Chick-fil-A, a company that essentially invented the fast-food fried chicken sandwich and has long implored diners to Eat Mor Chikin, is now testing a slew of new menu items in which chicken plays merely a supporting role to ingredients like chia seeds, quinoa, and kale.
The most remarkable of the new additions revolve around a now-familiar concept: the bowl.
Starting today, the chain's new Harvest Kale & Grain Bowl and Egg White Grill Grain Bowl are being offered at locations in San Francisco, Sacramento, Tampa, and Huntsville, Ala. If these tests go well, the grain bowls could roll out nationwide by 2018.
The Harvest Kale & Grain Bowl incorporates many of the same ingredients as Chick-fil-A’s Superfood Side: chopped broccolini and kale is tossed in maple vinaigrette dressing and served with dried cherries and nuts.
The introduction of meals in a bowl is an on-trend move from a company long known for its Southern-inflected fair. Chipotle's burrito bowls were a novel concept when they were introduced in the mid-1990s; today they're among the chain's most popular items. Regional chains from Chop't to Dig Inn to Tender Greens now offer grain bowls in addition to straightforward salads and platters. Even Chick-fil-A's national competition, KFC, has bowls on the menu, though KFC often uses mashed potatoes as its base and leans into a more indulgent offering with bacon bits and plenty of cheese.
Meanwhile, Chick-fil-A's bowls consist of red and white quinoa, farro, roasted butternut squash, and diced apples atop a bed of chopped kale. The bowl is then garnished with a goat-feta cheese blend and dried cherries, roasted nuts (walnuts, almonds, and pecans), and balsamic vinaigrette dressing. The bowl can, of course, be ordered with chicken (grilled and sliced) or without, as a vegetarian entrée.
The breakfast bowl takes a cue from Chick-fil-A’s Egg White Grill breakfast sandwich, an item that has proved divisive among brand loyalists. The Egg White Grill Grain Bowl features the same grain blend as the Harvest Bowl (red quinoa, white quinoa, and farro), scrambled egg whites, grilled chicken, and a cheddar cheese blend.
Locations in San Diego, New York, New Jersey, Columbia, and Washington, DC are testing additional breakfast items, many with an emphasis on so-called healthier ingredients. The Egg White Grill Bowl is similar to the grain bowl, above, except that it contains no grains. The Hash Brown Scramble is a more customizable option: hash browns, scrambled eggs, cheese, and a choice of sausage or chicken nuggets — all either rolled up into a breakfast burrito or served as a bowl.
Chick-fil-A outlets in San Diego, New York, New Jersey, Columbia, and D.C are also testing a new, smoothie-like drink: the Berry Protein Blend is a mix of whole grains, chia seeds, berries, and yogurt. That those ingredients are blended with Chick-fil-A’s Icedream (a proprietary soft-serve ice cream) might make it more of a milkshake than a smoothie. It is, however, topped with granola, giving it at least the illusion of breakfast. Plus, at 340 calories with 34 grams of protein, the drink clocks in at fewer calories than most Starbucks' Frappuccinos.
"About five percent of the population are 'clean eaters,' but most people don't even know what that means."
Kale, quinoa, chia, and egg whites are a massive departure for a brand that’s built its reputation on fried chicken, but some say it’s an obvious move for a fast food company in today's market. This is an industry that’s been plagued with requests for lower calorie, higher fiber, more nutritionally balanced options for years. A 2013 study by Hudson Institute found restaurant chains that added low-calorie menu offerings saw bumps in traffic and sales as a result, with researchers concluding "selling lower-calorie, better-for-you foods and beverages is just good business."
Bonnie Riggs, foodservice industry analyst at the NPD Group, says that may ring true for many fast-casual chains, but for fast-food, the big money is in burgers, fries, and soft drinks. "There’s about five percent of the population who are ‘clean eaters,’" she says. "But the vast majority of the population doesn't even know what that means."
While many fast-food chains are slowly adding healthier options to their menus, those items aren’t meant to take the place of the standard fare. "When you go to a restaurant, you go for what that restaurant specializes in," says Riggs. "You do not visit a fast food restaurant to eat healthier foods."
Riggs does, however, note that introducing grain bowls could be a forward-thinking move for a chain like Chick-fil-A. "Millennials and Gen Z lean more toward those kinds of food than the general population," she says. "So maybe they’re trying to get ahead of the curve a little bit."
But not everyone is likely to be impressed. "We had our holiday party catered last year, and the company brought in platters and platters of food, including four huge bowls of kale salad," says Riggs. "You know what was left over at the end of the night? Four huge bowls of kale salad."
So can bowls, grains, and greens resonate with the average Chick-fil-A customer? Probably, at least if the popularity of the chain’s salads are any indication. "We talk about the salad category like fashion; it’s changing all the time, " says David Farmer, Chick-fil-A’s vice president of menu strategy and development. "We overhauled our salad lineup in 2013. Since then, we’ve seen fifty percent growth in the salad category."
Farmer first toyed with the idea of introducing a grain bowl over a year ago. After he brought it to the menu development team, they devised a project scope: an outline of what the dish should look like, along with how the culinary team could utilize ingredients already on hand to make it happen.
Though based in Atlanta, Farmer says Chick-fil-A’s culinary team travels to different markets to see "what else is out there." To conduct research on the grain bowls, for instance, the team travelled to Manhattan to conduct competitor analysis. Instead of visiting other fast-food restaurants, though, the team dined at local, upscale eateries and new fast-casual concepts.
After examining what other restaurants were doing with bowls, the culinary team began devising various flavors. "From there, we took the different concepts to our leadership team, and then to customer tastings," says Leslie Neslage, a senior consultant for menu development at Chick-fil-A. "All the way along, we have to engage the supply chain to ensure our suppliers can provide us with the ingredients to meet our demand."
Prices on Chick-fil-A's new bowls start at around $8.
Once a specific combination of ingredients was signed off on, the menu development team determined the appropriate pricing (prices may vary according to the franchise, but the Harvest grain bowl, with chicken, is expected to start at $8.19) and began devising training materials. Apparently, rolling out a new menu item, even if it’s just part a test, entails a lot more than just providing franchisees with an instruction manual.
In the weeks leading up to the launch, Chick-fil-A’s corporate office sent "grills and ovens to all of the test markets, and hand-trained operators and their team members on how to create the bowls," says Neslage, who leads Chick-fil-A’s healthy and sustainable menu initiatives. She adds that the menu development team will evaluate the test markets this winter before making a decision on whether or not the items will roll out nationwide.
"The real challenge is to anticipate where the customer is going to go," says Farmer. "And we have to time it so that there’s a market for it. You don’t want to be too late and you don’t want to be too early."
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