The growing demand for customization in quick-service can be attributed to consumer insistence on a “me society” and operators’ intense battle for food-share.
Customization in fast food began with the burger wars. The early McDonald’s model launched a take-it-my-way attack, with a batch and bin management method of burger delivery. Archenemy Burger King countered in 1974 with the popular “Have It Your Way” campaign to differentiate its brand with an assemble-to-order system. “Burger King’s success with ‘Have It Your Way’ was due to its ability to create a customer-centric product without delay in order-to-delivery time and without an increase in price,” says Dennis Lombardi, executive vice president of foodservice strategies for WD Partners, a nationwide design and development firm for multi-unit operators.
McDonald’s fought back, but not until 1998, with “Made For You,” its version of an assemble-to-order system that added considerable expense to franchisees and more time in line for customers.
Today, menu customization remains a critical business strategy for competing in the fast-food industry. “Increased mass customization is indigenous to our modern culture. It transcends the restaurant industry,” Lombardi says. Think iPods, cell phones, Dell computers, and cable television channels. Even the Food Network narrowcasts with programming to fit individual tastes and preferences.
“There are simply more opportunities to hear about food in print or broadcast media,” says Steven Goldstein, president of FoodThinque consultancy in New York. “People are more knowledgeable about food. And this plays into the consumerism of ‘I want what I want,’” Goldstein says.
According to Goldstein, another driver of customization is diet—whether it’s a perceived or real medical condition or food restriction, food allergy, or a weight loss plan prescribed to by Atkins, South Beach, Zone followers, and the like.
Jeff Sinelli, president of Which Wich based in Dallas, adds that customers have become increasingly concerned about what they eat. “A more enlightened consumer is driving demand for customization,” Sinelli says. “Diet companies like Jenny Craig, Weight Watchers, and NutriSystem have directed a spotlight on the content of our foods. More restaurants are adding caloric count and fat content for certain items on their menus.” And, he adds, the consumer has spoken on the issue of trans fat, saying “No thank you,” and requiring many manufacturers and restaurants to take the offender out of their products.