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The year's top 10 menu drivers


Chains looked to distinguish themselves from competitors by adding premium touches to their menus over the past year.

Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s upgraded their chicken tenders to a hand-breaded, all-white-meat item dipped in buttermilk and egg batter. Tenders are served with either buttermilk ranch, honey mustard or barbecue dipping sauces. 

Wendy’s revamped its French fries, replacing the standard version with a skin-on variety seasoned with sea salt. Jack in the Box also retooled its fries in an effort to improve crispiness, temperature and freshness.

While some additions were upgrades of existing items, others broke new ground. Burger King launched Fire-Grilled Ribs in an eight-piece combo meal for $8.99 — considered a shockingly high price for quick-service food.

Smashburger rolled out Sweet Potato Fries. The fast-
casual chain also unveiled a line of premium chicken sandwiches and chicken salads. The items include a Barbecue Ranch Chicken Sandwich with applewood-smoked bacon, haystack onions, lettuce, tomato, barbecue sauce and ranch dressing on an egg bun; a Buffalo Chicken Sandwich with Buffalo sauce, crumbled blue cheese, lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise; a Honey Mustard Chicken Salad of mixed greens with crispy or grilled chicken, bacon, cheddar, diced tomatoes, red onions and honey mustard dressing; and a Chicken Caesar Salad, a chicken salad with mixed greens, chicken, marinated balsamic tomatoes, raisins, cranberries, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, blue cheese and balsamic vinaigrette. The Buffalo sandwich was priced between $5.49-$5.99, depending on the market. All of the others were priced at $1 more.

Schlotzsky’s Deli added to its Route 66 line with three new chicken sandwiches named for communities along the iconic American highway. The Santa Fe Chick has thinly sliced roasted chicken breast, cheddar cheese, fat-free spicy ranch dressing, green chiles, lettuce, green onion and tomato on toasted jalapeño cheese bread. The Sedona Chick is thinly sliced roasted breast with fennel-artichoke pesto, provolone and baby spinach on toasted sourdough. The California Chick has that same thinly sliced chicken breast with guacamole, alfalfa sprouts, pepper jack, bacon, red onion, tomatoes, lettuce, fat-free spicy ranch dressing and toasted jalapeño cheese bread. The Santa Fe was priced around $4.99-$5.99. The other two cost $1 more.


Church’s Chicken offered a “Spicier Spicy Chicken,” following a spicy chicken sandwich that Chick-fil-A added in June. Popeyes offered spicy Wicked Chicken strips as a limited time offering in the summer.


Taco Bell made a move toward authenticity with the addition of street-food-inspired tacos, including one with pork — a rarity in quick-service restaurants outside of breakfast menus. The Cantina tacos were offered in fire-grilled chicken, beef carne asada and pork carnitas for $1.49 each.


KFC might have invented a new food group — it certainly created a media sensation — with its Double Down, a sandwich that uses chicken patties, either fried or grilled, as a bun, with cheese, bacon and a zesty sauce between them. In July, a sibling was added: The Doublicious has cheese and bacon, like the Double Down, but is made with one chicken patty on a sweet Hawaiian Bread roll.


El Pollo Loco, known for its citrus-marinated roasted chicken, added a new protein to its offerings: sirloin steak. New items included a Grillmaster Steak Taco with melted jack and cheddar cheese, pico de gallo and guacamole in a grilled flour tortilla for $2.49; Sirloin Steak Bowl with cilantro, onions, pico de gallo, Spanish rice and pinto beans for $4.99; and a Sirloin Steak and Three-Cheese Quesadilla with jack, cheddar and Cotija, grilled in a flour tortilla and served with guacamole and sour cream for $5.99.

The chain also added Citrus-Marinated Grilled Chicken Sandwiches topped with either guacamole, shredded lettuce and pico de gallo or jalapeños, pepper jack cheese and spicy Southwestern sauce. The sandwiches sell for $4.29-$5.99.


Carl’s Jr. debuted a Philly Cheesesteak Burger for $3.49. Continuing the chain’s meat-as-
condiment theme, the burger is topped with thinly sliced steak, peppers, onion, Swiss and American cheeses and mayonnaise on a seeded bun.

McDonald’s tested its Angus Third Pounder and also introduced Angus Snack Wraps in three varieties: Deluxe, Bacon & Cheese and Mushroom & Swiss, for around $2.


The Cheesecake Factory added “Glamburgers,” which represented different regions of the United States. The Memphis Burger is topped with slow-roasted barbecue pork, melted cheese and cole slaw, while the Sonoma Burger has herbed goat cheese, oven-roasted tomatoes, arugula and red onion. Also added were the Green Chile Cheeseburger, the Smokehouse BBQ Burger, the Blue Cheese BLT Burger and the Monterey Cheeseburger. 

Applebee’s, too, added a regional burger line. The three new burgers — the Philly Burger, the Southwest Jalapeño Burger and the Cowboy Burger — were an extension of the chain’s Realburger line launched last year.

Johnny Rockets also added a regional item: The Houston, topped with jalapeño peppers. 


Boston Market didn’t add burgers, but it did offer three sliders — barbecue chicken and cheddar, meat loaf and cheddar, and turkey and Swiss — at an introductory price of $2.99 for three or $4.99 for a combo that included three sliders, a gourmet side dish and a regular drink.


There was also a lot of menu activity around the breakfast daypart. Subway added egg and cheese sandwiches on whole-wheat English muffins, flatbread or Subway’s traditional bread for $1.75-$6. 

Jack in the Box, which had long served breakfast, added a new pita stuffed with scrambled eggs, bacon, ham and American cheese and served with salsa for $2.99.

Tropical Smoothie Café added sandwiches and flatbread to its breakfast menu. That included three $3.49 ciabatta sandwiches — with egg, spicy ham, bacon and buffalo sauce; egg, mozzarella, ham, pineapple and jerk sauce; and egg, cheddar and American cheeses and sausage. The chain also launched two grilled flatbreads for $3.49 each: one with mozzarella, sausage and marinara sauce and another with egg, mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses, ham, tomatoes and pesto. 


Red Lobster moved to offer lower-priced options by adding entrées in the $13-$17 range. They include a New England Lobster Roll priced at $13.99 at lunch and $14.99 at dinner, Parmesan-Crusted Tilapia for $12.99 for a half portion and $16.99 for a full one, and Pecan-Crusted Jumbo Shrimp with maple-cherry glaze and toasted pecan-crumb topping for $13.99.

Contact Bret Thorn at [email protected].

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