CHICAGO — Both better-for-you options and over-the-top indulgences have rolled out on top chain restaurant menus this year. Not long after McDonald’s added an egg-white sandwich on a whole grain English muffin, Dunkin’ Donuts introduced its bacon-and-egg sandwich on a halved glazed donut. “As consumers, we certainly want chains to offer better-for-you items,” said Mary Chapman, director of product innovation at Chicago-based research firm Technomic Inc.

But at the same time, she added, mainstream restaurants are launching what she calls “shock foods,” such as Pizza Hut’s Crazy Cheesy Crust, which features a ring of cheese-filled pockets of dough that may be removed and eaten separately or as part of the slice.

“People are going to order it because it’s fun and funny, but it’s not something that someone is going to order once a week,” Chapman said. “Restaurant chains put things on and take things off all the time, and so why not put something on that’s really crazy?”

Another recent innovation from Pizza Hut reflects a trend in quick-service restaurants offering premium or artisan items. The chain’s Firebaked Style Flatbread Pizzas, with edge-to-edge toppings on a crispy wood-fired style crust, may entice a different type of consumer, she added.

“Pizza Hut’s flatbread pizzas are meant to show an upgraded or more custom and carefully made item,” order off of their Xbox. So, you do the flatbread to appeal to a more sophisticated palette or a woman or she said. “If you think of who eats pizza, it’s families and groups of friends and singles and a lot of different types of people. You don’t want to just have your product tied to 18- to 25-year-old men who can someone who cares more about the better-for-you aspect.”

To compete with the quickly growing fast casual segment, top chains indeed are pumping out premium products. Wendy’s latest menu additions include a bacon cheeseburger with a nine-green spring mix on a toasted artisan-baked pretzel bun, as well as grilled chicken sandwiches and fresh vegetables served in a multi-grain flatbread made with flax seeds, cracked wheat, rolled oats, millet and sesame seeds.

“Fast-casual has taken some share overall from quick-service, so all of these chains are smart to look at how they can take what they do and upgrade it just enough to stay in the game,” Chapman said.

Other new items court on-the-go consumers. McDonald’s Premium McWraps feature packaging innovated for handheld consumption, and KFC’s Original Boneless Chicken offers similar portability. “There’s a certain customer that’s grown accustomed to eating on the go with one hand — the whole portable thing,” Chapman said.

Spicy flavors also star in some of the year’s launches, including Burger King’s limited-time Chipotle Whopper, with spicy chipotle mayo and pepper jack cheese, and McDonald’s Bacon Habanero Ranch Quarter Pounder, featuring a habanero ranch sauce and white cheddar. Additionally, Subway tested a chicken melt sandwich topped with Sriracha hot sauce in select markets this year.

But perhaps the hottest trend among the year’s introductions at top chains includes items with a better-for-you angle.

“There are a couple of turkey burgers, more veggie burgers, a lot of innovation around grilled chicken sandwiches and wraps,” Chapman said. “[McDonald’s Egg White Delight] doesn’t have a yolk and it’s on a whole grain muffin, so I think that’s another better-for-you point in their favor.”

Dunkin’ Donuts recently announced plans to expand its gluten-free test items nationally this year.
“I think that [restaurants] will continue to take their standard platform and see how they can go with, on the one end with extreme flavors and spice, heat levels and spice blends and global flavors, and then on the other end, how they can continue to innovate to make things better for you or perceived to be better for you without taking away flavor and what’s at the core,” Chapman added. “Do we want a better-for-you Whopper? Maybe not. But we want Burger King to offer a sandwich that’s better for you, whether we order it or not.”