Conversations and quotes in this article have been transcribed from the Foodbeast Katchup podcast's two-part episode titled '#100: 2019's Top 10 Fast Food Game Changers Pt. 1 & Pt. 2, both out now on Spotify, the Apple Podcasts App, and all major platforms where podcasts are heard.
The biggest fast food chains in the country play a crucial role in our society by heavily influencing what we eat. In 2019, that was more clear than ever as nearly the entire industry began incorporating plant-based alternatives onto their menu, bringing the vegan replicas into the forefront of daily conversation. These chains also led the way in terms of creating new innovations and establishing all of the core flavors we talked about this year.
Some chains, of course, were more influential and impactful than others, whether they were a first to market on a now-growing movement, or simply creating something wacky that generated a ton of social media buzz. Below are the top 10 major game-changing fast food chains, based on how they altered what and how we eat over the course of 2019.
This full list was put together and discussed as part of the 100th episode of the Foodbeast Katchup podcast, which you can listen to above. The criteria to make this list was that chains had to have, at minimum, a nationwide influence and audience.
Photo courtesy of Pieology
"There's a lot more that you can do at Pieology, and it caters to more diets than your Blazes or your Pizza Presses." - Costa Spyrou, Ep. 100: 2019's Top 10 Fast Food Game Changers Pt. 1
In 2019, Pieology has quietly made itself the most versatile chain in terms of pizza offerings. With 6 different types of crusts on the menu, 3 different plant-based meats, a plant-based cheese option, and the ability to customize and build your own, Pieology is perfect for all kinds of pizza lovers, and has made a name for itself with that over the past year with these new additions.
"The stuff that lands on Instagram is god awful, but what I've noticed in the periphery of Starbucks, is they have a sophisticated ability to try new flavors in their food, regionally." - Elie Ayrouth, Ep. 100: 2019's Top 10 Fast Food Game Changers Pt. 1
In terms of new menu items, Starbucks didn't create anything crazy, although their new Pumpkin Cold Brew drink is incredible. They get on this list, though, because of their efforts in sustainability and technology. Starbucks was one of the first to come out against plastic straws, and is fully switching over to "Sippy Cup" style lids by the end of the year. It's a step forward towards getting big names in fast food to increase their environmental efforts.
On top of that, Starbucks is also making the technology it uses for its top-ranked app available to more restaurants. Starbucks is widely regarded as having the best customer rewards program and easy-to-use app out there, with the ability to customize a wide variety of options. By making this technology more accessible, Starbucks is going to start attaining an almost Amazon-like status in the restaurant industry as more switch over to a model that millions are already more comfortable with. They're already known for the coffee, but Starbucks will begin becoming a restaurant tech powerhouse in the coming years as well.
Photo courtesy of Subway
"Honestly, this next brand probably wouldn't have been on this theoretical list over the past five to eight years." - Geoff Kutnick, Ep. 100: 2019's Top 10 Fast Food Game Changers Pt. 1
Subway is a surprise on this list because generally, they've shied away from innovation and tried to use deals to help recoup from their widespread public relations hits. Since Jimmy John's crushed Subway at their own game of cheap sandwiches in 2019, Subway chose to take a bold step towards adding new items on their menu. They became one of the first chains to have fresh baked King's Hawaiian bread, an interesting collab considering that generally, Subway makes their own in-house loaves. Subway also collaborated with Halo Top to make protein-infused shakes, an intriguing test for a restaurant that didn't even have shakes to begin with. One of their biggest moves of the year was teaming up with Beyond Meat to make their own meatball sub, which has since grown to a few hundred locations around the nation. As these tests continue to spread, expect Subway to keep innovating to keep up with their cheaper sandwich rivals.
7. Panda Express
"These guys had the biggest guts out of anybody that I've seen, in innovation for 2019." - Costa Spyrou, Ep. 100: 2019's Top 10 Fast Food Game Changers Pt. 1
Kudos to Panda Express for trying to introduce folks to the flavors of Sichuan cuisine with their Sichuan Hot Chicken. While it didn't translate to much of the authentic Sichuan flavor, it got folks talking about the regional Chinese food on a nationwide scale, and puts the cuisine into consideration for more innovation in the future. Sure, it would've been a lot better if the flavors were more authentic (and they didn't try to do Nashville Hot), but Panda Express deserves credit for going on a limb here.
6. The Halal Guys
"I don't think any other nationwide chain has ever put lamb on the menu at that scale." - Costa Spyrou, Ep. 100: 2019's Top 10 Fast Food Game Changers Pt. 1
In 2017, we discussed on the Katchup podcast how a major Middle Eastern chain could quickly take hold in the United States. Two years later, The Halal Guys has done just that, expanding their empire of locations to nearly 80 across the nation. They also began introducing LTOs that other national chains have yet to offer, like a widely available spicy halal lamb. The fact that a halal chain, let alone a Middle Eastern chain, is one of the fastest-growing in the nation, is huge, and should be on everyone's radar heading into 2020.
5. Del Taco
"I was really curious if it was going to hold up... I really couldn't tell the difference. It felt like to me, whatever spice blend they were using for the turkey or for their ground beef, it got incorporated into the Beyond." - Geoff Kutnick, Ep. 100: 2019's Top 10 Fast Food Game Changers Pt. 2
Del Taco's single major innovation this year? Creating a custom Beyond Taco mix to make virtually their entire menu plant-based. While they opted to heavily market just the unique tacos and burritos they created for the new plant-based substitute, you had the ability to turn everything from breakfast burritos to queso fries into a Beyond Meat item. If they had marketed that aspect more, or had a wider outreach than their cult appeal and 500-plus locations, this would easily be higher up on the list.
Photo courtesy of KFC
"They introduced a first in plant-based, which is hard to do in 2019. They introduced Beyond Fried Chicken, which literally no one knew that they were doing." - Costa Spyrou, Ep. 100: 2019's Top 10 Fast Food Game Changers Pt. 2
When it came to which chain had the most innovative, wacky products, KFC easily took over the helm from Taco Bell. They broke into the collab game with Cheetos to make a unique Cheetos sandwich and sauce, as well as making cinnamon roll biscuits with Cinnabon. Outside of that, they pushed the boundaries of classic combos like fried chicken and donuts, and even got into the plant-based game with their first vegan fried chicken in the US. After sticking mostly to sauce flavors the past couple of years, KFC really broke out in 2019.
3. Krispy Kreme
"I don't understand! You're the scientist, Costa. Explain to me how they fill a ring with air in the center. It has to be mechanized." - Geoff Kutnick, Ep. 100: 2019's Top 10 Fast Food Game Changers Pt. 2
No single food item changed the fast food game more than what Krispy Kreme did with their Original filled glazed. It was such a simple concept: fill a ringed donut. But nobody else had done it, and they nailed it to perfection. The chain found such success with it that they kept making all of their later innovations in the filled glaze ring donut form, showing that this might be the way to make your donuts heading into 2020.
"Game-changing, yes. Innovative, no. What I think happened, it was a perfect cross section of a really high quality, tasty menu item and dumb-fucking-luck." - Elie Ayrouth, Ep. 100: 2019's Top 10 Fast Food Game Changers Pt. 2
Popeye's wasn't the first or the last to introduce a new chicken sandwich in 2019. But they were the clear winner of the chicken sandwich wars, and drove everyone else to try and prove they were as good or better (nobody else could). The effects are still just being revealed as to how impactful Popeyes taking a full, juicy chicken breast and turning it into a sandwich was, but you can bet that in the next couple of years, everyone will be reformulating their chicken sandwiches to be made similar to Popeyes.
1. Carl's Jr./Hardee's
Photo courtesy of Carl's Jr.
"They're using the same patty, and that's what leveled the playing field with none of these fast food spots making their own plant-based. The plant-based patty you're getting at Carl's, is the same quality you're going to pay at the [sit-down] restaurant. At these BBQ houses that are using Beyond, you're going to pay $20? It's the same burger, guys." - Elie Ayrouth, Ep. 100: 2019's Top 10 Fast Food Game Changers Pt. 2
Carl's Jr. pushed the boundaries more than any other fast food brand this year in terms of what they were willing to innovate. In a time when CBD edible products are popping up everywhere, they were the only major fast food name willing to tack their name on a CBD-infused burger, even if it was just for a day. They also were the first to market with Beyond Meat 2.0 for fast food chains, introducing multiple burgers with the plant-based patty before some chains even had just one.
A lot of these chains, honestly, surprised us, as in previous years, many would not have necessarily been on the list. Furthermore, some of the most influential names of past years, like Taco Bell, didn't make it on this year. However, we'll be keeping a sharp eye on everyone in the fast food game in 2020, as always, to see who could potentially make that list next year.
To hear the full reasonings, debate, and discussion around these fast food game-changers, you can listen to the full Foodbeast Katchup podcast here.
Foodbeasts Isai Rocha, Elie Ayrouth, and Geoff Kutnick also contributed to this report.