QSR to QSR-Plus: How Chick-fil-A is Elevating Fast Food

For the past several years, the fast-casual segment has given the quick-service industry a run for its money, quite literally. Fast food operators have undoubtedly realized that their quick-serve restaurants (QSRs) would need to improve on quality and value from both a culinary and operational standpoint in order to stand up to the competition. And thus, a new, hybrid category — QSR-Plus — was born.

“What we’re seeing now with QSR-Plus and this elevation of quick-serve restaurant menus is clearly shifting the landscape,” says Paul Barron, founder and CEO at Foodable. “Over the past 18 months, we’ve seen a small but subtle shift in a key few brands that have started to explode.”

In this “On Foodable Weekly” episode, Barron is joined by a representative from one of those key QSR-Plus brands: Amanda Norris, senior director of menu development at Chick-fil-A, a brand that has been ranked No. 1 or No. 2 in Foodable Labs’ “National Top 25 Restaurant Brands” since Q1 2015.

Norris has been with Chick-fil-A for 20 years, and has been leading menu development for about three years. “I have the great pleasure of working with our chefs and our food scientists, and our nutritionists, and our category leads — basically, everyone that it takes to develop, test, and roll out new menu items at Chick-fil-A,” she says.

Chick-fil-A, while perhaps best known for its fried chicken sandwiches, now brings a lot more choices to the table. Newer menu item additions, says Norris, were influenced by the healthy eating trend that consumers are gobbling up, while not forgetting that “great taste is still king.” 

“We introduced a new grilled chicken platform about 18 months ago,” she says. “You’ll see that in our sandwich, our salads, our wrap… and so that’s been very big for us.”

Most recently, the chicken chain released a Greek yogurt parfait as a breakfast item and side. “We are trying to ensure that we’re offering customers a menu of choice,” says Norris. “We’re not trying to be something different; we’re really just being who we’ve always been.”

Amidst the noise that comes from being in a crowded space with competitors like McDonald’s and Taco Bell, Chick-fil-A has undoubtedly, according to data, found a way to separate itself from the pack and resonate with consumers.

“It [QSR-Plus] gives us an opportunity to offer great food, high quality, fresh… but do it in a really fast way,” says Norris. “We know our customers are in a hurry and, Oh by the way, we have a drive-thru, so I think there is some magic to offering a more premium menu offering, but doing it in a really fast way.”

Aside from its food and speed of service, Norris also hopes Chick-fil-A is known to its customers for treating people with honor, dignity, and respect.

Though industry professionals define these different categories — fast casual, QSR, and QSR-Plus — Norris admits that many consumers are probably not as conscious of the dividers. “I think, to them, they’re really just looking for great food, they want it fresh, they’re looking for more handcrafted food, local ingredients…and they want to have a great experience from a service standpoint,” she says. “I’d like to think that’s what’s resonating most, and I think the lines are definitely getting more blurred between the categories.”

The future of Chick-fil-A remains uncertain, just like any brand. (After all, look what’s happened to Chipotle.) But Norris says that between menu development and service, there are about a dozen tests in motion right now that could potentially roll out within the next 12-24 months. One of these rollouts is a line of sauces, which were developed out of Millennials’ interest in more flavor. “[With the sauces] They can ‘up’ the flavor, so to speak, and they can even combine sauces,” she says.

At its new store in Manhattan, Chick-fil-A has been taking on a new service play, called upstream ordering, where Chick-fil-A employees take guests’ orders via iPads while guests wait in line. “The premise is, by the time you get to the register, that your food is ready.”

From its menu to its service, Chick-fil-A may be a step above other QSRs when it comes to providing more value, but its future rollouts — most of which could not be discussed at the time of interview — will be a very telling factor for the future of the beloved brand.