Given the fantastical foodstuffs that made it onto menus in 2010 (KFC's Double Down two-chicken-breast-and-no-bun sandwich, anyone?), it might seem reasonable to assume a new year would bring more of the same. Although most fast-food folks were reluctant (for competitive reasons, natch) to share what delicacies they will be launching for lunch and debuting for dinner in 2011, a check with a couple of the major players reveals that overtly outlandish is so last year. Thanks to provisions in federal healthcare reform set to go into effect early this year, helping the bottom line will be all about watching the waistline.
Feeling the Oats
Because of the new calorie and nutrition labeling requirements included in the legislation, quick-serve restaurants "are probably looking at adding healthier options," says Eric Giandelone, director of food service research for trend forecaster Mintel. Cue the oatmeal, which can now be found from Starbucks (which added it to the menu in 2008) to Tim Hortons across our northern border (which announced in late 2010 that it would start offering Canadians freshly prepared home-style oatmeal). And in the not-too-distant future, it'll be beneath a Golden Arches near you. "It's hard to imagine a breakfast item people would feel better about eating," says Wade Thoma, vice president of menu management of McDonald's USA. And a serving is just 290 calories.
Carl's Jr. relishes its reputation for gut-busting burgers. It declined to reveal any specific items in the 2011 product pipeline, but it was testing some comparatively healthful items in some of its Southern California doors: three versions of a turkey burger (a plain burger, a teriyaki turkey burger and a guacamole turkey burger), each of which weighed in at less than 500 calories.
Spice is Nice
Another approach will be to swap fat for flavor. "I see spicy as a big issue [in 2011]," says Jeff Davis, president of food service market research firm Sandelman & Associates.
You don't need to convince John Schaufelberger, Burger King's senior vice president, global product marketing and innovation. "Our consumers love two things in big quantities," he says, "spicy and cheesy." The result? BK's Jalapeño & Cheddar Stuffed Steakhouse burger, due out in early 2011, which puts jalapeño peppers and cheddar cheese inside a beef patty topped with tomatoes, lettuce and creamy, zingy poblano sauce. With 600 calories and 34 grams of fat, it's actually a slightly more healthful alternative to the King's signature Whopper and its 670 calories and 40 grams of fat.
But the era of egregious eats isn't quite finished. Over-the-top offerings like the cheese melt Denny's rolled out last year (four fried mozzarella sticks and melted American cheese grilled between two slices of sourdough bread) will continue coming to market--and disappearing. Based on the new healthcare law, there's an exception for items on menus for 60 days a year or less, says Mintel's Giandelone, and limited-time offers are exempt from new labeling requirements.
Which means you should expect things like the Double Down to cycle through the menu--in double time.
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Adam Tschorn covers men's style for the Los Angeles Times.