2016: A Year in Review

Burger King’s Cheetos Chicken Fries
Burger King’s Cheetos Chicken Fries
Burger King

Try to sum up the top fast-food trends for 2016, and a few words rise to the top. Wacky. Creative. Simple.

But what were the most significant trends of the year? We asked four experts to reflect on this year’s big food innovations. Here’s what they saw as being the quick-serve industry’s most compelling trends for 2016.

Mashups go wild. There may be no more powerful millennial magnet than the very notion of combining two items that you wouldn’t normally mix together. “To be successful, a mashup has to be new and different, but it also has to feel safe,” says Jana Mann, senior director at Datassential. Burger King did it with Cheetos Chicken Fries, and Pizza Hut tried it with the Grilled Cheese Stuffed Crust Pizza.

Breakfast unchained. Who knew that breakfast would become the new dinner? Everyone wants his or her piece of this once underserved daypart, says Stephen Dutton, consumer foodservice associate at Euromonitor. Sure, McDonald’s grabbed the headlines by extending breakfast to an all-day option. But Taco Bell continues to push breakfast in new directions, too, as breakfast burritos have suddenly become more common—as have breakfast tacos, breakfast flatbreads, and, yes, even breakfast pizzas.

Cheap eats. In 2016, a key question in quick service was: How low can you go? That’s low as in, well, cheap. The $5 meals at Dairy Queen, KFC, and Pizza Hut begat $4 meals at Carl’s Jr., Hardee’s, and Wendy’s. While McDonald’s never rolled out a $5 meal in 2016, its McPick 2 Menu—two items for $5—certainly had some influence. “When someone goes low, the whole market responds to that to make sure they all get a portion of those stomachs,” Mann says. What’s more, she says, once consumers get a taste of these cheap eats, they come to expect them. “It’s why Subway is still having such a hard time getting away from the $5 sub,” she adds.

Poke is no joke. If someone had told you that raw, marinated fish salad was going to be one of fast casual’s hottest trends in 2016, you’d have probably thought he was loony. But poke is here to stay. In Los Angeles alone, at least 50 poke restaurants have opened in the past year. “I call 2016 the year of poke,” Mann says, adding that some chains are thinking outside the box and substituting other proteins for the raw tuna that’s usually in poke.

Customization goes viral. It’s one thing to customize your burger. But in 2016, it seems, consumers got a taste of customizing just about anything they can stuff into their mouths. “Consumers are determining exactly how they want something,” Mann says. For example, Potbelly is offering customized macaroni and cheese, and Baskin-Robbins is selling customized ice cream sandwiches.

Clean menus rule. Panera probably got the ball rolling on this when it announced to the world that it was nixing artificial everything from its menu. But everyone has latched on to this national menu cleanup. Even McDonald’s rolled out the first-ever preservative-free Chicken McNuggets. “Cleaner menus are here to stay,” says Melissa Abbott, vice president of culinary insights at The Hartman Group.

Veggies get mojo. It may be an exaggeration to state that vegetables moved to the center of the plate in 2016, but they’re no longer being pushed to the side. “We’ve reached a tipping point for vegetables,” says restaurant consultant Michael Whiteman of Baum + Whiteman. What’s more, it’s no longer just vegetarians or vegans who are demanding vegetables. This may explain why even Chick-fil-A added a Superfood Side (with a kale base) to its menu.

Animal welfare matters. It’s one thing to buy cage-free eggs at the supermarket. But it’s another thing when the biggest fast-food chains start rolling out serious animal welfare reforms, Abbott says. Cage-free eggs, for example, became real goals at McDonald’s, Taco Bell, and Dunkin’ Donuts. And the use of antibiotics in animals is plummeting at major chains, including McDonald’s.

Fried chicken gets hot. Hard to imagine, but in a year when healthier eating got top billing, so did new twists on fried chicken. In fact, Whiteman calls fried chicken “an emerging obsession.” Shake Shack made headlines just for a limited release of a reasonably straight-forward ChickenShack sandwich. Fried chicken also went ethnic in 2016, but Whiteman says the most outrageous version of fried chicken in 2016 was something sold at Kansas City’s Chicken Macaroni & Cheese restaurant dubbed Chicken-A-Roni. Yep, crunchy pieces of fried chicken in gooey mac ’n’ cheese.

App happy. Using technology, particularly apps, to lure customers became one of 2016’s key calling cards, Dutton says. Perhaps Starbucks and Taco Bell ranked as industry leaders in the bold, new world of apps. But Chick-fil-A and Chipotle also rolled out rewards programs linked to apps. “Any technology that enhances convenience and provides incentives to come back is huge,” Dutton says.

Retailers embrace quick service. If you can’t beat ’em, copy ’em. That appears to be the retail world’s response to fast-casual success in 2016. “Retailers are discovering the magic of dwell time,” Whiteman says. That’s why Target is testing new food concepts like Freshii in an effort to keep shoppers in the store. Even Urban Outfitters is adding restaurants at some urban locations. It may be just the beginning, Whiteman says. He predicts more quick serves and fast casuals will pop up inside everything from bowling alleys to movie theaters to supermarkets.