Thinking of Buying a Fast-Casual Franchise? Read this report first.

Menu Development | By Marc Halperin

In the Dough
Seeking comfort and a little old-world craftsmanship in quick-serve breads.
upgrading bread on fast food menus

In the product-development world, we typically refer to anything that serves as a flavor-delivery device as a “carrier.”

It’s a distinctly utilitarian term, one that can apply equally to sandwich rolls, taco shells, lettuce leaves, or celery sticks.

Unfortunately, the term itself doesn’t do justice to the vitally important role carriers play in the finished product’s overall character and quality. The difference between a burger served on a plain white bun and the same burger laid out on a slab of thick, chewy, herb-infused, fresh-grilled French bread is night and day from a sensory standpoint, and as much as $2.99 from a bottom-line perspective. The same goes for pizza built on an ordinary bleached-flour crust versus a version crafted on a crisp, whole-wheat, flatbread-style foundation.

As the economic malaise leads thousands of traditional fast-casual and casual-dining customers to seek out the value that is quick-serves’ stock in trade, it’s worth remembering that these consumers have come to expect a certain level of quality from their restaurant experiences. Part of that quality expectation unquestionably comes from the breads they’ve grown accustomed to at those pricier outlets: warm ciabatta rolls; nutty, seedy seven-grain buns; toasted baguettes; and rosemary-olive oil sourdough toast to name a few. For quick-serve chains, having a breadth of compelling, artisan-style offerings on tap can make the transition from sit-down to sail-through dining seamless for more upscale customers.

At the same time, regardless of their financial circumstances, everyone seems to be craving comfort foods, and fresh breads—particularly those whose texture and flavor profiles hearken back to simpler, safer times—can be among the most comforting foods around.

Given consumers’ taste for both artisan-style quality and for the familiar comforts of home baking, how could quick-serve chains respond?

A few suggestions come to mind:

Looking Backward

Remember back in the old days when the local tortilla maker would set up shop on the sidewalk and grill up those incomparably fresh, hot, mouthwatering corn wraps for about a dime a dozen? Of course you don’t. In most commercial settings today, the tortillas we see are largely mass-produced, and the flavor of the carrier itself is seldom a selling point. It’s what’s inside that counts.

But just think of how much more tempting that chicken chipotle burrito would be if its outer skin were made essentially from scratch on the spot. There’s a world of difference between tortillas bought in bulk and those made from fresh masa, which are generally thicker and heartier. I have a hunch that enterprising Mexican chains that can find a way to make their tortillas a distinctive point of difference will reap the rewards.

The same chains might also consider looking to traditional Latin American breads for further inspiration. To my knowledge, no major fast-food outlet has attempted to capitalize on the nostalgic appeal of the deliciously simple bolillo, Mexico’s answer to the baguette, or telera, the popular Mexican flatbread. It’s not hard to imagine these carriers inspiring any number of novel-yet-familiar menu items.

Tap into Quality

The Neapolitan pizza movement has been driven largely by a group of purists in Naples, Italy, known as Verace Pizza Napoletana. The organization actually certifies pizzerias that adhere to specific and rather exacting Neapolitan standards and customs. Dough, for instance, must be hand-kneaded, never flattened with a rolling pin, and toppings other than San Marzano or Italian plum tomatoes, olive oil, and pecorino Romano or fresh mozzarella are viewed with suspicion.

When you taste an authentic Neapolitan pizza, though, what immediately strikes you is the timeless quality of the crust. When pizzerias use imported Italian flours, the result is unmistakably superior. Chains such as California Pizza Kitchen have worked to capture this elusive quality in certain menu offerings, but the Little Caesars and Domino’s of the world might find success tapping into consumers’ desire for old-world excellence as well.

For quick-serve chains, having a breadth of compelling, artisan-style offerings on tap can make the transition from sit-down to sail-through dining seamless for more upscale customers.

Keep it Warm

Quiznos effectively cornered the market on toasty brand positioning, but fortunately for competitors, they don’t have a patent on the toasting process itself. Because regardless of how it’s rendered—as a tartine, a patty melt, a panino, or a hot hero—consumers love their sandwiches served on bread that’s done a little time on the grill, in the pan, or between the toaster slots.

As Quiznos well knows, the simple business of toasting elevates what might otherwise be a pedestrian carrier to the role of a star in the overall sandwich build.

Going forward, the trick for sandwich chains will be to mix interesting artisan-style breads with toasting or warming techniques that substantially improve the product’s quality and turn it into far more than the sum of its parts. The simple truth is, when it comes to bringing customers through the doors, creative carriers really can do a whole lot of heavy lifting.

As COO and culinary director at San Francisco’s Center for Culinary Development, Marc Halperin assists food and beverage companies with new product development and consumer research.