Why fast-food chains are making ‘increasingly outrageous’ creations to get you through the door

September 30, 2016

imrsBy Becky Krystal
The Washington Post
https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/going-out-guide/wp/2016/09/28/why-fast-food-restaurants-are-coming-up-with-increasingly-outrageous-ways-to-get-you-through-the-door/

Call them what you will. A sign of the apocalypse. Unabashed marketing ploys. The anti-kale. However you view the latest splashy fast-food innovations, know this: They’re probably not going anywhere. At least for now.

The latest of these creations to be foisted onto America: Pizza Hut’s Grilled Cheese Stuffed Crust Pizza, which features mozzarella and cheddar baked into a crust that’s topped with bread crumbs and melted butter. Close relatives of recent vintage include Burger King’s Whopperrito and Mac n’ Cheetos, KFC’s Double Down, Pizza Hut’s hot-dog-crust pies and Taco Bell’s Doritos Locos Tacos.

Such creations, often referred to as stunt foods or limited-time offers if they’re temporary, aren’t concocted in a vacuum, especially since they can take months or even years to develop. In the last few years, the trend has grown amid efforts to lure customers back into fast-food restaurants, as well as diners’ quest for novel items to share on social media.

Now it seems like each release is wackier than the last. “Like clickbait, the concepts are so unbelievable, so shocking, so Onion-headline-esque that they work,” said Sophie Egan, author of “Devoured,” an exploration of the modern American diet. “They’re irresistible.”

The wave of headline-grabbing fast-food items has its roots in the recession, when the industry entered a slow-down period that lasted through 2014. “A lot of these companies were trying anything to get customers back” during that time, said Sam Oches, the editorial director of Food News Media.

Ask observers and analysts what particular promotion was the turning point in paving the way for successors, and you’re likely to get one of two answers: KFC’s Double Down, a bacon, cheese and Colonel Sauce sandwich that used fried chicken fillets as a bun, and Taco Bell’s Doritos Locos Tacos. (Not surprisingly, both chains are part of the same parent company, Yum! Brands, along with Pizza Hut.)

Launched in 2012, Taco Bell’s Doritos-taco mashup took two years to develop. The fast-food chain sold 100 million units in the first 10 weeks and surpassed the $1 billion sales mark the following year. “The Doritos Locos Taco was a pivotal moment in our brand’s innovation journey,” said Rob Poestch, Taco Bell’s director of public affairs and engagement.

Coming next year: The Naked Chicken Chalupa with a fried chicken shell.

Why do they do it?
Despite the effort these foods take to develop, most aren’t intended to be sustainable as long-term menu additions. “It’s almost never about making money off the product,” said Darren Tristano, president of the food industry analysis firm Technomic.

In fact, the bestselling items at fast-food restaurants tend not to be the wacky mashups, but the classic offerings — Taco Bell’s standard tacos and burritos, for example.

The point of the limited-time offers, as Taco Bell’s head of social insights, Ben Miller, told the Atlantic, is “getting people in the door.” Tristano also said it’s about taking money away from competitors and making companies seem innovative and appealing.

So why do companies need to invent excuses for you to come in? The main reason is competition, and not just from their immediate fast-food brethren. Fast-casual restaurants such as Cava Grill, Chipotle and &pizza have moved in on the fast-food market and are growing at a faster rate, said Elizabeth Friend, a Euromonitor International strategy analyst. From 2014 to 2015, fast-casual brands grew at a rate of 10.2 percent, compared to 3.1 percent for the rest of the fast establishments.

Years ago, a diner’s only option for getting food quickly was the local drive-through. Now, “It’s really easy to get food quickly with minimal effort,” Friend said, pointing to such delivery apps as UberEats and GrubHub in addition to grocery stores with hot bars and prepared food offerings.

“Convenience is a very strong factor,” Tristano said. And if fast food isn’t as convenient as other options, then brands have got to think of something else.

A crazy fast-food item might be the only nudge a diner needs to walk into a Taco Bell or Burger King. If they’ve seen news coverage or a post on social media, the restaurant might later be at the top of their mind when they’re trying to decide where to go.

Why does it work?
No doubt the visuals are especially compelling and share-worthy, which says as much about consumers as it does about the brands hawking them. “The vast majority of us, we don’t have a lot of exciting things that happen to us” on a daily basis, said Brian Wansink, author of “Slim by Design” and the director of Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab.

By trying one of these flashy foods and photographing them, people are showing that they’re willing to try something new. And like most food photography, those social media-friendly images are aspirational. They aren’t usually representative of our diet, a cultural disconnect that Wansink, in a study of historic paintings, has shown goes back well before the advent of fast food and the Internet, let alone cameras.

The whole experience suggests that consumers are full of contradictions. We make an effort to eat well but still want to reject the health-food guilt, at least once in a while. “We want to feel that we’ve treated ourselves. We want to feel that we’ve experienced new life experiences, and food is part of that,” Egan said.

Diners are also downright curious to know what something new tastes like, which may be more human nature than food culture. “You just can’t help yourself,” she said.

So what’s next for stunt foods?

As long as people keep paying attention to them and talking about them, the short term expectation is that they’ll become “increasingly outrageous,” Technomic’s Tristano said.

In the long-term, though, the “the tide of consumer empowerment” (see: nutrition labels, the fight against GMOs, etc.) is turning, and people may begin to call these foods out as, well, stunts.

The feeling is that “it will no longer be smart business to rely on stunts, and instead [companies will] start to take more of the cues from what these fast-casual chains are doing,” Egan said, referring to fast-casual’s more customized meals, upscale decor and values regarding the environment, sourcing, health and social issues.

r they might try stunts of a different sort.

After all, Pizza Hut did recently reveal a turntable pizza box.


Bloomin’ Brands Struggles in Quarter, as Chain Restaurants Face New Chef-Inspired Concepts

November 9, 2015

Justine Griffin
© 2015 Tampa Bay Times
http://www.tampabay.com/news/business/retail/bloomin-brands-struggles-in-quarter-as-chain-restaurants-face-new/2252436

While the “anti-chain” movement across the U.S. isn’t new, it is slowing down sales at some of the best known restaurant brands, including Outback Steakhouse and Carrabba’s Italian Grill. Bloomin’ Brands, the Tampa parent of Outback and Carrabba’s, is the most muscular restaurant company in Tampa Bay with $4.4 billion in revenue last year and 1,500 restaurants worldwide. But it’s anything but local to consumers here.

The company on Tuesday reported disappointing sales for the third quarter for most of its brands. CEO Liz Smith said casual dining as a segment in the hospitality industry was down from July to September, not just at their in-house brands.
“We knew the trends would be challenged,” Smith said. “And our marketing didn’t break through as expected.”

Bonefish Grill, which was intended to be the engine powering new growth for Bloomin’ Brands’ restaurant portfolio this year, saw the steepest declines, with sales down 6.1 percent for the quarter and traffic down 8.5 percent. It’s the second quarter of decline for Bonefish, which is in a competitive class of “polished casual” chain restaurants, and tends to be more pricey than dining experiences like a TGI Fridays or Olive Garden. The menu quality is more on par with restaurants like Seasons 52 or Carmel Cafe.

Carrabba’s Italian Grill reported a decline in the quarter of 2 percent sales and Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar saw a 0.6 percent drop.

Outback Steakhouse, which performed well in new international markets like Brazil, was the only brand to report modest growth, at 0.1 percent, this quarter.

Chain restaurants are struggling to meet the changing trends fueled by younger demographics in the U.S., said Darren Tristano, executive vice president with Technomic, a restaurant research firm in Chicago.

“These are the same issues that most casual dining restaurants face today,” Tristano said. “Bloomin’ is no different than Darden” — the Orlando parent of Olive Garden and several other chains — “and most others in this regard.”

Another blow landed this summer when Bloomin’ Brands lost a bid to open an Outback Steakhouse and a Bonefish Grill in Tampa International Airport after $953 million in terminal renovations. The aviation authority board sought to make the airport’s restaurants feel more local, and one board member noted the company’s widely located chains made it feel less so. The Carrabba’s in the main terminal, which opened in 2008, is slated to close next spring.

Millennials and generation X-ers look for value but tend to try locally owned or chef-inspired restaurants rather than a chain, so it’s difficult for the casual dining chain restaurant to stand out in what’s become a very competitive market, Tristano said.

“It’s hard for chains to add more regional flavors to a menu, like local craft beer or local food options that the independent restaurants can do so easily,” he said. “They need to be more innovative and focus on the strengths that they do have, which usually is price, to get the attention of this next generation customer.”

Outback Steakhouse will roll out a new mobile phone app next year, which the restaurant chain has been testing in Tampa Bay. Through the app, customers can add their names to the wait list before they arrive at a restaurant, place take out orders and use to pay at the table.

“We will continue to invest in this kind of innovative tech platforms,” Smith said during Tuesday’s earnings call.

Carrabba’s Italian Grill will debut a simpler menu next year. Fewer items will be available, but the chain will add a new small plates category for tapas-style sharing at the table. Bloomin’ also changed the menu at Bonefish Grill earlier this year, with the same “less is more” theme.

“Too much on the menu overwhelms the customer,” Tristano said.

It also keeps food costs down, said Brian Connors, with Connors Davis Hospitality, a restaurant consulting firm in South Florida.

“Chains are the safe choice. Customers know what they’re going to get there and the restaurants know what they’re good at,” Connors said.

Bloomin’ Brands plans to continue to expand aggressively in new international markets like Korea and China. Much of the company’s growth has come from international openings this year.

“They don’t have to reinvent the wheel this way,” Connors said. But in this country, he suggested, they’ll need to come up with something new to keep attracting diners.

“We’ve entered this new age of adventure eating. Food recipes is one of the highest pinned categories on Pinterest,” Connors said. “People are willing and wanting to try something new.”

Bloomin’s brands: Tough quarter for sales
U.S. sales in the last four quarters
BrandQ3Q2Q1Q4 (2014)
Outback Steakhouse0.1 %4%5%6.4%
Carrabba’s Italian Grill- 2%2%1.9%0.3%
Bonefish Grill- 6.1%-4.6%0.9%0.7%
Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar- 0.6%3.2%3.0%3.4%
Source: Bloomin’ Brands