Want to Create a Healthier Menu? Try a Bowl.

In the fast-casual segment, food-in-a-bowl options are popping up more and more on menus. Fast-casual moguls Panera Bread and Del Taco introduced bowl concepts on their menus earlier this year, Boston Market premiered its Market Bowls in 2012, and Tijuana Flats’ menu features the Norrito Bowl. Pei Wei has always had its noodle and rice bowls as a staple on the menu, and of course, Chipotle has the famous burrito bowl.

Eating from a bowl is not necessarily a new notion, so why has it become a staple on so many fast-casual restaurants’ menus? What is it about this format that consumers love so much?

Fast-Casual Bowl Beginnings

When looking back on fast-casual firsts, it’s hard not to mention Chipotle. The brand took the industry by storm with a menu of customizable options, and one of the most popular items today is its burrito bowl. When Chipotle first opened in 1993, its menu was much more simple and consisted of just burritos, tacos, and fajitas. In 2003, Chipotle Founder Steve Ells added the burrito bowl to the menu, and it’s predicted that 7 million burrito bowls were sold that year alone, according to the Chipotle website. The strategic move stemmed from the hype of low-carb diets.

Needless to say, the burrito giant recognized the potential of the bowl early on. In September 2011, Ells launched another fast-casual concept, ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen. The brand follows a similar serving format to Chipotle. And the menu? Everything is served in a bowl. The ShopHouse Bowl is completely customizable. The diner picks from a selection of rice, noodles, or salad for the base, pairs it with either a meat or tofu, and then tops it off with a vegetable, a sauce, and garnishes and spices, to create the flavor sensation of their dreams. This concept’s major competition is Noodles & Company, a fast-casual concept that was conceived much earlier — in 1995. Like ShopHouse, Noodles’ entire menu is primarily noodle and pasta bowls.

Panera's lentil quinoa bowl with cage-free egg | Credit: Panera Bread

Panera's lentil quinoa bowl with cage-free egg | Credit: Panera Bread

The Bowl Emerges in Other Concepts

It’s common to see bowls in Asian and Mexican fusion fast casuals because usually the menu options consist of a protein over a grain. However, the bowl has spread to fast casuals in different categories, as well.

Panera Bread launched Broth Bowls in early 2015. These bowls, like others in the segment, offer a grain and protein. What makes them a bit different are the sophisticated ingredients, such as edamame, soba noodles, and lentil quinoa.

Del Taco, a long-standing quick-serve chain, was slower to launch their Fresca Bowls option, a play that could have been a strategic one to compete with the fast-casual space and to get in on the demand for healthy offerings. It might be surprising to some that Del Taco waited until Q3 2014 to add a bowl concept, considering most of their Mexican cuisine competitors have been offering this format for awhile. Del Taco’s three rice-based bowls include Pollo Asado Grilled Chicken, Southwest Grilled Chicken & Veggie, and Fire-Roasted Veggie, and are all topped with avocado.

An interesting fast-casual chain to jump on the bowl bandwagon is Boston Market. Boston Market’s flatware, with divided sections, has always encouraged the isolation of menu items. The mac & cheese, for example, belonged in one section separate from the other side and protein. However, in Q3 2012, they started offering the Market Bowl for the consumer that wants to infuse the restaurant’s ingredients together in one section. These bowls include chicken as the protein source paired with two sides of the diner’s choice.

A burrito bowl from Chipotle | Credit: Instagram @florida_foodie

A burrito bowl from Chipotle | Credit: Instagram @florida_foodie

The Perks of the Bowl

Why are these bowls so marketable to consumers? Well, most of the success of the fast-casual segment is attributed to convenience, price, quality, and variety. A bowl is arguably the most reliable container to eat most foods, especially when you want to mix different flavors and textures for your meal.

They are great to-go items because they often have lids. Most of the time, a consumer has selected a fast-casual option because of their limited timeframe. Besides grabbing a sandwich, a bowl is the second best option for the on-the-go consumer.

Fast-casual menus are appealing because they offer an array of flavor varieties and options, and the consumer gets to pick the ingredients they want for their meal. Bowl concepts are often customizable, giving the consumer control of what goes into their bowl. Picky eaters can stick with their favorite ingredients, while more adventurous eaters can select a few favorites and mix in new ingredients to try. It’s an option that makes almost everyone happy.

Another reason why diners are gravitating to this option is that bowls give the impression of being healthier. Bread is removed as an option when ordering a bowl. Instead, the ingredients that would have filled that burrito or sandwich stand alone, making it an option with less carbs and calories.

So there you have it. Bowls are convenient, customizable, and attract the health-conscious consumer. With all that being said, it makes perfect sense that the bowl is now a menu staple at fast-casual restaurants.