Are QSRs the real hotbeds of innovation?

From menu moves to new tech tools, the action is happening at fast-food spots.
arbys bionic arm fries

Since I’ve been writing about restaurants, everyone’s been hot on fast casual. It’s this genius segment, some said, that caters to the way today’s diners want to eat: healthier, higher-quality food at a convenient speed and still-affordable price. In the last few years, the build-your-own Chipotle-style fast casuals really hit their stride, expanding like crazy into almost any type of cuisine people could think of. I’m not saying that will die down anytime soon, but it’s almost become a formula—insert ethnic food on a line here, and market it as a better-for-you option. So really, is there any creativity actually happening there?

As a follower of the industry, it’s part of my job to spot new innovations that have the potential to shake up the restaurant business. And the reality is, most of that innovation isn’t happening in fast casual. Rather, it’s often taking place at QSRs. Who’s experimenting with voice recognition ordering? McDonald’s and Starbucks. We’ve seen Domino's toy with the idea of a delivery robot and fully automating the ordering process on a number of platforms, be it social media, in-app or with its chatbot. And it’s not just tech innovations where QSRs are pushing the boundaries. Chick-fil-A was among the first major chains to push for antibiotic-free chicken from the supply chain. In-N-Out has recently started making the same demand of its beef suppliers. Many QSRs have thought outside of the box when it comes to building incremental sales with unique LTOs. Look at Arby’s venison sandwich, which was offered at just 17 stores and sold out within minutes.

So it’s no surprise that when the editors of Restaurant Business were considering which operator to select as the third annual Restaurant Leader of the Year, the vast majority of names that came up were those that head up QSR brands. Most don’t have the luxury of that fast-casual halo to get diners to come in. Instead, they are forced to experiment with changing up the menu, service and more to win diners over or convince them to give a legacy brand another try.

One brand that’s done that especially well is Arby’s, under the leadership of CEO Paul Brown, our 2017 Restaurant Leader of the Year. Case in point: Many of the RB editors hadn’t been to an Arby’s in years, but we’ve had numerous conversations recently about its smart commercials and social media campaigns. The ads worked—they got our attention. Then came the marketing for its loaded curly fries. It was the extra push we needed to get us in the store.

So one Friday, five of us trekked over to the Arby’s in Chicago’s Ogilvie train station. Unfamiliar with the full menu, we took a few minutes to decide what we wanted, but all of us opted for some configuration of the 2 for $5 deal. After all, it’s just $5, no big loss even if we weren’t fans. But here’s the thing—we were. While there was some debate over whether we preferred the fries with the cheese and bacon or without, we agreed on one thing: We’d all go back. While we don’t think it’s an all-the-time restaurant for us, the creativity of its marketing and innovation on the menu—even though it wasn’t too outside the realm of its normal menu—convinced these lax users to come back in.

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