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The fast food market is huge, but it is also incredibly competitive. New entrants are rapidly expanding the group of quick meal providers. Long-standing brands seek to appeal to expanded consumer targets. All of them are battling for the attention of consumers who are more demanding and savvy. Thus, a key and consistent success factor is the introduction of new products. Even this decades-old industry continues to invest heavily in various types of research and development, seeking new ideas for menu options that will bring diners through their doors.

Some ideas come from the central brand owner. Many chains run vast test kitchens that experiment with various flavors, concepts, and food groups to create potential new offerings. In addition, market researchers observe food trends to assess the likely popularity of various ideas. When it appeared that consumers could not get enough of pretzel rolls, several corporate headquarters introduced new buns and mandated that all their locations carry them. Noting the increasing numbers of vegetarian and vegan eaters, a few chains also have expanded their non-meat offerings.

Boy eating fast foodMany of these chains use a franchise model, which means that many of the new ideas also come to the headquarters from their franchisees. The individual owners might experiment on their own, then bring their idea to the brand owner. Arby’s encourages them to do so by hosting an annual contest for the best menu idea introduced by one of its franchise locations. In perhaps the most famous example, the Egg McMuffin was created by a franchisee in the early 1970s. Not only did it go on to great success for McDonald’s overall, but it essentially created a new market for sandwich-like breakfast foods.

Yet another source of ideas is customers, of course. Wing Zone holds a contest focused
on consumers’ ideas, then surveys their reactions. Thus, customers came up with a new Mango Fire flavor wing sauce, then they also recommended making the sauce a little hotter than the initial version that the restaurant introduced.

Regardless of the source of the ideas, before any menu item appears on restaurant boards, it undergoes extensive, in-depth testing. Although some of the procedures vary across chains, virtually all of them rely on in-house testing and tastings, focus groups with consumers, and then limited introductions. For example, many restaurants roll out new ideas first in Orlando, a location that attracts a vast range of diverse tourists and thus might offer insights into what various consumers groups will like.

Yet even these extended idea sourcing and testing tactics cannot always ensure success. Fried mushrooms hit huge for the Captain D’s restaurant chain in a few locations, but in others, the fried clam strips remained far more popular. Everyone wants to discover the next Egg McMuffin, but such widely popular ideas remain relatively difficult to find and define.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why is it so important for restaurants to introduce new products?
  2. What are the steps involved in finding and introducing a new product to a restaurant’s menu?


Source: Charles Passy, “How Fast Food Chains Cook Up New Menu Items,” The Wall Street Journal, August 24, 2015