Consumer tastes and preferences with respect to fast food are always changing. In the past few years the ‘upscaling’ of fast food has dominated the marketplace. When I say ‘upscaling’ I’m not only referring to the environment but also a diverse menu which includes fresh, healthy options. With giants such as Panera Bread and Chipotle leading the way in this category two questions come to mind:

Can incumbents like McDonald’s and Burger King keep up with this trend?

To answer the first question, yes perennial fast food giants are actively trying to to re-image themselves in order to keep up with consumer tastes. In the past few years McDonald’s has added many new items to their menu like salads, smoothies and premium coffees. In terms of atmosphere McDonald’s remodeled their store layout to look more like a Starbucks. Now the question is, will this work? At this point it is hard to say for sure although I doubt that people will immediately look to McDonald’s when they want slightly upscale fast food. However I can’t write them off for good since they have opened so many locations across the world and adapted to tastes far and wide (see vegetarian tweaks in India). The same sort of logic can be applied to Burger King and Wendy’s although the latter has had some success with introducing a fresher, healthier menu.

Are there any untapped cuisines within fast food where a leader is yet to emerge?

First thing that comes to mind, at least for me, is Italian. Growing up in the Pizza Belt I do have a bias towards the local Italian restaurant 10 times out of 10. However this is not to say that the ‘Chipotle of pasta’ isn’t already out there. Enter Piada: Italian street food. This up and coming chain has a similar model to Chipotle and is extremely popular in the Ohio/Michigan area. They offer Piadas (essentially an Italian burrito) and pasta bowls each with tons of ingredient options. For other up and coming ‘fast-casual’ Pizza places see here.

What is the future of fast food? Can the traditional names compete or are we headed down a path where fast-casual is the way to go?