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QSR Feature
Sacre Bleu, Cheese!

Many fast-casual restaurants have made blue cheese part of their salad offerings. For instance, Zoup!, a 22-unit soup and salad chain based in Southfield, Michigan, offers a Sonoma salad with Gorgonzola, sliced almonds, dried cranberries, and raspberry vinaigrette.

And at Village Burger Bar, a three-store operation in the Dallas area, cofounder and menu developer Susan Matta created the Baby Blue salad, which features blue cheese crumbles, greens, strawberries, oranges, and sweet-and-spicy pecans with tangerine balsamic vinaigrette.

While blue cheese has long been popular in salads, the biggest breakthrough for American mass acceptance of the colorful cheese occurred in 1964 at the Anchor Bar in Buffalo, New York. That’s when Dominic Bellissimo, the bar owner’s son, asked his mother, Teressa, to prepare something for a few hungry pals who stopped by the bar one night.

She took some chicken wings destined for the stockpot and fried them. Then she mixed the fried wings in a hot sauce she whipped up and served them with sticks of celery and a dipping sauce that included blue cheese, wine, and several other ingredients. And Buffalo wings were born.

Today, more than two-dozen quick-service and fast-casual restaurant operations offer some sort of Buffalo chicken sandwich, wrap, or panini. While some skipped the blue cheese dressing and opted for a milder variety, most retained the original style.

At O’Naturals, a small, Maine-based organic fast-casual chain, blue cheese is a major ingredient in the Buffalo Chicken flatbread sandwich, mainly because of tradition, says Mac McCabe, president and CEO. Customers can add blue cheese to other O’Naturals sandwiches, but it’s “rarely chosen” for anything other than Buffalo Chicken.

Blue cheese is also well known for its versatility with beef. “Beef is generally fatty and rich, and it is balanced very well by something sharp and salty, like a blue cheese,” says cheese expert Thorpe.

Blue cheese is among the top five favorite cheeses chosen for build-your-own burgers at The Counter, a modern update of the classic burger joint. The Culver City, California, chain launched in 2003 and has 23 locations in nine states, along with two overseas.

Founder Jeff Weinstein says The Counter uses Danish blue cheese, because it is “mild enough for the nonadventurous and still pungent enough for the real blue cheese lovers.” It also has “great texture” atop beef, turkey, chicken, and veggie patties.

While beef and blue cheese work well, bacon can add even more flavor. “The blue cheese certainly complements the bacon’s sweetness,” says the Culinary Institute’s Fischer.

Smashburger includes blue cheese and bacon as options for its build-your-own, one-third-pound Angus-beef burgers, but the cheese and bacon are also ingredients in special burgers created for restaurants in specific states.

When the three-year-old chain opened its first store in Iowa, it launched the Iowa Smashburger for local markets. The burger has Maytag blue cheese, Applewood-smoked bacon, haystack onions, lettuce, tomato, and mayonnaise on an egg bun.

Maytag blue cheese was first produced in 1941 at a dairy farm owned by the Maytag appliance family, using an Iowa State University process for making blue cheese from homogenized milk. Smashburger offers the more expensive Maytag blue only in Iowa.

When the company entered New Jersey late last year, the chain hearkened back to the great steakhouses of the region to create the New Jersey Smashburger. The beef burger is topped with Applewood-smoked bacon, blue cheese crumbles, grilled onions, haystack onions, lettuce, tomato, and mayonnaise served on an onion bun.

A similar steakhouse philosophy is behind the Bobby Blue Burger at Bobby’s Burger Palace, a five-unit fast-casual chain developed with celebrity chef Bobby Flay. And this year, one of the world’s largest quick-service restaurant companies, Wendy’s, added its own blue cheese burger, the Bacon & Blue burger, after testing it last year.

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