every chain is now offering some sort of “hybrid” food, like Taco Bell’s “Biscuit Taco,” which was tested in several markets and tucks egg, cheese, and bacon or sausage into a curved biscuit shaped like a taco shell. Apparently, there are still plenty of mashups to mine, and we’ll be seeing them for a long time.
Another trend we saw catch on in 2014? Bold, outside-the-box flavors. Sriracha is everywhere, from Pizza Hut to Subway, which is just one sign that fast food companies aren’t afraid to dial up flavors and experiment a little bit. It’s definitely not a bad thing.
Finally, more chains are veering into “gourmet” territory, with Wendy’s debuting Smoked Gouda Chicken on Brioche, Smashburger launching a Truffle & Swiss Burger, Wendy’s releasing a Tuscan Chicken Sandwich on Ciabatta, and McDonald’s testing a Guacamole Burger in Denver. These all indicate a shift not only in consumers’ tastes toward more upscale offerings, but also in chains’ desire to go a more high-end route in order to compete with popular chains like Panera Bread.
But onto the most interesting aspect of fast food of all: the weird stuff. Chains know that the weirder a food item is, the more likely that people will talk about it, and the more they’ll be tempted to try it, just so they can say that they did. 2014 definitely saw its fair share of weird fast foods. While foreign countries like Japan and the Philippines will always have some extremely bizarre fast foods on offer (Burger King Japan’s Black Ninja Burger, anyone?), all of the following menu items were released to the American market. Buckle up, because things are about to get crazy.
7-Eleven Doritos Loaded Cheese Wedges
7-Eleven decided to jump headfirst into the Doritos mashup fray in June, when they began selling Doritos Loaded: essentially deep-fried, Doritos-encrusted bites, stuffed with melty nacho cheese. Let us know if you try them, because we have no plans to.
Carl's Jr. Bacon Ranch Fries
Fries are a menu item that usually doesn’t require much in the way of souping up; a squirt of ketchup is usually all they need. But Carl’s Jr. takes them to the next level by offering things like sweet potato fries, chili cheese fries, Crisscut fries, and, as of earlier this year, Bacon Ranch Fries, doused in ranch dressing and sprinkled with bacon bits. With 800 calories and 51 grams of fat, we wouldn’t exactly call this a “side dish.”