Several foodservice segments central to snack and bakery businesses continue to demonstrate strong levels of innovation. New chains focused on customization have emerged, while others continually shift and evolve to capture away-from-home food dollars from competitors.

But consumers are hardly a static bunch. Looking forward, snacks and baked goods supplied to foodservice will need to evolve to meet the changing needs of restaurant patrons seeking fresh, artisan, simple foods—sometimes even in traditionally indulgent segments like QSR.

As we often see in retail, foodservice operators today seek to appease apparently opposing sides of the fence—but always with a strong sense of convenience.

Fresh takes on fast food

Although FDA has only just begun to regulate foodservice menu labeling with its still-pending calorie-disclosure mandate, clean-label and better-for-you concerns continue to migrate into the restaurant industry.

Research from the 2016 “Future of LSR: Fast-Food & Fast-Casual” report from Technomic, Chicago, finds consumers increasingly concerned about food additives. Survey respondents reported that, at a limited-service restaurant (LSR)—a classification that includes quick-service restaurants (QSRs), fast-casual, bakery-cafés, pizzerias and other concepts with a limited level of table service—36 percent would pay more for “natural” foods; that number jumps to 40 percent when placed in the context of solely fast-casual. The research also found that 33 percent of respondents would pay more for “additive-free” foods at an LSR, and 32 percent would pay more for organic foods.

Breakfast menus have been early adopters of better-for-you factors, with Technomic noting that the fastest-growing health claims on breakfast menus over the past three years are:

  • Low sodium, up 587.5 percent
  • Low calorie up 313.6 percent
  • Vegetarian, up 176.3 percent
  • Gluten-free, up 153.6 percent
  • Vegan, up 104.3 percent

U.S. chains are growing more ingredient-sensitive. McDonald’s made news with its announcement in early August that, among other initiatives, it will soon replace the high-fructose corn syrup in its buns with sugar.

In its list of top 2016 food trends, Technomic noted “fast food refresh” as a chief concern in QSR, helping give birth to a new level of QSR dubbed “QSR plus.” This classification encompasses chains that strive to bring “better,” more-upscale choices to the menu—often with a higher price point that edges closer to fast-casual norms.

Chick-fil-A, one of the chains cited by Technomic as fitting into the new “QSR plus” segment, uses a multigrain bun for its Grilled Chicken Sandwich and its Grilled Chicken Club Sandwich.

Wendy’s has adopted the new motto of “Quality Is Our Recipe” and recently added a multigrain, artisan-style bun for its Grilled Chicken Sandwich. The bun has a seeded, grain-encrusted exterior giving it a better-for-you visual cue.

“Artisan” language continues to play into product descriptions. In 2015, McDonald’s introduced the “artisan” roll currently used for its Artisan Grilled Chicken Sandwich and its Buttermilk Crispy Chicken Sandwich.

And at Burger King, brioche gets the nod for its A.1. Ultimate Bacon Cheeseburger bun, as well as for its Tendercrisp Chicken Sandwich, Tendergrill Chicken Sandwich and Big Fish Sandwich.

Much of this bun and roll diversification in QSR is designed to better compete with the “better burger” segment that made significant inroads to U.S. foodservice over the last few years and continues to linger, providing new points of competition.

Speedy pizza still on track

The fast-casual pizza market, known for custom-made pizzas finished within minutes of ordering, continues to grow in size and scope. According to Technomic, pizza consumption is now at the highest level seen over the past four years, with fast-casual pizza chains seeing some of the strongest annual growth over the past year:

  • Blaze Pizza, up 205 percent
  • MOD Pizza, up 182 percent
  • Pieology Pizzaria, up 67 percent

Other fast-casual pizza chains on the rise include Pie Five Pizza Co., PizzaRev, Pizza Studio and Uncle Maddio’s Pizza.

Fast-casual pizza started to make waves across the restaurant industry a few years ago and continues to build steam. Interest stems from many of these chains’ “chef-driven” concepts, combining culinary-forward sauces with higher-end ingredient selections and often multiple crust options—all awaiting customer customization.

Many fast-casual pizza chains offer gluten-free and whole-grain crust options, along with a standard, thin, Neapolitan-inspired crust. They almost invariably trend toward the thinner, crispier end of the scale, prone to edge blistering and charring, building flavor and artisan appeal.

The technological component of the fast-casual market has certainly catalyzed its success. Equipment manufacturers tightly control convention heating and airflow in the top and bottom of the oven. Other companies opt for a rotating deck, with custom-dialed speeds. Modern takes on traditional stone hearth ovens are also factoring into the mix.

The one constant is a desire to cook pizzas within just a couple of minutes, often at temperatures approaching 1,000°F.

Morning looks

Considering how hot pizza is these days, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that breakfast pizza has begun to track well. According to data from Technomic’s MenuMonitor service, from Q1 2013 to Q1 2016, menu mentions of breakfast pizza have increased by 15.7 percent.

Casey’s General Store—known for its pizza in the convenience segment—offers three breakfast pizzas (Vegetarian, Bacon and Sausage). QuikTrip, another convenience chain, offers a breakfast pizza topped with eggs, sausage, bacon, cheese and sausage gravy.

Chef Ruth Gresser, the culinary talent behind Washington, D.C. micro chain Pizza Paradiso, now also operates Veloce, a new fast-casual pizza concept—one that’s notably open for breakfast. The morning menu includes three breakfast pizzas: The Pig (scrambled eggs, applewood bacon, roasted mushrooms, red onions and a three-cheese Italian blend), The Garden (scrambled eggs, Cheddar, sweet red peppers, spinach and red onions) and The Flag (scrambled eggs, roasted cherry tomatoes, basil, mozzarella and a three-cheese Italian blend).

In true fast-casual fashion, customized pizzas are also available at Veloce, including four crust options: white, whole wheat, grains and seeds (made with rye, spelt, oats and flax) and gluten-free.

While fast-casual breakfast pizzas certainly pose a new convenience proposition, for a good percentage of the population, breakfast is still all about grab-and-go. And that means handheld items like bagels, doughnuts and muffins.

Sprouted continues to gain traction across the bakery industry, and Panera Bread continues to carry the Sprouted Grain Bagel Flat it introduced in 2014. It’s made with sprouted wheat, rye, spelt and oats, and topped with more oats for eye-catching appeal.

While muffins in foodservice are traditionally the domain of fast-casual bakery-cafés like Panera Bread, they’re starting to show up in QSR. McDonald’s Canada offers a range of muffins on its menu, including Carrot, Blueberry, Cranberry Orange, Fruit ’n Fibre and Double Chocolate with Oreo Crumble. And now select locations in the U.S., including Chicago, have trialed the Carrot Muffins.

Coffeehouse chain Caribou Coffee has brought some innovative muffins to the menu, including its Mini Donut Muffin, a cake-style, nutmeg-accented doughnut that’s dipped in butter and rolled in cinnamon sugar. A newer trial is its Vanilla Pear Muffin, featuring diced pears in the mix.

And on the wilder end of the breakfast spectrum, Carl’s Jr. recently test-marketed an adventuresome breakfast sandwich in Southern California that uses two muffin tops as the bun: The Cornbread Breakfast Sandwich features cornbread muffin tops, and the Blueberry Muffin Breakfast Sandwich has blueberry muffin tops. Both feature eggs, bacon or sausage, and cheese.

While McDonald’s popularized the idea of all-day breakfast in QSR, White Castle actually strategically beat the Golden Arches to the punch by a month. One of its more-offbeat items is the Breakfast Waffle Slider featuring bacon or sausage with American or jalapeño cheese sandwiched between two slider-sized Belgian waffles.

And while there’s nothing particularly pizza-like about them, the Breakfast Pizzini sandwiches from Little Caesars are currently seeing a limited test in select states. While the bread has a resemblance to the chain’s pizza crust, the sandwiches are otherwise very traditional, with the usual combinations of eggs, bacon or sausage, and cheese.

With all of this increased competition for daybreak (or all-day…) away-from-home food dollars, it’s only logical that McDonald’s has announced that it will expand its all-day breakfast menu this fall, adding biscuit and pancakes-for-bread McGriddle sandwiches to the lineup.

With every passing day, the breakfast wars continue on, with new snacks and baked goods heading to the front lines.