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In recent years, the rise of better burger franchises and fast-casual chains such as Panera Bread and Chipotle has put pressure on sit-down chain restaurants and classic fast food joints alike. As the competition for diner dollars evolves, here are some of the trends shaping the increasingly crowded marketplace.
Fast Food Going Upscale One hardly expects fine dining at an establishment with a drive-thru. That hasn’t stopped some of the greasiest fast food chains from trying to go fancy. Attaching the word “artisan” on menu items is one example. Domino’s is notorious for that, as it is for stunts like adding luxury ingredients like foie gras onto pizzas. McDonald's and Wendy’s are both redesigning locations with a sleeker, more upscale look and feel. Taco Bell, meanwhile, has been trying to completely revamp its menu and vibe, which includes the national launch of “gourmet inspired” Cantina Bell items created through a partnership with Lorena Garcia, a chef who has been a part of reality shows such as “America’s Next Great Restaurant.”
Stealing the Competition’s Playbook Every chain has its core specialties—the menu items that set it apart from the competition. Sometimes, though, restaurants want to challenge the competition directly, and they do so by mimicking their counterparts’ menu. Pizza Hut, for instance, recently began encroaching on the turf of Subway and Quiznos with a lineup of hot P’zolo sandwiches. For its part, Subway has apparently been testing a new Doritos nachos menu item, akin to something you’d expect at Taco Bell. Similarly, McDonald’s has been selling pastries in certain locations, apparently in an attempt to steal business away from Dunkin’ Donuts. The strategy worked, after all, when McDonald’s upgraded its coffee a few years back and seemed to be able to draw customers away from DD and Starbucks.
We Just Keep On Driving Thru The NPD Group’s latest study backs up the perception that we’re a culture of constantly on-the-go, not to mention constantly hungry, people. In 2011, Americans made 12.4 billion visits to fast-food drive-thrus, a 2% rise from the previous year. Hamburger joints, unsurprisingly, were our favorite spots for drive-thru orders: 57% of all visits to McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, and other fast-food hamburger restaurants were of the drive-thru variety. Helping the cause has been fast food chains’ innovations to make the drive-thru faster and more satisfying, including multiple lanes for ordering and specially designed cups, wraps, and sandwiches suited for in-the-car enjoyme