Joel Crews
Joel Crews

Most of the higher profile meat and poultry processors depend on the success of the quick-service segment to bolster their own bottom lines. And the days of only ground beef suppliers benefitting from the growth of QSRs have evolved to include almost as many poultry processors. Add to that, the diversity of menu offerings on menu boards, which nowadays include everything from venison and pulled pork and pork belly sandwiches to hot dogs, and it’s clear to see that QSRs are sharing the wealth with their processor partners. But those suppliers cannot afford to rest on their laurels as requirements from the fast-food chains get more challenging each year. Whether driving thru or dining in, customers’ expectations are forcing them to deliver products that appeal to more sophisticated, adventurous palates, meet strict on-farm production practices and are priced more affordably than fast-casual or fine dining eateries. Oh, and they tend to expect it to be in their hands, on a tray or through a car window, practically in a matter of seconds, not minutes.

In many cases, what’s cooking in fast-food reflects what is important to today’s diners. These priorities keep the chains scrambling to keep up and they, in turn, are reconfiguring the supply chains to ensure they can offer items such as chicken sourced from antibiotic-free birds and in McDonald’s Corp.’s case, ground beef patties that are fresh, never frozen, and cooked to order. In many cases, the trends adopted by fast-food restaurants sets the tone for other segments in foodservice.

Convenience and flexibility are part of the permanent playbook of most operators, thanks in large part by QSRs that have established the bar their restaurant brethren aspire to meet. Evolving expectations of diners have behooved traditional restaurants to tweak their business models to facilitate to-go orders, including designated parking places and entrances for customers picking up carry-out food.

As is documented in MEAT+POULTRY’s QSR Report (see “Taming the flame”), CKE Restaurants Holdings Inc.’s Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. chains epitomize the movement among QSRs to appeal to more discerning customers, who want their burgers but expect more.

“While the public’s desire for decadent burgers isn’t going away anytime soon, more and more consumers are looking for ‘cleaner’ and more all-natural, menu options, too,” said Chief Marketing Officer for both brands, Brad Haley, this past March. “A few years ago, we became the first major fast-food chains to offer all-natural, grass-fed beef burgers with no added hormones, steroids or antibiotics,” he said when the company added antibiotic-free chicken to the menu. “So, we naturally wanted to try to do something similar with our charbroiled, chicken breast fillet sandwiches,” he said.

Another example of the evolving expectations QSRs are passing on to their suppliers is spelled out in “Supply Chain Standards.” The Wendy’s Co. introduced its Code of Conduct for Suppliers in 2016. The standards address: food safety and food ingredients, farm animal health and well-being, human rights and labor practices, environmentally sustainable business practices and business ethics and integrity.

The QSR segment is as competitive as ever and as this month’s report spells out, expectations are as lofty as ever.