Where’s the Beef?

In 1984, Clara Peller asked a very important question. Seated at a fast food counter with her friends and dissatisfied with her pitiful hamburger, she made TV history in a series of iconic Wendy’s ads after asking, “Where’s the beef?” After eyeing the menu of today’s fast food chains, Clara would probably still be curious. While once famous for limited menus sporting meat and cheese-piled monstrosities, fast food chains are pivoting away from traditional burgers and fries to refocus on healthier options, particularly plant-based choices. From Burger King’s Impossible Whopper to McDonald’s Norwegian veggie nuggets, fast food chains are making vegan and plant-based options easy, accessible, and mainstream.

In order for any business to remain relevant, it is vital for it to continuously pivot its focus towards satisfying current consumer desires. Fast food is no different, especially because of the direct-to-consumer nature of its offerings. Now, more than ever, people are choosing to follow specific diets, many of them plant-based. According to a survey conducted by the Vegetarian Resource Group in 2018, about 5% of Americans consider themselves vegetarian (loosely defined as eating no meat). Further dividing this group, about half further identify as vegan (consuming no animal products).

While these percentages are small, it is still important to recognize the tremendous growth plant-based diets are experiencing within the developed world. The UK saw greater than a fourfold increase in veganism within the last decade. In Canada, a survey conducted by Dalhousie University found that Canadians under thirty-five years of age are three times more likely to consider themselves vegetarian or vegan than those above forty-nine years old. Among young people, plant-based diets are in full bloom. In order to maintain their consumer bases into the future, it makes sense for fast-food chains to provide offerings that will appeal to customers of all ages and dietary preferences.

Additionally, fast-food chains are scrambling to expand their offerings in order to compete with the new and growing sector of fast-casual dining. Fast-casual is a restaurant category defined by The Balance Small Business as possessing “… the ease and convenience of fast food, but with a more inviting and sit-down atmosphere…” This dining sector includes chains such as Panera Bread, Chipotle Mexican Grill, and Roots Natural Kitchen. An important component of fast-casual appeal is the promise of meals made from flavorful and high-quality ingredients, often advertised as balancing great taste with good nutrition. For instance, Panera Bread’s new line of grain bowls, boasting ingredients such as quinoa, avocado, and salsa verde, was the company’s most successful new product launch in three years. While fast-casual meals tend to command a higher price point than fast-food offerings, usually hovering between seven to ten dollars, they still possess significant appeal to the price-conscious consumer.

Consumer response to fast-casual dining has been very positive, fueling the niche industry onward and upward. According to data from QSR, consumer visits to fast-casual restaurants have increased by 7% over the last five years, with over 25,312 total units operating in the US in 2018. While this segment’s growth has slowed since late 2017, the growth of this sector remains impressive when compared with the performance of the notoriously difficult restaurant industry, which flatlined between the last quarter of 2017 and the first quarter of 2018. This increase in traffic is disproportionately fueled by the 18-24 year old demographic, as well as earners of greater than $100,000. Due to the heavy traffic fast-casual locations experience during weekday lunches, it is safe to say that the fast-casual business model of turbo service and tasty food is ideally suited for on-the-go college students and dedicated young professionals.

From May 2019 data collected by GlobalWebIndex on fast-food consumers ages 16-64, there are a number of consumer desires that fast-food restaurants must fulfill in order to keep up with the times. The largest common desire expressed by consumers (52%) involved the ability to customize their order. This should come as no surprise to fast-food chains. In today’s world of curated movies and music, personalized skincare and tailored snack boxes, consumers demand customization in everything they purchase; why not a cheeseburger? It’s no longer enough for firms to offer a one-size-fits-all model; consumers demand the luxury of total selection.

Additionally, consumers showed a high level of interest in fast food tailored towards loca cuisine (28%). This could be reflective of consumers’ (particularly young people’s), desire for novel and authentic experiences. This desire has already been manifested to certain levels by some international chains. For instance, some Starbucks locations sport welcoming signs and tailored merchandise, such as their line of “Been There” mugs, that are branded towards the store’s host city and work to embed the shop within the local community.

One of the most important fronts on which fast-food chains are engaging involves the nutritional value and transparency of their offerings. With the sharp rise in lifestyle-related conditions such as heart disease and cancer, nutrition is at the forefront of everyone’s mind. For many consumers, the majority of nutritionally desolate menu options presents a significant barrier in their decision to curb their fast food consumption. 12% of consumers who had opted out of fast food in the last month did so out of dissatisfaction with the menu items presented as healthy choices. From the concurrent trends involving consumers’ growing interest in nutrition and holistic wellness, fast-food companies would be wise to offer spinach over sundaes and fresh fruit over fake flavors.

The fast-food industry revolutionized the way the world ate, and continues to evolve alongside consumer tastes. While the fast food dining model was amazingly convenient and futuristically quick when it was first developed, there remains a troubling correlation between fast-food’s expansion and the consequent increase in obesity and food-related disease. However, perhaps the tide is turning. A growing number of consumers have been voting with their dollars, actively working to alter their relationship to food and with the firms who market and prepare it. Whether this means a kale and cranberry salad or a leisurely afternoon with a cup of artisan coffee, fast-food companies are awakening to changing tastes and the intense competition they face from the fast-casual sector. While it would be a dull world without Clara Peller’s favorite cheeseburgers, perhaps it’s time for fast food to freshen up.


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