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The Top 8 Trends in Fast Food, and Who's Serving Them Best

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The masses have spoken: Fresh is the new fried, sour is the new sweet.

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Next to exercising more and kicking cigarette smoking, cutting out fast food always figures among Americans' top New Year's resolutions. With the aim of scratching itself off the "Must Not" list this year, the quick-service industry has pored through advice from consultants, market research firms, chefs, and culinary experts to make some impactful changes to the menu board.

A new report from QSR reveals the trends the burger-and-fries guys are cooking up for 2014 to keep us steered toward the drive-through.

Quality Ingredients and More Transparency

The sustainability movement has made unlikely inroads into the fast food space. Patrons are increasingly demanding naturally sourced meats and seafood, locally grown produce, and farm-branded items in their Happy Meals -- and they don't mind paying extra to get them.

"Customers are more interested in what they're eating and where it comes from," says Annika Stensson, the National Restaurant Association's (NRA) senior manager of research communications. "They want to know it's being grown responsibly."

Though Chipotle's (NYSE:CMG) commitment to its "Food With Integrity" pledge has proven iffy over the years -- especially with respect to its fair trade practices -- the burrito chain makes a substantial effort in stocking its steam trays with hormone and antibiotic-free ingredients. Chipotle also became the first US restaurant franchise to begin phasing out GMO products.

A Little Spice

The maturing palette of average Americans has them ordering more items on the "wild side" of the menu. Not all experts agree about which cuisine will prevail this year -- Asian, Latin, South American, Mediterranean, or regional American fare -- but the trend is definitely going "bold."

"People love flavors that take them somewhere," says Sharon Olson, executive director of the Culinary Vision Panel, a Chicago-area food think tank. "Young people have grown up with various ethnic styles, but everyone is looking for new things."

Stabilizing Prices

After the devastating drought that shook up the beef and grain markets over the past couple of years, restaurants are starting to enjoy lower costs. Last fall's record-setting corn harvest is also welcome relief and, as a fringe benefit, is expected to inspire chefs to find "creative uses for chicken and pork" this year.

Food prices overall are forecasted to rise only 2% in 2014.

Tea Is the New Coffee

Nevermind that people don't actually like the taste of tea; they don't much care for coffee, either. That's according to Michael Whiteman, president of New York food and restaurant consulting company Baum + Whiteman. Coffee is a bitter bean, after all. Even the most ubiquitous brand in coffee, Starbucks (NASDAQ:SBUX), isn't really in it for the java, but for the business it does in dairy.

"...[A]ll those lattes and cappuccinos require a coffee whitener," says Whiteman.

And while the jury is still deadlocked in a verdict on the health implications of coffee, the tea trial was settled as long ago as the Shang Dynasty when it was used for medicinal purposes.

The unpleasant acidity? Sweeteners and fruity flavors used in tea drinks make it disappear.

Beyond consuming tea as a beverage, consumers are beginning to appreciate its value as a cooking additive. "I can see some of the leading fast casuals taking liberties with tea to bring a depth of flavor," says culinary consultant Kazia Jankowski. Restaurant menus are trending toward dishes like tea-poached salmon and tea-smoked chicken.

If Starbucks' questionable allegiance to the coffee bean is surprising, consider its recent foray into the herbal industry with the acquisition of Atlanta-based retailer Teavana (NYSE:TEA) last year. Indeed, it was this buyout that experts believe fired the starting pistol to usher in tea's official heyday.

Mobile Eating

As an industry with "on-the-go" built into its business model, mobile technology made for a seamless adoption. Since the iPhone (NASDAQ:AAPL) premiered in 2007, smartphones have steadily facilitated interactions between US consumers and their restaurant chains of choice.

"Mobile is clearly at the top of our trend list and at the top of our research and development," says Jon Lawrence of consumer transaction tech firm NCR Corp. "We're sort of at or approaching that line, where what was once new and exciting is now expected."

Today it would be shocking to hear of a limited-service franchise that didn't have a Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) and Twitter (NYSE:TWTR) presence; by now, many have launched mobile apps. Following Starbucks' lead in offering mobile-payment options -- which comprise more than 10% of its US transactions -- McDonald's (NYSE:MCD) has begun experimenting with the technology in certain markets. A new partnership between Domino's (NYSE:DPZ) and Ford (NYSE:F) will give drivers the ability to order pizza hands-free from the Sync AppLink by mid-year.

Healthier Options and Smaller Portions

The fast food backlash let loose by Morgan Spurlock's 2004 documentary Supersize Me became an opportunity for menu makeovers by smart businesses. New offerings featuring items outside of the brown and yellow spectrums of the color wheel have rolled out at a steady clip since the movie's release.

"Of course, there is green to be made in serving greens, and the salad-centric niche in limited-service restaurants is growing," says the QSR report, "from Sweetgreen on the East Coast to Tender Greens out [W]est."

Not just for "health nuts" anymore, nutritional foods now appeal to the mainstream eater -- though marketers believe these patrons have an easier time digesting the term "fresh" rather than "healthy" since the latter is still synonymous with "tastelessness."

In 2013, quick-service brands found success drawing in customers between prescribed meal times by offering a wider array of snack foods, and that trend is expected to continue this year.

Flexible Hours

To throw another movie reference at you, the Michael Douglas "I want breakfast!" meltdown in Falling Down has been heeded, albeit 20 years later, as chains have begun to let the clock run long on meal-specific items -- or have stopped it altogether.

"It's just an evolution of customization, and consumers want what they want when they want it," says Mary Chapman of market research firm Technomic Inc. "People get frustrated that they go into a restaurant shortly after 10 a.m. and they can't get an egg muffin because the menu is now lunch."

Thanks to fast food's newfound flexibility, Michael Douglas could even order a Big Mac at breakfast. What a difference a couple of decades make.

Pucker-Prompting Foods

The evolution of Americans' taste buds has also led them in search of foods with a sour note. Restaurants are responding in kind with menu items containing more pickled and fermented items -- from condiments to broths to vegetables.

"What's old is new again," says Andrew Freeman of hospitality-consulting firm Andrew Freeman & Co. "Chefs are fermenting just about everything."

(See also: McDonald's, Sonic Turn to Tech, Mobile for Major Growth)
No positions in stocks mentioned.

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