2016 churned out some surprising, funky, extreme and thought-provoking menu fare at chain restaurants. Mashups reached a whole new level. A new game meat entered the QSR space. Bowls and grab-and-go cones took the spotlight. And menu items already in kitchens were reformulated in new and interesting ways. Here are the top menu stories of this past year.
1. Arby's venison sandwich
To celebrate the start of hunting season, Arby’s unveiled a new $5 venison sandwich in 17 hunting-friendly locations. Though slated to sell for three- to four-day time spans, the sandwich was sold out at many locations on the first day. According to Rob Lynch, Arby’s brand president and CMO, “Bringing venison to our menu allows us to continue to set ourselves apart from the competition when it comes to proteins.” The sandwich featured a thick-cut venison steak topped with crispy onions and a berry sauce on a toasted roll.
2. Carl's Jr.'s muffin bun breakfast sandwiches
Following on the heels of the many funky sandwich bases unveiled in previous years (waffles, etc.), Carl’s Jr. began testing the use of muffins as buns for breakfast sandwiches in two Southern California locations. Each sandwich featured egg, bacon or sausage and cheese sandwiched between either two cornbread muffin tops or two blueberry muffin tops (both baked in-restaurant). They were $2.99 each.
3. Famous Toastery's breakfast and wine pairings
The family-style chain unveiled eight wine pairings with breakfast dishes at three locations in Charlotte, N.C. Some of the pairings included a chardonnay with a turkey and egg white omelet, a pinot grigio with an avocado omelet, a cabernet sauvignon with corned beef hash, and a merlot with a Southwestern omelet. Wines are priced between $6 and $9 per glass. CEO Robert Maynard noted that about 20% of customers at the three restaurants have tried the wine pairings, and most of these sales happen during weekend brunch. Because the locations are near local hospitals, many customers who partake in these offerings are medical professionals working graveyard shifts.
4. Slater's 50/50's stuffed lasagna burger
The traditional casual-dining chain is known for its wacky burger of the month offerings, but the most off-the-wall was its February entry. The $13.95 Stuffed Lasagna Burger featured an Italian sausage and beef patty topped with marinara, mozzarella, Parmesan and basil on a fried cheese lasagna “bun.”
5. Burger King's 2016 menu development
Burger King really ramped up its menu development in 2016, focusing on balancing higher-quality and more value-oriented menu items. In February, the chain unveiled grilled hot dogs as an extension of its “60 years of flame-grilled expertise,” per North America President Alex Macedo. The quarter it launched, Burger King’s same-store sales grew 4.6%. Later in the year, the chain launched a plethora of mashups: a burger-burrito Whopperrito, Mac n’ Cheetos and Cheetos Chicken Fries. Though Burger King’s year-over-year sales have recently slipped (1.7%), earnings were still largely better than Wall Street’s expectations.
6. Applebee’s wood-fired hand-cut steaks
The big menu story at Applebee’s revolved around the installation of oak-fueled grills in 2,000 locations—a $75 million investment that launched a new wood-fired menu platform. The casual-dining chain trained kitchen staff to hand-cut steaks daily and cook them over live fire. In addition to steaks, which range from $12.99 to $14.99, customers could order a bone-in pork chop and chicken cooked on the wood-fired grills when the platform kicked off in May. By the end of summer, about 40% of the menu could be grilled over burning oak, including fish and vegetables. Applebee’s also streamlined its menu by decreasing the number of items and adding more opportunities to customize. All these moves are aimed squarely at attracting more millennial customers, a group that values innovation and customization in its choice of casual-dining restaurants, according to Technomic's 2016 Generational Consumer Trend Report.
7. Sonic's frozen Chipotle Spice Margarita
Several forecasters pointed to mocktails as a beverage trend on the rise in 2016, and Sonic Drive-In jumped on it with its Island Breeze drink menu introduced in July. Starting with its name, the Chipotle Spice Margarita clearly taps into the craft cocktail craze—sans alcohol. It’s a frozen drink with a shot of heat balanced with cool lime, similar to some of the spiked frozen drinks trending on menus last summer. In step with the mocktail theme, the Chipotle Spice Margarita and the rest of the Island Breeze selections were available this summer at half price from 2 to 4 p.m. during Sonic’s long-running happy-hour promotion.
8. Kono's PB&J cone
This New Jersey-based chain claims it “reinvented the way Americans eat pizza” when it introduced the European idea of pizza in a cone three years ago. This month, Kono transformed a perennial childhood favorite—the peanut butter and jelly sandwich—into a portable cone-based item. The PB&J Cone ($2.99) starts with a kid-sized snack cone, which is layered with peanut butter and grape jelly, heated to melt the ingredients so they blend together, then topped with a dollop of jelly. The kid-friendly size and filling looks like a move to expand menu choices for children and snackers.
9. Hard Rock's cauliflower burger
A burger started it all, claims Hard Rock Cafe’s menu, in reference to the concept’s Original Legendary Burger. That signature still leads in burger sales, but in October, the global chain introduced a cauliflower burger as part of its first U.S. Vegetarian Awareness Month menu. Darryl Mickler, Hard Rock Cafe’s director of R&D, said that this new burger took orders away from the Veggie Leggie, a premade patty burger that has long been the chain’s core vegetarian burger. The housemade cauliflower burger ($14.95) is a blend of ground cauliflower, egg, garlic, oregano, goat cheese and breadcrumbs. The LTO may soon be joining the permanent burger lineup, according to Hard Rock.
10. Logan’s Roadhouse's pork fries
To play off the popularity of french fries and chicken fingers, Logan’s Roadhouse created a crossover between the two with a piggy twist: pork fries ($7.99). The shareable appetizer/bar snack hit the menu at the beginning of 2016 and quickly became one of the hottest appetizers, according to David Spirito, VP of food and beverage. The kitchen cross-utilizes boneless pork chops from the entree side of the menu for the pork fries, making the item a cost-effective addition. The pork is cut into strips, hand-breaded and fried, then served with the chain’s housemade ranch dressing for dipping. The shareable item works for happy hour, late night and as a dinner appetizer.
11. McDonald’s healthy breakfast bowl
While the rollout of all-day breakfast was stealing the menu news spotlight for McDonald’s, the debut of a $4 healthy breakfast bowl more quietly made waves in 800 Southern California units. The Egg White and Turkey Sausage Breakfast Bowl, which also includes health stars kale and spinach, weighs in at 250 calories and 27 grams of protein—a stark contrast to the megachain’s Sausage McMuffin with Egg (470 calories). To test the breakfast bowl, McDonald’s had to introduce new ingredients and train staff, and although the item is not yet available chainwide, it has the potential to grow all-day breakfast by attracting health-conscious customers.
This week's head-spinning restaurant moments included a suggestion in court that the "b" in IHOb stood for "bad news for Applebee's." That's just one of the long-shot gambles that came to light as oddsmakers considered the likelihood of restaurants charging into sports betting and who'll win the chain vs. independent bout.