Even though plant-based protein alternatives have been all the rage on restaurant menus and in supermarket meat cases over the past couple of years, most American consumers remain committed carnivores. They do, however, like reassurance and validation of their meat choices, an opportunity that savvy menu marketers have addressed by creating a class of pedigreed proteins that allow diners to feel good about consuming their meat of choice.
Clean and natural. In 2019, Chick-fil-A announced that it had reached its goal of “No Antibiotics Ever” chicken products throughout its U.S. operations — a five-year effort that challenged the chain, its suppliers and the competition, many of whom have responded in kind. This spring, Southern Calif.-based Farmer Boys launched fried chicken sandwiches made with all-natural chicken free of added steroids or hormones, and The Hatchery — hatched in 2020 in Tampa, Fla. — also boasts all-natural chicken on its menu of wings, tenders, and sandwiches.
From the red meat perspective, Burger King made a splash last year with its award-winning Clean Label Whopper promotion, in which the chain adapted the familiar label found on supermarket packaged goods to reveal the ingredients in the signature sandwich and to underscore its lack of artificial additives, MSG and high-fructose corn syrup.
Breeds and brands. Other operators tout the breed and/or the producer of their meats, as with summertime specials like the BLT Ranch Angus Thickburger from sibling chains Carl’s Jr. and Hardees or the Campfire Burger topped with house-made potato chips from Mooyah Burgers, Fries and Shakes that joins a line of fresh certified Angus beef burgers.
The past decade has seen the appearance on menus of Wagyu beef, which is native to Japan and prized for its pricey marbling. American Wagyu, which has been popping up on chain menus of late, is the result of crossbreeding Japanese Wagyu cattle with traditional American breeds like Angus to yield an affordable luxury that adds value and promotability. The American Wagyu Slaw Be Jo, which is among the signature subs at Capriotti’s Sandwich Shops, consists of ultra-premium Snake River Farms American Wagyu beef along with Provolone, Russian dressing and homemade coleslaw. And while Rock Bottom Restaurants and Breweries built its business on beer, it lures patrons in with innovative, scratch-made snacks like the new Wagyu blue cheese-stuffed olives with a sweet-smoky glaze.
Chipotle promotes the use of Niman Ranch pork carnitas in burritos and bowls, and chicken specialist The Crack Shack, which operates seven units in the Western U.S., uses Jidori chicken: Japanese in origin, the birds are fed a vegetarian diet and prized for their freshness and flavor.
Animal welfare. Humane treatment of animals is an issue that resonates with many consumers, and operators are responding to their concerns. San Diego-based fast-casual chain, Urban Plates, sources chicken that is cage-free and certified humanely raised for use in dishes like the Moroccan chicken braised with preserved lemons and olives. Emerging fast-casual brand BurgerFi, which staked a claim with its Wagyu and natural Angus beef patties, also serves all-natural, cage-free chicken in items like the Fi’ed Chicken Sandwich with organic honey-mustard barbecue sauce.
Grass-fed beef is thought to be kinder and gentler on both the environment and cattle. Elevation Burgers elevates its bill of fare with 100% grass-fed organic beef patties in its East Coast locations, while in the West, Modern Market Eatery’s diners can enjoy grass-fed steak in specialties like the chipotle steak sandwich with balsamic-charred onions and chipotle mayo.
On a related note, the cage-free egg trend picked up steam in 2015 and pressured major chains like McDonald’s and regional players like Shoney’s to switch to cage-free eggs, a pledge many are still striving to fulfill.
Proteins, plus. Chains employ other strategies to lure meat lovers, like allowing them to maximize their protein intake. So, Chipotle caters to carnitas cravers by allowing them to double the portion in burritos and bowls, while Taco Bell’s Chicken Power Bowl delivers a substantial 26 grams of protein.
Smokey Bones takes a different, more preemptive approach to protein expertise with its “Masters of Meat” positioning. To make good on that promise, the chain has introduced a range of premium options, like Korean pork belly pops served with Korean barbecue sauce, 12 ounce pork Porterhouse topped with peach chutney and the Southern sampler, a clever play on the ubiquitous charcuterie plate that includes candied bacon, smoked sausage, pork belly burnt ends and green chile “pimento” cheese dip.
Nancy Kruse, President of the Kruse Company, is a menu trends analyst based in Atlanta. As one of Linked In’s Top 100 Influencers in the US, she blogs regularly on food-related subjects on the Linked In website.