Fad or Value Shift?: Functional Foods in Quick Serve Restaurants

Functional foods are dietary items that, besides providing nutrients and energy, enhance targeted functions in the body. Some ingredients may boost specific body processes such as metabolism, while others provide more general benefits, such as reducing the risk of disease. For example, kale and walnuts have benefits in boosting mental sharpness. Ginger and turmeric combat joint inflammation. Elderberries and sunflower seeds provide immune system benefits.

While these ingredients are nothing new to consumers, interest in functional foods has risen in recent years due to specific wellness benefits. In this blog we will discuss the nuances of functional food messaging in quick serve restaurants, and tips for incorporating functional foods into a quick serve menu.

Are Functional Foods Compatible With the QSR Business Model?

Functional food messaging popularized in health-centric full service restaurants, and has since become commonplace in the full-service restaurant industry. Quick-serve restaurants were slower to embrace the functional foods trend, as it seemed misaligned with traditional quick serve values of speed, taste, and affordability. A decade ago functional foods tended to defy each of these values in comparison to traditional fast foods, while adding little value for QSR customers. A 2008 study found that only 1 in 5 QSR customers valued nutrition in their quick serve food purchase decision. As the QSR landscape has expanded and diversified, alongside shifting consumer values, functional foods have found their space in the industry in both health-oriented and non-health oriented QSRs. For example, a 2019 survey issued by the International Food Information Council and the American Heart Foundation found that 43 percent of Americans claimed to always be on the lookout for healthy options when shopping, while 52 percent said they were at least sometimes scouting for healthy foods. One direct response to this customer sentiment is the entry of shops founded on the basis of functional food messaging, such as smoothie shops and grain bowl stores. Additionally, longstanding QSRs have expanded their menus to include functional foods, such as Dunkin’s recent introduction of avocado toast.

What To Consider When Incorporating Functional Food Messaging

Functional foods serve both physical and psychological customer needs. In general, functional food messaging should convey specific physical health benefits, while reassuring customers that they are making a good choice for themselves by picking these foods. Specific customer needs will vary between QSRs.The first step toward introducing functional food messaging is having a thorough understanding of your customer profile, to determine the wants and needs of your specific customer base. Are they seeking sustainable energy or immediate energy? A heavy or light meal? These details provide insight on what functional foods could appeal to customers, and how to market these items. 

The second thing to keep in mind is that brand consistency is critical in the QSR industry. Ensure that functional foods are incorporated in ways that make sense to customers. New menu items should not disrupt the standing workflow or increase the complexity of your operation. For example, customers may become frustrated by the following: longer prep times than usual, rising prices, and inconsistency. In the next section, we will take a look at three companies who have successfully implemented functional foods by identifying customer demands and maintaining brand consistency.  

Successful Functional Food Introductions in QSR Brands

Dunkin’: In 2021, Dunkin’ released its Avocado toast on sourdough bread, advertised to consist of only four ingredients and authentic sourdough starter. Initial criticism accused the chain of hopping on a passing trend, and trying too hard to appeal to young people. Ultimately, the emphasis on ingredient transparency and wholesome, authentic ingredients appealed to many Dunkin’ customers, who continue to enjoy this popular menu item. One potential contributing factor to the success of this item is that it aligns with Dunkin’s breakfast-focus. 

Chick-Fil-A: In 2017, Chick-Fil-A released its gluten-free bun. The bun not only provided gluten-free customers with  access to Chick-Fil-A products, but also served as a nutrient-dense alternative to wheat buns, which lose 68% of their nutritional value during the wheat refinement process. The new bun was made from a wider variety of whole grains including sorghum, quinoa, and amaranth. The bun continues to be popular among both gluten-free, and nutrient-conscious consumers. Perhaps this item resonated with Chick-Fil-A customers because they still get to enjoy the main Chick-Fil-A menu items with a gluten-free twist. 

Panera: Since 2016, Panera has been working to improve ingredient transparency by introducing house-made sauces and dressings. These panera dressings are made fresh daily, with complete ingredient lists available on the website. These dressings follow Panera’s pledge to keep their menu clean of many ingredient fillers and stabilizers found in shelf-stable dressings. Panera’s consistent relevance in the QSR industry is attributed to its ability to accurately assess customer needs.

Explore this guide from Indeed for additional details and tips for understanding customer needs. 

Picking Functional Foods for QSRs

As mentioned previously, the introduction of functional foods to QSR menus should not negatively impact the customer experience. In order to manage costs and maintain workflows, foods should meet the following considerations. For one, items must be fairly affordable to obtain and store. Many popular functional foods such as berries and leafy greens require specific refrigerated storage conditions to maintain freshness and food safety. Restaurant managers will need to evaluate revenue after offering these new menu items in order to determine if these items are helping or harming your location’s bottom line

The second consideration is that items must be relatively easy to prepare. QSR employees do not tend to have traditional culinary training, so the preparation of functional foods must be approachable to someone unfamiliar with the recipe. The incorrect preparation of some functional ingredients, such as fatty fish, may increase the risk of foodborne illness to customers, and may take too much of the employee’s attention if the preparation method differs from what they are used to. Ultimately, in order to keep costs low and maintain operational efficiency, find functional foods for which your QSR already has existing storage capacity, and do not greatly increase responsibilities for employees. 

The Future of Functional Foods in QSRs

As health considerations become a more important factor in food purchasing decisions, it is likely that the functional food movement is a fundamental value shift rather than a trend. QSRs have great potential to increase accessibility to vibrant, nutrient-dense functional foods. Busy schedules and a lack of cooking skills are two key factors that drive consumers to purchase meals at QSRs. As functional foods become readily available in QSRs, consumers will not have to sacrifice health benefits for convenience. The opportunity for functional foods stem from their versatility. With QSRs at the forefront of functional menu innovation, consumers are likely to see greater menu creativity and nutritional benefits in the future.