A Year in Fast Food: The Biggest News and Industry Trends that Dominated 2014

From the waffle taco to wage strikes, the fast food industry saw a lot of big changes and industry developments
A Year in Fast Food: The Biggest News and Industry Trends that Dominated 2014
Jane Bruce

Taco Bell's efforts to engage its customers through social media have paid off big time. 


In a year of fast food innovation, companies invited us (and Lebron James) to join them on Snapchat, tried to learn the language of the millennial, pledged to give us healthier and more environmentally conscious menu items, and kept trying to get us to go to breakfast. 

The breakfast rivalries: Fast food companies clamored for supremacy in the “morning day part” as research showed that, since at least 2011, restaurant traffic during breakfast has steadily climbed each year. In 2014, fast food companies tried to get ahead with some carefully calculated menu adjustments. Taco Bell introduced a breakfast menu that includes the infamous Waffle Taco and the A.M. Crunchwrap, and went after Ronald McDonald; McDonald’s tried to push back by exploring the idea of longer breakfast hours, sent breakfast pastries into test markets, and even trademarked “McBrunch.”

Fast casual: A growing consumer interest in an accessible, slightly more upscale dining environment — coupled with a market saturated by on-the-go fast food restaurants — saw the rise of the fast casual restaurant. Offering more health-conscious menu items, Yum! Brands — the company which owns Taco Bell, KFC, and Pizza Hut — began testing more upscale options that would ideally compete with restaurants like Chipotle and Panera Bread: U.S. Taco Co. and Urban Taproom, the expansion of by-the-slice restaurants from Pizza Hut;  and a banh mi concept in Dallas, Texas. Fine dining chefs like José Andrés and Roy Choi also announced that they would get involved in fast-casual concepts as a way to fight world hunger.

The digital experience: From Apple Pay , to the Taco Bell app, to a new Pizza Hut menu that reads your mind, fast food companies spend the year designing ways to keep their customers plugged in.

The millennial influence: With research indicating that the millennial demographic possessed untold market influence and buying power, fast food companies have courted the twenty-something non-stop. From stepping up their social media game to producing animated (and sometimes Claymation) commercials and developing single-serve product lines for the unattached, the ongoing quest to find out what would appeal to millennials dominated the market.

Ingredient simplification: Major food producer Unilever simplified “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter to an ingredient list of nine, recognizable items and promised to continue exploring the transparency of its portfolio, and Hershey’s has recently announced that it would explore the removal of high-fructose corn syrup in a number of its products. Major, multinational food companies also made important pledges to improve animal welfare standards and supply chain accountability.

Chick Fil-A Expansion: Atlanta-based announced aggressive plans for expansion in 2014, planned to open 108 more locations this year alone, “most of them urban and a good chunk of them in New York City,” the company told USA Today. Chick Fil-A Dan Cathy also stated publically that he would “leave it to politicians and others to discuss social issues.”

The nostalgia: The limited-edition return of items of the KFC Double Down, the McRib, Surge soda, and chocolate covered Twinkies proved that nothing makes food taste more delicious than nostalgia.

The edibles: New innovations like marijuana-infused bulletproof coffee and edibles that take a visual cue from Hershey’s candy bars showed us that the growing trend of marijuana legalization has opened a new culinary door.

Fast food wage labor strikes: Fast food workers continue to fight to earn a minimum wage of $15 and the right to unionize. Protests have spanned the last two years, with the most recent nationwide walkout scheduled for December 4. President Obama voiced support for service industry workers, sympathizing with the desire to unionize for better industry standards.


School junk food ban: The USDA effectively banned junk food from public schools through the “Smart Snacks in School” program, effective in July. “Basically, the new rules limit the amount of sugar, fat, calories, and salt in foods that can be sold in school vending machines, and encourage healthier eating amongst students,” said Sean Kelly, the CEO of Healthy Human Vending, in an instructional video.