Fast food and healthy food
Indulgence and nutrition create a divisive challenge for Q.S.R.s.

KANSAS CITY — On Jan. 19, Sonic Corp.’s drive-in restaurants honored National Hot Dog Day by offering patrons its 100% grilled beef 6-inch All-American Hot Dog, topped with ketchup, yellow mustard, relish and chopped onions, and its Chili Cheese Coney, topped with warm chili and cheddar cheese, for $1 throughout the day.

Scott Uehlein, Sonic
Scott Uehlein, vice-president of product innovation and development for Sonic

“In 1953 Troy Smith opened Top Hat, a drive-in focused on quick-service and delivery via skating Carhops that would go on to become Sonic Drive-In,” said Scott Uehlein, vice-president of product innovation and development for Sonic. “Offering great food at a fair price, the limited menu featured hot dogs, hamburgers, onions rings, fries, ice cream and soda.”

Known as one of the largest hamburger chains in the country, hot dogs are still one of Sonic’s signature menu items. One out of every seven hot dogs in America eaten outside of the home is eaten at Sonic, according to Crest Internal Data.


Sonic hot dogs

In addition to the All-American Dog and Chili Cheese Coney Dog, Sonic offers the New York Dog with spicy brown mustard, grilled onions and crunchy sauerkraut; the Chicago Dog with pickle, relish, tomato, sport peppers, celery salt and mustard served in a poppy seed bun; and a corn batter-dipped, beef and pork Corn Dog.

“With our hot dog offerings, guests are able to start from scratch or build off one of our four core combinations,” Mr. Uehlein said. “Guests also love to order our signature Footlong Quarter-pound Chili Cheese Coney, perfect as a meal or for sharing.”

Current limited-time only (L.T.O.) hot dog offerings include the Original Pretzel Dog served in a pretzel bun with mustard and the Cheesy Bacon Pretzel Dog with cheese sauce, grilled onions and bacon in a pretzel bun.

Fast food hot dogs
One of Sonic's L.T.O.s is the Cheesy Bacon Pretzel Dog. Burger King also joined the hot dog category with its Chili Cheese Grilled Dog.

To become an L.T.O. at Sonic, items must endure a testing process for operational impact and consumer appeal, which includes in-market testing, advertising and merchandising.

“If the product performs well in the market test, it will be considered for a national launch,” Mr. Uehlein said. “If an L.T.O. performs extremely well, there is always a possibility it will be brought back as an L.T.O., and in some cases as a permanent menu item.”

Also in the quick-service-restaurant (Q.S.R.) segment, Burger King began offering hot dog products about two years ago. The Miami-based Q.S.R. made its name flame-grilling burgers and now applies that flame-grilling technique to hot dogs. In February 2016, Burger King added the Classic Grilled Dog and the Chili Cheese Grilled Dog to its menu. The Classic Grilled Dog is a flame-grilled beef hot dog topped with ketchup, mustard, onions and relish, served on a baked bun. The Chili Cheese Grilled Dog is the same beef hot dog topped with chili, cheddar cheese and served on a baked bun.

Alex Macedo, Burger King

“The introduction of Grilled Dogs just made sense to our guests and for our brand,” said Alex Macedo, president, North America, for the Burger King brand.

But while Q.S.R.s have upped their decadent and gourmet hot dog games, they’ve also had to listen to the American consumer when it comes to healthier fast-food options.

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Fast food bags
Q.S.R.s are addressing customer concerns regarding nutrition and supply-chain issues, including animal welfare policies and the use of antibiotics.

Fast and healthy

American consumers have shown that healthy options, regardless of the restaurant segment, remain a top priority when choosing how to spend their money at food service. Q.S.R.s have responded by upping their healthy options. According to Technomic’s MenuMonitor:

  • Health claims have grown 5.1% in the last three years by Q.S.R. operators.
  • “Vegetarian” is the top healthy claim. Vegetarian menu items have increased by 4% in the last three years in Q.S.R. restaurants.
  • 30% of Q.S.R. pizza chains are menuing ingredients labeled “healthy”.
  • Organic non-alcoholic beverages have grown by 55% over the last three years in Q.S.R.s.
  • Antibiotic-free and “no antibiotics ever” have also been prevalent in the Q.S.R. segment recently. Many chains have begun to implement policies regarding antibiotics as a means to address American consumers’ desires for healthy, quick-service options.

In-N-Out Burger released a statement to Reuters last year assuring consumers it was “committed to beef that is not raised with antibiotics important to human medicine and we’ve asked our suppliers to accelerate their progress toward establishing antibiotic alternatives.”

Vegetarian menu items

The state of California plans on enacting a law in 2018 to limit the use of medically important antibiotics in livestock operations. The law prohibits the regular use of antibiotics important to human medicine for disease prevention purposes and is intended to increase local supplies of beef raised without such drugs.

Healthier chickens for healthier people

At the beginning of this year, Oklahoma City-based Sonic Corp. announced that it will no longer allow suppliers to use antibiotics medically important to human health in their chickens for the purpose of growth promotion. In addition, all antibiotics must be administered by a licensed veterinarian and only for the prevention, control or treatment of disease. The company has also started reviewing its antibiotic policies for beef and pork.

On March 28, CKE’s Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s restaurants added a charbroiled chicken breast sandwich to its traditionally burger-centric menu. Touted as using chicken raised with “no antibiotics ever,” the sandwich has no artificial ingredients or preservatives.

Carl's Jr. and Hardee's charbroiled chicken sandwich
On March 28, Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s restaurants added a charbroiled chicken breast sandwich to its menu.

“While the public’s desire for decadent burgers isn’t going away anytime soon, more and more consumers are looking for ‘cleaner’ and more all-natural, menu options, too,” said Brad Haley, chief marketing officer for Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s at the time. “We’re very proud to be able to offer an all-natural, charbroiled chicken breast fillet that has received no antibiotics ever.”

Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) U.S. also announced this year in April that by the end of 2018 it will only purchase chicken raised without antibiotics important to human medicine. According to a statement from KFC Corp., this marks the first time a major national Q.S.R. in the U.S. has committed to antibiotic-free chicken-on-the-bone menu items as well as boneless.

Lena Brook, National Resources Defense Council
Lena Brook, food policy advocate at National Resources Defense Council

“KFC’s new policy will be a game-changer for the fast-food industry and public health,” said Lena Brook, food policy advocate at National Resources Defense Council. “The market is responding to consumer demand for better meat. This commitment from the nation’s most iconic fast-food chicken chain will have a major impact on the way the birds are raised in the U.S. and in the fight against the growing epidemic of drug-resistant infections.”