Report: Latest Fast-Food Innovation Paced by Taco Bell

At 2023's outset, several restaurant chains have been innovating their dine-in experience to stay relevant and competitive; some with great success.

A recent report by noted that some chains are making waves with consumers that – now, more than ever – are looking for fun and affordable dining experiences. By observing monthly dining visit patterns in key areas, identified multiple unique and effective strategies according to its data analysis.

What the company found was that consumers are looking for cheaper options during this inflationary period, but still don't want to sacrifice experience overall.

Whether it be in a traditional sit-down setting or a fast food takeout option, consumers are interested in trying a fresh take on the classics, but doing so on a budget.

Era of "Fast Social"

A prime example of a restaurant chain vigorously innovating its brand is Taco Bell. Back in 2015, the Tex-Mex chain first introduced its "Cantinas" concept. These locations offer traditional Taco Bell menu items but also include shareable appetizers, refreshing alcoholic beverages, and a so-called "fast social" dining experience, Forbes noted.

The name of the game when it comes to these locations is "dwell time." Customers are spending significantly more time on average — sometimes twice as long — at Cantinas compared to neighboring, traditional Taco Bell fast food restaurants, according to This is largely thanks to the emphasis put on promoting social interactions.

Taco Bell Cantinas are built for the kind of social gathering consumers have longed for since the outset of the pandemic. Some have game rooms, host a drag brunch performance, or offer outdoor seating complete with a firepit and bean-bag toss boards. There's even a wedding chapel in — you guessed it — the Las Vegas location.

Taco Bell currently has Cantina style restaurants, as well as alcohol-free "Urban Inline" locations, in major cities across the U.S. with more on the way.

Experience vs. Cost

Whether it's a nationwide franchise or a regional restaurant chain, findings show that consumers are responding positively to businesses willing to try something new and unique. This can be as simple as a trendy new menu item.

Analyzing data across demographics, revealed key points to remember for restaurants looking to stay ahead of the pack:

· Affordability is the bottom-line factor for customers.

·  Innovation can lead to greater sales.

 ·  People need quick and ready food, for the right price.

 ·  Consumers like to see health and wellness at the forefront.

 ·  Above all else, people want an experience when dining out.

Restaurants are experimenting with new items that feature flavor profiles made popular online (as noted by Thrillist), or meals that meet the needs of specific diets and lifestyles. Such innovations can be big or small to be effective; consumers just need to see effort put toward improving experience and affordability. And these strategies can be implemented effectively in any type of business offering foodservice.

C-Store Evolution

With work-from-home being a thing of the past for many, there's been a steady rise in demand for affordable, prepared meals and snacks. To meet this demand, convenience stores have been ramping up their hot meal options, with some even offering drive-thru services. observed that many c-stores benefit from the fact that they also carry a variety of essential items. Dubbed the "Slurpee Effect," shoppers making household purchases can be upsold on refreshments and small treats at the counter.

7-Eleven takes this idea even further. Last June, 7-Eleven announced the opening of its ninth "Evolution Store" in Dallas. The chain now has five such Evolution locations throughout the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, with the intention of testing out these concept stores to service specific areas. These c-stores offer traditional products but take their food to the next level, boasting sit-down restaurant service in partnership with local eateries.

Data shows these Evolution locations are experiencing far greater amounts of foot traffic on average, reinforcing the idea that investing in customer experience can pay big dividends for businesses. Food Institute Focus


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Texas Roadhouse: A Blueprint for Success

In a struggling economy there's one chain restaurant that is defying the odds as many establishments have been forced to cut back or close their doors forever. That chain? Texas Roadhouse.

According to Restaurant Business, the 697-unit chain has averaged more guests this year than any other period that it's been open. It's reported an increase of 10% traffic and same-store sales are up 15.8% through seven weeks.

"You can't deny that Texas Roadhouse has grown its earnings per share at a very impressive rate. That's attractive," an article by Simply Wall Street says.

According to Restaurant Business, many experts are predicting negative traffic for restaurants this year. So how has Texas Roadhouse been so successful? Nobody knows for sure. There are some techniques, however, that many – including Texas Roadhouse – have used to help usher customers through its doors.

Texas Roadhouse president Gina Tobin believes that investing in technology may have made a big difference. In most of its restaurants, the chain offers Roadhouse Pay, where guests can pay their bill and leave whenever they want instead of waiting. Justin Doshi, reservation specialist at BentoBox, a company that helps restaurants create better experiences for their customers, agrees that technology plays a major role in attracting and retaining customers.

"The ability to book an advanced reservation is key to driving foot traffic to your restaurant. The real opportunity is how to turn a one-time visitor into a repeat visitor," Doshi told The Food Institute.

He adds that owning your own reservation management system instead of using a third-party platform can help take you to the next level.

"When you have a first-party reservation system in place, you gain access to important customer information. This allows you to extend your relationship with that customer by creating a personal experience during the meal or marketing to them directly after their experience. As a restaurant owner, you'll have more control over your diners' experience even after they leave your restaurant, which will build loyalty and incentivize them to return," Doshi says.

Philip Parsons, president of Razzoo's Cajun Cafe, agrees that technology plays a large part in restaurant success.

"This year our team refined our tech stack, and with that it has allowed us real-time insights about our customers' ordering habits," Parsons told The Food Institute. "With these insights, we have been able to curate select specials on products at certain times of day that are most intriguing to our guests, which has increased traffic and sales."

It may come as no surprise that the menu plays a huge role in a restaurant's success, but Texas Roadhouse has found success with its menu mix. Sam Cooper of adds that menu simplification and flexibility is the key to survival for restaurants during this cost-of-living crisis and the impacted supply chain of fresh ingredients.

"Restaurants, such as Ikoyi in St James's Market, offer a tasting menu that is reactive to produce availability and the chef's creativity. By not having a set menu, not only does it provide an exciting dining experience, it also helps the restaurant to navigate through the ever changing price and availability of produce without compromising on the taste," Cooper says.

If your restaurant business is struggling, it may be time to look to Texas Roadhouse as a blueprint for how to navigate these trying times. Food Institute Focus


Q&A: Nestlé Targets Plant-Based at University Dining Halls

As plant-based offerings expand across food service, college and university dining halls are a popular target for innovation and experimentation.

Last month, Nestlé Professional announced a new plant-based college dining program in partnership with Wholesome Crave and the University of Massachusetts.

The menu ranges from more traditional vegan fare such as Eggplant Lasagna and Alfredo Tomato Soup to internationally inspired dishes made with meat substitutes, including Chawanmushi with Sweet Earth Breakfast Sausage, and Tres Hermanas Enchiladas with Mindful Chik'n.

The Food Institute spoke with Fleur Veldhoven, vice president of marketing at Nestlé Professional, to unpack this partnership and gauge the outlook for plant-based in the broader food service space.

This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

What prompted Nestlé Professional to develop this plant-based partnership?

The Purpose-Driven Plant-Based Incubator was created in response to foodservice providers reporting increased demand for a wider variety of globally inspired, flavor-driven, plant-forward options.

The Incubator is intended to be a space to share insight and knowledge amongst existing and new partners, and to ideate and test new opportunities, recipes, and approaches to successfully accelerate the adoption of more plant-based options.

There is also the ability to inform students and operators about the emissions footprint of their meal via on-menu carbon labeling.

How do the menu options measure up to traditional meat-based dishes, in terms of cost to the company and the consumer?

From a cost standpoint, plant-based products are generally comparable to the cost of meat-based products, both for companies and consumers.

The other cost difference worth mentioning is the environmental cost, or rather savings, associated with these products. Not all foods have equal impacts. Animal proteins—especially beef and lamb—are generally more resource-intensive to produce than plant-based foods. More plant-centric eating therefore reduces pressure on forests, fresh water, and the climate.

Helping more people shift toward plant-forward diets can have climate and other environmental benefits. By expanding plant-based and plant-forward menu options in scaled-dining settings, we can all help to build a better, more sustainable future. 

Consumer demand for transparency and clean ingredients continues to grow across the plant-based industry. What steps does Nestlé take to ensure that these menu options are nutritious and balanced?

Making sure that what we're offering is nutritious—in addition to being delicious and operationally efficient—is a priority element of this program. One of the ways we're doing that is through our partnership with UMass Dining and Wholesome Crave. All three of the founding organizations are like-minded when it comes to our desire to make a positive impact in nutrition and food systems. We came together to promote the health and environmental benefits of plant-based dining at scale through foodservice.

How does Nestlé envision the future of plant-based in food service?

Generally, it's so important we delight our diners with delicious and nutritious food experiences. We know they will not compromise on taste and texture.

It really comes down to making plant-based foods attractive and craveable so that they are the choice and not the compromise to a meal experience.

College and university students are oriented toward exploration and diverse thinking – from an openness to try new foods and to deepen their commitment to sustainability. That's why we're starting the Incubator there.

Looking further ahead, we see this program being scalable for out-of-home dining operators of varying formats and sizes beyond just the university setting. Food Institute Focus
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Store News

Taco Bell's Hollywood Cantina looks forward to hosting DJ parties. The LA Taco Bell Cantina – where alcoholic Dewgaritas will be served – will add a movie screen and surround speakers, host DJ parties, and hopes to enter the LA nightlife with a Diablo-sauced bang, reported Nation's Restaurant News (Feb. 16). Full Story

Cheesecake Factory is ramping up the growth of its non-Cheesecake brands. The company will open as many as 16 North Italias, Flower Childs, and other brands from its Fox Restaurant Concepts division, reported Restaurant Business (Feb 22). Full Story

Domino's Pizza Inc. missed its quarterly sales estimates, arguing inflation hit customers cut back on online orders due to higher delivery fees. The company reported same-store delivery sales declined 6.6% in the most recent quarter, reported Reuters (Feb. 23). Full Story

Shake Shack launched a VIP sit-down experience called The Truffle Table between Feb. 27 and March 2. For $20 per diner, participating Shake Shack locations allowed guests to eat from its full white truffle menu alongside unlimited Shake Shack canned wine, reported Forbes (Feb. 24). Full Story

Cracker Barrel will push its value with new $5 to-go meals. Cracker Barrel's takeout, delivery, and catering accounted for 23% of sales in the second quarter, and the chain is likely to hit its $100 million goal of growing annual sales, reported Restaurant Business (Feb. 28). Full Story

Wendy's has struck a deal with cloud kitchen operator Rebel Foods Pvt to scale the fast-food chain's physical presence in India to 150 locations, betting on diners returning to public eateries as the pandemic ebbs. Mumbai-based Rebel will become a master franchisee of the burger brand about two years after the companies signed a cloud kitchen deliveries-only deal, reported Bloomberg (Feb. 27). Full Story

McDonald's is expanding its Krispy Kreme offerings to more locations in Kentucky. From nine restaurants to over 160, the burger chain is also taking a sharper eye to the no. 1 complement to doughnuts – coffee – to encourage more morning visitors, reported CNBC (Feb. 27). Full Story

KFC is bringing back the Double Down, the bunless sandwich with bacon, cheese, and sauce wedged between two pieces of fried white-meat chicken. In 2010, KFC sold 10 million Double Downs in its first month. KFC said customers have been "begging" for the Double Down's return, reported Restaurant Business (March 1). Full Story

Subway opened its second headquarters in Miami. Located at 1000 Sub Way in Miami-Dade County, the company said its new space is designed to "advance the brand's multi-year transformational journey," reported Restaurant Business (March 2). Full Story

BJ's Restaurants plans to trim its menu by 10% as part of cost-cutting efforts. One of the industry's biggest menus is getting smaller, but company executives don't foresee it hurting sales, reported Restaurant Business (Feb. 21). Full Story

Noodles & Co. has normalized commodity costs and achieved continual sales momentum throughout inflation. Noodles reported steady growth across all channels, including higher-priced menu items and delivery. Almost 60% of its fourth-quarter sales came through digital channels – an 11% increase over last year, reported Restaurant Business (March 8). Full Story

Chick-fil-A hopes to expand to Europe and Asia. The QSR is planning a $1 billion expansion through 2030. Andrew Cathy, chief executive, says international growth is key to the chicken brand's future, reported The Wall Street Journal (March 13). Full Story

Chipotle debuted a new worldwide LTO: Chicken al Pastor. It's the first new menu item launched simultaneously around the world in the chain's history, reported Restaurant Business (March 14). Full Story

Autonomous logistics company Gatik partnered with Kroger to transport customer orders within the Dallas region. Gatik will transport fresh products from a central Customer Fulfillment Center to multiple retail locations. Full Story

Denny's has added an interactive, augmented-reality menu presentation. The diner chain also is now featuring several new menu items – like a new Mac N' Brisket Sizzlin' Skillet, and Oven-Baked Lasagna. Full Story


The Future of AI and the Food Industry

The future of the food industry is coming into focus as artificial intelligence grows increasingly popular. AI is rapidly changing the way restaurant chains, food manufacturers and other businesses operate.

Wingstop, Campbell Soup, Domino's and Panera are just a few examples of companies that are taking advantage of all the benefits that AI has to offer.

Wingstop, a nearly 2,000-unit wing chain, is using AI to answer phones, as noted by Restaurant Business. Wingstop partnered with ConverseNow to create a virtual ordering assistant, which can answer multiple calls at the same time. It will also be able to assist with recommendations and it speaks both English and Spanish, according to the article. Chains like Del Taco, Domino's, Panera, Checkers and Newk's Eatery are using similar technology, according to Restaurant Business.

Bhavin Asher, CTO of GRUBBRR, a self-ordering system solutions company, said this is just the start of AI's impact on the food industry.

"AI in 5 years will be used in both front-of-house and back-of-house operations focusing on forecasting, reporting, predicting inventory, and labor needs to start," Asher told The Food Institute. "Restaurant operators see many customer-facing benefits with this new technology, including ordering, smart upsells, and more personalization.

"In addition, implementing AI will drastically increase operational efficiency by prioritizing orders based on channels, routing, and throttling orders, forever changing how operators run their businesses."

Food manufacturers, like Campbell Soup Co., are using AI to help with product development, noted Food Business News. Campbell is tracking data to help discover what its customers want next and through that initiative it has introduced new products like the Chunky Ghost Pepper Chicken Noodle Soup.

AI helped Campbell determine that modern consumers crave spice. Partially because of this information, the soup giant released the aforementioned flavor after successful launches of Spicy Chicken Noodle, Spicy Steak and Potato, Spicy Sirloin Burger, Spicy Chicken and Sausage Gumbo. Campbell also developed Frank's RedHot Goldfish Crackers thanks to AI-driven insights.

Campbell is also utilizing AI to analyze trends. Recently, AI helped Campbell identify a rise in air fryer popularity, allowing it to introduce Kettle Brand Air Fried Chips, noted FBN.

"As the retail landscape shifts and brands continue to leverage D2C for growth and scale, AI will become instrumental for highly customized and targeted content catered to each consumer," said Catherine Merritt, CEO at Spool, a CPG marketing agency. "For example, AI-driven content may look like an e-recipe book for that specific consumer based on what they've bought or currently have in their cart.

"As integration between online, grocery shopping and smart-homes improves, AI can serve the most relevant content and information consumers are looking for – or will receive whether they sought it or not," Merritt told The Food Institute. Food Institute Focus


January Sales Look Strong Due to Easy Omicron Comparison

Comparable sales for the foodservice industry jumped 14.1% in January, but that may buck recent trends due to an easy comparison to January 2022 when the Omicron variant pushed consumers away from in-store dining, according to Black Box Intelligence. Comparable traffic was up 5% during the month.

"This was the best month for year-over-year sales and traffic growth for the industry since February of 2022. It is also the first time during that same period that the industry was able to achieve positive traffic growth," the group wrote of the month in a blog post.

Black Box reported the Mid-Atlantic region, fine dining, and Italian cuisine were the top-performing categories for the month; conversely, Florida, quick-service, and chicken concepts faced the biggest hurdles in February. Full Story

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