(Sept. 10) The new, fast-casual dining concept is driving many restaurant chains down the road to success, and those chains are finding that fresh produce is helping steer them into even greater profitability.

A survey conducted by Suburban Associates, Ridgewood, N.J., for King Casey Inc., QSR magazine and Pepsi Cola Fountain Beverage Division shows why produce is an important part of the fast-casual trend.

Survey respondents who had visited a fast-casual eatery in the past three months ranked “Healthy menu items” No. 4 in importance in selecting the restaurant. Eighty-one percent of women and 71 percent of men said healthy menu items were “very important” at fast-casual restaurants.
Diners also like salad bars, according to the survey. In the West and South, 64 percent of respondents said they wanted a salad bar in the fast-casual restaurants they frequent, and 54 percent of those in the East wanted one.

Fast-casual chains haven’t wasted any time responding to consumer demand for healthful menu items. So, whether you want to join the segment or compete with fast-casual stores, you can gain insight by examining ways they put produce to work.

FOCUS ON FLAVOR

With 160 restaurants in 15 states, Baja Fresh Mexican Grill, owned by Fresh Enterprises, Thousand Oaks, Calif., stakes its reputation on the word fresh. Customers see, emblazoned on the wall in each restaurant, “no microwaves, no can openers, no freezers, no lard, no M.S.G.,” says vice president of marketing Gene Cameron. “Nothing is brought in in a can or bottle. It’s all made in the restaurant. Our salad dressings, salsas and guacamole are made fresh. There’s no bottled lime juice. We squeeze our limes.”

Restaurant personnel make the salsa and guacamole about four times a day, and there is very little waste, Cameron says. Nothing is ever frozen.

While most people want to eat healthier, they don’t want to sacrifice good taste, says Joyce Cates, senior vice president of franchise operations for Schlotzsky’s Inc. The Austin, Texas-based chain operates more than 650 restaurants nationwide with 21 units in eight foreign countries.

With that in mind, the chain recently revamped its fresh salad offering, tossing out its iceberg-only salad and substituting a combination of iceberg, romaine, carrots, red cabbage, radicchio and baby spinach. Each restaurant prepares the ingredients fresh, on site.

Schlotzsky’s has changed from strictly iceberg to romaine on its sandwiches and also uses carrots, tomatoes, cucumbers and mushrooms, she says.

Selected sandwiches even feature fire-roasted vegetables. “These come to us flash-frozen, so they are also as fresh as they can be,” Cates says. “We do not thaw them until the day we are using them.”

A variety of flash-frozen peppers and onions turned up on the chain’s promotional Albuquerque Turkey sandwich and on Schlotzky’s Tuscan Herb pizza.

In its corporate stores, Schlotzky’s also is testing a fresh fruit salad featuring cut cantaloup, honeydew, red grapes and strawberries.

Company-owned restaurants receive a delivery of fresh produce every day to ensure that the quality is the best it can be, says Darrell Kolinek, senior vice president of restaurant operations.

The chain ranked No. 4 among restaurants that survey participants had visited in the past three months.

Boston Market Corp., Golden, Colo., which was the second most visited fast-casual restaurant, according to the survey, also spotlights produce, says Alyson Kim, director of corporate communications. Boston Market is owned by McDonald’s Corp., Oak Brook, Ill.
Rotisserie chicken and made-from-scratch mashed potatoes are the signature dishes of the 650-unit chain, Kim says, “But if you take a look at our side dishes, many of them are produce.”

Boston Market is rolling out nine new grilled chicken products, including three salad items — Oriental Grilled Chicken Salad, Southwest Grilled Chicken Salad and Grilled Chicken Caesar. They feature ingredients like romaine lettuce, mixed field greens, mandarin orange slices, red onions and corn relish. The offerings should be in all stores by the end of the year.

The chain also offers steamed vegetables like broccoli, carrots and yellow squash, and there’s a popular fruit salad with ingredients that vary by season and by market.

Hamburgers cooked to order have been the mainstay at Austin-based Fuddruckers Inc. since the chain was established 22 years ago, says Scott McCullough, director of marketing.

But a couple of years ago, the 200-store chain, which was the sixth most visited restaurant, according to the survey, launched a selection of Big Bowl Salads to offer guests an alternative.

And when Fuddruckers says it’s got a big salad, it means it. The huge concoctions come in clamshell containers about 15 inches wide.

Guests can choose from Caesar, grilled chicken Caesar, rib-eye steak and Southwestern salads, or they can order a regular Big Bowl Salad that comes with croutons, lettuce, cucumbers and bell peppers to which guests can add a wealth of other ingredients.

Customers in a meat-eating mood, can select from a wide range of produce add-ons for their burgers at Fuddruckers. The selection includes leaf lettuce, shredded lettuce, sliced or diced tomatoes, onion slices, diced onions, jalapeno peppers, banana peppers, pickles and pickle relish.

“We have fresh produce every day,” McCullough says. “Any kind of thing you could want to put on your hamburger, we have.”

Although many of the produce essentials remain constant, “We are always looking for other things that might be appealing to our customers,” McCullough says.

PLAY IT UP

If you’re strengthening your fare with fresh – build a promotional campaign around it.

“We ran four weeks of national television (advertising) featuring the Albuquerque Turkey with those fire-roasted vegetables,” says Cates of Schlotzsky’s, and the chain will feature the vegetables in national advertising again later this year.

Schlotzsky’s also plans to place on its menu a list of selections with 7 fat grams or less.

When Baja Fresh opens a new restaurant, it sends out direct-mail postcards to residents in the area announcing the grand opening, Cameron says. The postcard offers a free burrito and bears the message, “no microwaves, no can openers, no freezers, no lard, no M.S.G.”

Part of the company promotional strategy is to give out samples at high-profile events in the hope that the consumer press picks up on it and tells the company story in the media, he says.

For example, earlier this year Baja Fresh gave a free burrito to the fans sitting in the bleachers at the Academy Awards. The press picked up on it, Cameron says. The company also gave samples at the American Music Awards in Los Angeles and catered the Star Wars charity premier in Hollywood.

Boston Market highlights its chicken and potato selections in most of its advertising, but prominently features its salads in its television, radio and direct mail promotions that describe the chain’s new menu introductions, Kim says.

Fuddruckers ran a Light-’n-Lively in-restaurant promotion in May that focused on a chicken sandwich and the company’s Big Bowl Salad offerings, McCullough says. The company also conducted a Taste-the-Tropics in-restaurant promotion that featured a Cowabunga Burger with grilled onions, smoked bacon and pineapple rings and a Mango Tango Burger with teriyaki glaze and mango salsa made from mango chunks, cilantro, diced red onions and Tabasco sauce.

The promotions featured framed signs in the queuing area, counter cards, table tent cards, banners, buttons for associates and cash-award crew incentives for encouraging purchases of promotion items.

“We found that to be very successful for us,” McCullough says.

Fuddruckers recently ran a television commercial that featured a burger “with about 100 tomatoes on top,” and McCullough says promotional materials often show tempting, open-faced sandwiches with plenty of produce piled on.

He says just about all the customers he sees add some type of lettuce or other produce item to their burgers.

“That is an integral part of the American way of doing hamburgers,” he says.