Food: Fast Food Speeds up the Pace

Eating out is in, and the chains add variety to lure new diners

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Fast-food restaurants specializing in ethnic and regional fare--like the California-based New Meiji chain of Oriental food--are adding to the diversity. "The earlier cycle of fast foods was primarily concerned with supplying sustenance in a cheap, quick manner," says Lamar Berry, a spokesman for Popeyes, a growing chain specializing in spicy, Cajun-style fried chicken. "Now you can get convenience everywhere. People want to get the ethnic experience and titillate their taste buds."

The industry's top dogs, McDonald's and Burger King, are also moving to expand their menus, though more cautiously. "Our menu is meat and potatoes. That's been the staple of the American diet for two centuries," says Ed Rensi, chief operations officer of McDonald's, which serves 6% of the American population every day. Yet McDonald's has given nonbeef eaters a break with its popular Chicken McNuggets, which have been widely imitated, and the company is testmarketing a prepackaged salad.

McDonald's has also staked out the newest fast-food battleground: breakfast. Since introducing its Egg McMuffin (a muffin sandwich containing eggs, Canadian bacon and cheese) in 1976, the chain has seen its breakfast business grow to 19.5% of total sales. Last March Burger King introduced a competitor, the Croissan'wich, and promoted it with a saturation TV ad campaign. Most other chains have now added at least some breakfast items, from French-toast sticks at Arby's to an all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet at some generous Roy Rogers outlets.

Fast-food executives see breakfast as a lucrative area for expansion. Mornings are a time when Americans are usually in a rush. "I hate cooking in the morning," says John McKinley, a San Francisco security guard who eats breakfast at a nearby Jack-in-the-Box. "This place is right on my way to work." The half-hour saved, he says, "is well spent sleeping."

Not all the regular customers are so thrilled with the new menu items, especially the suddenly chic salad bar. "I think it's ridiculous to serve anything green in a junk-food spot," says Johnny Weber, 17, a Burger King devotee in Berkeley. "Before long they'll be dividing the place into meat-eating and nonmeat-eating sections." Argues Louise Adams, a student at Philadelphia's Temple University, who sticks to Whoppers at her local Burger King: "You can always bake a potato or throw a salad together at home."

Too much diversity on the menu can backfire, according to industry executives. McDonald's had a notable flop with its McRib sandwich a couple of years ago, and other chains have hurt their service and lost customers by adding too many new items. "A lot of restaurants make the mistake of adding haphazardly until no one knows what they are," says Pizza Hut Spokesman Mike Jenkins. "We try not to forget that we are a pizza restaurant." Maintaining an identity is important, especially since most analysts regard the field as overcrowded and predict a shakeout in the next few years.

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