Fast food seeks boost with bite-sized items

Fast food seeks boost with bite-sized items

Peter Romeo

Fast food seeks boost with bite-sized items

In a nod to the grazing trend, several major fast-food chains are adding a new generation of side dishes and snack-like items to give customers greater flexibility in assembling a meal.

Kentucky Fried Chicken, Carl’s Jr., Taco Bell, Roy Rogers and Jack in the Box have already adopted new appetizerlike customer lures, and McDonald’s is flirting with the possibility. Dunkin’ Donuts tested an unusual finger food as part of a menu-expansion drive that has since been discontinued.

The items, ranging from miniature egg rolls to carrot sticks, represent quick-service specialists’ latest effort to rekindle sales by borrowing a few menu strategies from more upscale food-service operations.

For instance, among the items pouring out of KFC’s test kitchens are Spicy Drummets — peppery, deep-fried chicken-wing segments that resemble miniature drumsticks. The appetizerlike pieces clearly owe more than a bow to the fiery Buffalo-style chicken wings that have become a staple of casual-theme restaurants in recent years.

Roy Rogers, Marriott’s regional fast-food chain, has a somewhat similar product, called Wild Wings, that it puts on the menu from time to time for a quick sales spurt. As part of a six-week promotion, the item is currently being offered with three dipping sauces.

“We view them as a snack or light-meal alternative,” said KFC spokesman Dick Detwiler. “We thought that they would appeal to those who have been taken with what’s known as grazing.”

Grazing is the label that has been applied to a mounting consumer preference for meals comprising several small servings of different foods instead of one large entree. Many full-service restaurants have addressed the trend by expanding their array of appetizers and offering specialties in half-sized portions.

Appetizer orders rose 33 percent between 1982 and ’88, according to the National Restaurant Association.

After testing Drummets in 177 Chicago units, KFC recently expanded the sales trial into four other cities. “We expect the Drummets to have wide appeal, but we expect them to be particularly appealing to young adults,” Detwiler said. Grazing has been notably popular within that group.

Similarly, Carl’s Jr. expects its new appetizerlike Jr. Crisp Burritos to be especially effective in luring “those 12 to 25 years of age,” according to Bob Wisely, vice president of marketing for the 500-unit regional burger chain.

He called the deep-fried miniature burritos “our new entry into the world of fun finger foods.” The Jr. Crisp Burrito consists of several cheeses, mild chili peppers and seasoned ground beef, all wrapped in a flour tortilla that is deep-fried in vegetable oil.

The crunchy pillows are sold in packs of either three or five and are accompanied by a spicy Mexican dipping sauce. Guacamole and salsa are also available but carry an additional cost.

Carl’s has also attempted to diversify its array of side dishes by adding deep-fried zucchini rounds.

Among the new products that have fostered head-turning sales at Taco Bell is the Meximelt, a soft tortilla folded around melted cheese, onions and a dollop of ground beef.

“Our thinking was that it would serve as an add-on item,” not an entree, said spokesman Elliot Bloom.

The 99-cent item is part of the economy-priced menu that has lit a rocket under Taco Bell’s sales. For the quarter ended Sept. 9, company-operated domestic units boasted a year-over-year sales gain of 22 percent, according to Taco Bell’s parent company, Pepsico Inc.

Shrunken versions of several ethnic foods have been adopted by Jack in the Box, a pioneer of fast-food grazing items. The 980-unit chain introduced the core of its Finger Foods menu in September 1987 with the rollout of batter-dipped fried shrimp, chicken strips, and miniature egg rolls.

According to Jack in the Box, the three items quickly captured 13 percent of unit sales, spurring the chain’s hyperactive test kitchen to develop a Mexican item called a taquito. Similar to a small chimichanga, it consists of a corn tortilla wrapped around beef and onions. The filled tube is deep-fried.

“We had noticed a trend toward grazing; people were eating smaller meals and more snack-sized items,” said Jack in the Box spokesman Durwin Long. “We also noted that people were looking for more variety in the side items available. So we wanted to give our guests more snack-type items.”

Long declined to say whether Finger Foods are more popular as snacks than they are as side dishes, or vice-versa.

“People do order them as snacks, but you also see people purchasing a hamburger or a chicken sandwich with egg rolls as a side item,” he said.

He balked at disclosing sales figures, but asserted that “all of our Finger Foods continue to sell very well.”

McDonald’s has been assembling a slew of test products as part of an effort to snap a sales slowdown. Among them are plastic-wrapped carrot and celery sticks called McSticks. The crudites are reportedly being tested in a handful of Pennsylvania units.

McDonald’s does not comment about product sales trials.

Not every new finger food has been an instant success, as Dunkin’ Donuts discovered in its test of Dunkin’ Dippers. The crescent-shaped wedges of pastry dough were served with such dipping sauces as apple-cinnamon, strawberry, and orange.

The product was supported by a television commercial in which no words were spoken. Instead, a man described the product by repeatedly uttering “blah, blah, blah” and “mmmmmm.” A closing tagline declared, “Words can’t begin to describe it.”

Consumers reportedly barraged Dunkin’ with complaints about the ad’s lack of speech. The item has yet to appear on Dunkin’s menu, and, as part of a new strategy, the doughnut chain is attempting to hoist sales by opening more scaled-down “satellite” outlets instead of adding menu items.

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