If the thought of indulging your sweet tooth with a vanilla ice cream shake made with an actual slice of apple pie makes you want to stop in your culinary tracks and head to the nearest Johnny Rockets, well, that's the point.
Hoping to increase sales and traffic in their restaurants, fast-food and fast-casual operators are cranking up the menu innovation to produce items that stray from the gastronomic norm.
"The pace of innovation has increased dramatically over the past five years," said Darren Tristano, an executive vice president at Technomic, a market research firm. "Consumer preferences are changing more rapidly, product life cycles are shortening and restaurants are on the constant prowl for new, innovative flavor profiles."
Many of these items are offered only for a limited time, which encourages customers to get them while they're still hot (and available.) They're also often geared toward attracting younger pockets.
Click ahead to see some of the most interesting innovations coming out from restaurants' test kitchens.
—By CNBC's Katie Little. Follow her on Twitter at @KatieLittle
Posted 18 May 2013
Evidence suggests that these new product offerings are often effective in driving sales. Last month, restaurant same-store sales accelerated to 2.9 percent, from 1.3 percent in March.
"Companies with new product news seemed to surge to the top, including Taco Bell … and Wendy's," said RBC Capital Markets analysts in a recent note.
Last quarter, Taco Bell same-store sales grew 6 percent, in part due to the success of its Doritos Locos Tacos. The item sold so well that the company added a cool ranch flavor to its original nacho cheese flavor this year.
"We expect to sell about 100 million Doritos Locos Tacos during the second quarter, and this continues to be one of the most successful new product launches in our history," said Richard Carucci, Yum Brands' president.
Even the name's a mouthful. Pizza Hut's latest pizza features 16 dough pockets at its outer edge with a blend of five Italian cheeses.
"At Pizza Hut, food innovation is at the center of our brand, and we work hard to develop creative new spins on the classic pizza," said Kurt Kane, the company's chief marketing officer in a release.
This item is the latest addition to the brand's lactose-heavy offerings, following its stuffed crust pizza, ultimate stuffed crust pizza and cheesy bites.
For customers who still want more, extra cheese is available for an two more bucks.
Eating bacon, egg and a doughnut for breakfast isn't terribly revolutionary. But once you combined them into one sandwich, as Dunkin' Donuts has, that's when you get people talking (and buying).
Currently only available at a few locations near Boston, the response on Twitter was mixed so far.
Comedian Jimmy Fallon Tweeted: "Dunkin Donuts' new breakfast sandwich is eggs & bacon in a glazed donut. Their new slogan: 'America Runs Out Of Breath On Dunkin' #fallonmono."
Like its soon-to-be rival, the sandwich will be on offer for a limited time, which encourages consumers to get it while it's hot (and still on the menu) this summer.
Burger King's latest product introduction comes at a time when beef prices are sky-high, making other meats like pork and chicken more attractive to companies who are trying to preserve margins.
When Brinker International's Chili's unit decided to revamp its menu, it chose to put its own spin on a familiar Italian favorite.
"After 38 years of delivering cult-like favorites such as our Baby Back Ribs, guest feedback and preference is telling us now is the time to bring pizza to Chili's, but with our signature, Southwestern flavor profile," said Krista Gibson, senior vice president of brand strategy for Chili's Grill & Bar.
In keeping with its brand, the company now offers southwest chicken and taco-flavored pizzas in addition to five-cheese and pepperoni. Chili's also recently introduced three flavors of flatbreads.
Known more for its square hamburgers and Frosty Shakes, Wendy's decided to shake up its chicken offerings by pairing them with flatbread.
"Consumers want new innovative products, and Wendy's is delivering by redefining the idea of baked breads in chicken sandwiches," said Craig Bahner, the fast-foot chain's chief marketing officer. "We're offering consumers higher quality and taste at a traditional QSR price."
The new sandwiches, which will be offered in two varieties, Asiago Ranch and Smoky Honey Mustard, will be available until late May.
Hoping to gain a foothold in the breakfast market, Taco Bell is testing out a waffle taco in five California markets. The new item consists of a waffle wrapped around a sausage patty and scrabbled eggs, all for 89 cents.
"What's amazing is it's in five stores and it's already picked up 42 million impressions in social media," said Taco Bell CEO Greg Creed. "I don't think I've ever seen a product that's only in five stores pick up so much social buzz."
In order to stay relevant, restaurants must continue to invest in new and exciting products that generate buzz and word-of-mouth recommendations, said Tristano of Technomic.
"Social media tends to drive some of the new trends very quickly, and this new level of communication provides quick communication and recommendations from one consumer to the next," Tristano said.
First offered only in Nashville, Tenn., the Burger King Bacon Sundae expanded nationwide last summer. The sweet and savory dessert item includes vanilla soft-serve ice with chocolate fudge, caramel and of course lots of bacon.
Earlier this week, McDonald's announced it would be replacing its Angus Third Pounders with three new Quarter Pounders that contain less beef. While two varieties, bacon and cheese and deluxe, would remain the same as the Angus burgers, the third one would be of the spicy variety sought out by younger audiences—a Habanero Ranch burger.
"Younger consumers tend to be more engaged in trying off-the-beaten-path items," Tristano said. "This has given rise to some over-the-top new items that can be characterized as over-indulgent sizes and flaming hot flavors."