Currently, 72% of Top 500 chain restaurants have fried food on the menu, according to Technomic’s MenuMonitor. And despite a growing demand for healthy choices, 80% of consumers say they visit a restaurant more than once a month to satisfy a craving. It’s those indulgent (and often fried) menu options that diners crave, says Robert Byrne, senior manager of consumer insights at Technomic.
Consumers today are taking a more balanced approach, so they feel fine indulging occasionally, Byrne says. But with nearly half of consumers vowing to eat fewer fried foods in 2016, restaurants have three options to hook diners—abandon fried food entirely; scale it down to top sellers and supplement with healthier items; or stand firm with fried.
That’s the very decision John Buttolph faced when taking over Mrs. Winner’s Chicken and Biscuits, a Southern-inspired fried chicken chain, in 2011, after it had toiled in Chapter 11 bankruptcy following financial missteps that shrank the chain from 184 units to fewer than 10.
Buttolph stayed the course, doubling down on Mrs. Winner’s Southern authenticity appeal and made-from-scratch positioning. It walks the line with customers who may not necessarily be counting calories, but still are looking for fresher food with fewer preservatives. With an eye toward growth, the now 12-unit concept largely veered away from the temptation to stuff the menu with salads.
So far, Buttolph says consumers haven’t pushed back. Same-store sales at the chain’s Atlanta-area units are up 14% over last year. Still, potential franchisees for Mrs. Winner’s have raised concerns about the recuperating concept’s lack of health-conscious fare, and depending on the market, Mrs. Winner’s gives them the option to add a few items of their choice to the menu, Buttolph says.
Two-unit fast casual #GetFried in Buffalo, N.Y., is betting potential franchisees—and customers—will buy in to its version of indulgence. Inspired by french fry cafes in Europe and Canada, #GetFried serves what founder and managing partner Chris Covelli calls “comfort food 101,” a full menu of fried offerings ranging from poutine to pizza logs.
No one is coming to his restaurants to “exercise a healthy option,” Covelli says. Overall guest reception has been really good, he says, particularly on social media, a fitting marketing tool for a concept whose name is part hashtag. Customers have been posting photos of their fry baskets and tagging friends, helping lead the brand to trend on Twitter, he says. Each restaurant is on pace to see sales upwards of $500,000 this year, Covelli says.
Emerging California concept The Organic Coup, which serves just three entrees—a sandwich, wrap and bowl, all made with fried chicken—gets a health halo by touting itself as the first USDA-certified organic QSR.
As for why an organic restaurant would lean into fried as opposed to leaner options, co-founder Erica Welton has said that it’s about offering items (such as fried food) that are harder for customers to make at home. “Grilled chicken just doesn’t seem special,” Welton told the website Eater. “Not that we wouldn’t ever have it, but it is not something I would expect to be center stage.”