Small Business

Fast food’s new secret weapon? The humble fry

The French fry is having a moment.

Although fast food's recipe for fry success used to be merely "fry potatoes, just add salt," the new frontier includes unpredictable toppings like pulled pork or pizza, bringing innovation to something that's long been regarded as merely a side item.

Source: Carl's Jr.

"This is an area that there hasn't been a lot of innovation so it's not surprising that once people realize it's an opportunity, more and more people are getting into act," said Brad Haley, chief marketing officer at CKE Restaurants, the parent company of Carl's Jr. and Hardee's, in a phone interview.

Carl's Jr. is currently testing its latest iteration of loaded fries in select Southern California locations. Served with a fork, the fries have pepperoni slices, zesty parmesan marinara pizza sauce and melted mozzarella cheese.

The pepperoni pizza fries follow several other deluxe fry creations at the chain, including bacon ranch, bacon cheddar and chili cheese varieties in addition to a poutine verision at its Canadian outposts.

With an eye toward millennials' love of spicy foods, fast food chain Wendy's recently launched Ghost Pepper Fries after getting the idea from a West Virginia franchisee.

The limited-time offering fries are smothered in cheese sauce, topped with diced, fresh jalapenos, shredded cheese and a ghost pepper sauce for a recommended price of $1.99.

"Topped fries, we saw as an opportunity," said Liz Geraghty, Wendy's vice president of marketing, in a phone interview. "It's a product that people like, and you can create something that they love and is craveable by adding these flavors that are already good to begin with."

Wendy's has had success in the loaded fry arena before. Its barbecue pulled-pork topped fries last fall exceeded expectations, Geraghty said.

Breakfast battle heating up

In February, fast food giant McDonald's began testing its own twist on the popular fry: fries with Shakin' Flavor seasoning in garlic parmesan, spicy buffalo and chipotle barbecue flavors.

Other recently noteworthy examples of the trend in the fast food space include Wienerschnitzel's Pastrami Chili Cheese Fries and Del Taco's Carnitas loaded Fries.

"Casual dining has been doing these topped or seasoned fries for a while now, but we're starting to see it more in fast food restaurants," said Claire Conaghan, product director at Datassential.

Trends frequently migrate from casual dining to fast food, Conaghan added.

Indeed, a quarter of casual dining restaurants now feature fries as an appetizer, a portion that's risen by 25 percent during the past 10 years, according to Datassential data. This means that fries are gradually migrating from merely being a side to achieving appetizer status.

The rise has been slower in fast food. Just this past summer, Conaghan started to notice fry innovation among the bigger restaurant chains.

So far, jazzed-up fries have generated a fair amount of social media attention, so Conaghan said it would not surprise her if the trend continued.