Hot Buns! In Fast Food, a New Focus Is on What’s Outside the Sandwich

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Specialty buns and breading will be hot at restaurants in 2013 — which is being dubbed the Year of the Bun.

The industry publication Burger Business has gone on record declaring that 2013 will be the Year of the Bun. Why the focus on breading, which is often considered an afterthought — existing mainly to hold the good stuff that’s inside? For one thing, it makes sense to play up specialty buns when a restaurant doesn’t want to bring attention to “high-priced proteins or cheeses,” Burger Business explains.

Because meat and dairy prices have risen in recent years, and perhaps also because most of the good ideas about chicken, meat and other ingredients have been exhausted, restaurants are trying to get diners excited with a relatively inexpensive addition to menus: a mix of unique buns and breads that come as a tasty surprise to customers accustomed to the same old standard bun on nearly every sandwich and burger.

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To some extent, this trend is already well under way, especially at emerging higher-end “fast-casual” franchises. The buns of the upscale chain Umami Burger all come with a large U stamped on top. Smashburger, another of the ascendant “better burger” franchises, regularly offers customers a choice of “artisan” buns (classic egg, multigrain, spicy chipotle or just lettuce) and is introducing specialty burgers that are paired with special craft beers and specialty buns in select cities. The Brooklyn Burger, for instance, features a pretzel bun.

Over the summer, meanwhile, Sonic made news by introducing a Ragin’ Cajun burger, complete with pepper-jack cheese, Tabasco-brand spicy mayo and a large food-colored edible logo of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns stamped on the top bun.

If you think the idea of eating a logo in this manner is thoroughly unappetizing, you probably aren’t a fan of college sports.

The world’s biggest fast-food chains have also been showing interest in thinking “outside the bun,” to steal a Taco Bell slogan. (Taco Bell, by the way, has also been experimenting with new products made for surrounding its main ingredients, notably the Doritos Locos Taco, which comes in a special Doritos shell.) Wendy’s and McDonald’s have been testing out sandwiches served on flatbread. McDonald’s also sold “Teamburgers” during soccer’s 2012 World Cup, with buns shaped to resemble soccer balls. Burger King and a European burger chain called Quick introduced burgers with jet-black buns overseas. The latter rolled out a “Dark Vador” burger as a Star Wars tie-in earlier this year.

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Will eating a burger on a black bun give you the Force? Probably not. But if you’re eating fast food, you might as well embrace the Dark Side.