In 2018, we celebrated the Big Mac’s 50th birthday and contended with two big romaine lettuce recalls. Dunkin’ had a Donuts-ectomy and a racist confrontation in Philadelphia made Starbucks lose some of its stardust. Chipotle Mexican Grill’s image overhaul began with a new CEO and meal kits worked to find their footing.
With a handful of days left before the calendar ends, here’s a look back at the trends we saw wind their way from January until this month. Some may go roaring into 2019, too.
Key to success in the food industry was an emphasis on convenience, health and the environment. With a bit of pizzazz thrown in.
Delivery for the win
No, no, you just sit right there. Fast-food chains know that drive-thrus aren’t the only answer anymore. Hungry diners want even more convenience than having food handed to them through their car windows: They want it brought directly to their homes, offices or hangouts.
Uber Eats, Seamless, DoorDash and Grubhub are among the third-party services that announced new partnerships, while Domino’s tried delivering to places without regular street addresses, like parks and landmarks.
“The consumer is demanding it in a lot of markets,” said Jefferies equity analyst Andy Barish. “Most of the industry has partnered up in 2018.”
John Zolidis, president of Quo Vadis Capital, credited all the improvement in restaurant sales in 2018 versus 2017 to delivery, with delivery growing by 9 percent this past year as compared to 4 percent in 2017 and 2016.
“The reason why people are gaga for delivery is it’s a channel that’s growing,” he said. “The reason for that is it feeds into the e-commerce-enabled customer’s desire for convenience and customization. With your mobile app, now you can get whatever you want much more easily … That’s not going away. That trend will accelerate.”
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Call 2018 the year of the disposable straw’s demise.
Cruise lines, hotels, airlines and food service providers aren’t the only ones to just say no. In June, McDonald’s announced plans to test plastic-straw alternatives at select U.S. locations and the following month, Starbucks went public with its promise to toss straws globally by 2020.
Other packaging also is getting overhauled. For example, Dunkin’ said in February that it’ll phase out polystyrene foam cups globally by 2020 and Starbucks threw down the compostable coffee cup gauntlet to designers, engineers and garage tinkerers in March with its $10 million NextGen Cup Challenge.
While companies believe in helping the environment, reducing waste and carbon footprints and saving money on packaging, if possible, what’s really driving it is their play for green customers, experts say.
“The headline reason is to protect the environment, but the real reason is millennials in particular are interested in patronizing companies (with) values (that are) consistent with how they see the world,” said John Zolidis, president of Quo Vadis Capital. “Millennials care about the world and sustainability.”
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They seemed to just come and come and come this year.
There was a pair of romaine lettuce recalls. The first in the spring-summer was traced back to the Yuma, Arizona, growing region and the November recall remains under investigation, but has been traced back to a small part of California’s Central Coast region.
Kellogg’s Honey Smacks, four varieties of Pepperidge Farm Goldfish and several types of Ritz crackers were recalled due to possible salmonella contamination. Also on the list were 200 million Rose Acre Farms eggs for possible Salmonella Braenderup, certain containers of Vanilla Almond Breeze almond milk for possibly containing undeclared milk and frozen broccoli at supermarket chains Stop & Shop, Giant and Martin’s supermarkets due to listeria concerns.
Just this month saw the recalls of Wegmans cauliflower for possible E. coli, red and green leaf lettuce, and cauliflower from Adam Bros. Family Farms (aka the romaine lettuce grower in Santa Maria, California, the FDA traced part of the most recent romaine scare to) for possible E. coli and Del Monte seasoned corn due to under-processing, among others.
“We’re hearing more about them, because we’re better at identifying,” said Zolidis. “People got sick in the past, but we didn’t know.”
Stunts that stun
Its 2017 Unicorn Frappuccino is long gone, but Starbucks had other tricks up its limited-time-offer sleeve this year, like the Crystal Ball Frappuccino in March and the Juniper Latte in November.
Other chains used the same playbook – from Donut Fries from Dunkin’ and Burger King’s Nightmare King sandwich served on a green bun to the Arby’s Seared Duck Breast Sandwich and KFC’s chicken and waffles play.
Corporate stunts are big now, too. KFC, for instance, began cycling quickly through celebrities to portray its founder Col. Harland Sanders for its new menu items; shtickiest of all was country singer Reba McEntire’s portrayal of the man.
But biggest of all was IHOP’s announcement that it was changing its name to IHOb, later revealed to be a marketing ploy. The International House of Pancakes was trying to garner attention for its new burger line-up, so it flipped the P over into a B.
“This is largely a mature industry,” said Morningstar analyst R.J. Hottovy. “You have to generate buzz about yourself and your brand.”
That buzz can lead to sales growth.
The move can best be described as anti-antibiotics. A growing number of national fast-food chains have pledged to rid their chicken or beef supplies of antibiotics.
Most recently, McDonald’s announced plans earlier this month to eliminate antibiotics important to human health from its meat supply, while in June, Pizza Hut revealed similar plans for the chicken it serves, such as wings and pizza toppings. Over in the supermarket, Perdue’s new packaging, which debuted in the spring, highlights that the birds contain no antibiotics.
The issue is the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which can lead to life-threatening infections in humans.
But the companies making this move aren’t just concerned about health and public welfare, experts say. The desire to drum up business plays a big role.
“Lots of brands are trying to connect with younger consumers who have a social conscience and purpose. Some of these efforts around that are not easy,” said Barish. “The ultimate goal is to attract more consumers, have them believe more closely in the brand and drive some preference and sales and market share toward your brand.”
Follow USA TODAY reporter Zlati Meyer on Twitter: @ZlatiMeyer