Menu Development | By Marc Halperin
Today’s fast-food regulars have grown accustomed to having cheese draped over their burgers, melted onto their chicken sandwiches, strewn liberally over their pizzas, crumbled on their salads, ladled on their french fries, dusted over their pastas, and sprinkled across their tacos.
While it’s usually a supporting player, cheese enjoys a certain degree of cachet as a central element in key menu items and its presence can be transformational. A cheeseburger without cheese, of course, is just a hamburger, and a pizza without cheese wouldn’t qualify as pizza at all.
So when we think about different approaches to enlivening standard menu items using cheese, we can begin by discussing provocative and unusual types that could substitute for the standby varieties we know and love.
Indeed, some of the fastest-growing cheeses in retail settings nowadays include Gruyère, Cotija, Havarti, Muenster, Brie, mascarpone, asiago, goat cheese, provolone, Gorgonzola, feta, and Colby Jack. And that list doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the number of options available.
So, no question about it: Chains could add some new bite, depth, richness, and fullness to existing menu items simply by changing cheeses. A Gorgonzola, apple, and walnut salad is a very different offering than one that features pepper jack, Parmesan, or provolone. And a chicken-and-Havarti sandwich is, from a sensory standpoint, worlds apart from a chicken-and-Swiss alternative.
Although these sorts of upgrades may yield great product formulations, it’s far more interesting to consider what chains might accomplish not by changing the cheeses they use but by changing the way they use cheese all together.
Today, quick-serve chains deep-fry dozens of products—including cheese—that are coated in different flours, batters, and bread crumbs. To my knowledge, though, no chain has yet developed a variation that incorporates cheese directly into the coating. Yet, the idea of dredging chicken tenders, french fries, onion rings, and other fast-food staples in a cheesy breading that boosts umami—that pleasant sensation of fullness and richness on the palate—seems like a natural fit. Imagine fried chicken in a panko bread crumb and Parmesan crust, a tangy asiago cheese french fry, or a Mexican flauta that’s been given a crispy cheddar coating. You get the idea why I think the notion has promise.
Defy Condiment Conventions
For another sense of how cheese can be incorporated into the quick-serve menu in unusual ways, look no farther than the condiments and sauces. Many consumers reach for standard-issue ketchup, mustard, and mayo because they typically aren’t offered very many alternatives. But if they were able to choose from among a cheddar-tomato ketchup, a blue cheese or Manchego mayonnaise, or a rich, cheesy yellow mustard, they might even perceive the change as a value-added benefit worth paying extra for. And, of course, integrating cheese into a barbecue sauce, salad dressing, or dip offers the possibility of near-endless variations.
Pizza Hut hit pay dirt in 1995 by stuffing hot, melted cheese into crusts that before housed little besides dough, and now it’s done the same with its enormously successful Pan Pizza. So why haven’t more chains taken cues from Pizza Hut’s creative flight of fancy and stuffed cheese into their hamburger patties, their chicken sandwiches, or their fried items?
A hamburger stuffed with cheese might not boast a flavor all that different from a typical cheeseburger, but the novelty of the approach could offer a potentially compelling marketing angle. The same would likely apply to a Chicken Cordon Bleu sandwich filled with cheese or to stuffed french fries that include a layer of cheese within the potato center.
Bake All the Difference
While it might not be a change worthy of a multimillion-dollar ad buy, it’s also possible that some enterprising chain could begin baking different cheeses directly into dough. A pecorino/Romano crust pizza, for instance, with the cheese mixed throughout the dough would distribute the distinctive flavors from the bottom up. Even flatbread varieties crafted with dough containing Parmesan or other Italian cheeses would stand apart from the pack.
And if we’re at it, why don’t we take a long look at the traditional hamburger bun, the sandwich roll, and even the tortilla and start considering ways to bake cheese straight into the mix? This is a decidedly more subtle way of incorporating cheese into the product formulation, but it’s one that could work beautifully with the right balance of flavor and texture.
Would these cheesy gambits ultimately be worth the price for chains that chance it? My sense is that as consumers continue to get familiar with more exotic cheeses, such creative moves could earn brands some big cheddar.