Fast Food: Spreading like the Blob

Fast-food chains are seeping into places — and times of the day — that until recently were mostly fast-food-free zones

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There’s just no stopping it! Fast-food chains are seeping into places — and times of the day — that until recently were mostly fast-food-free zones.

The trade publication Nation’s Restaurant News picked up on a trend that’s probably coming to a quickie mart or big-box retailer near you. Subway, Pizza Hut and McDonald’s restaurants have been known to pop up in Target and Walmart stores here and there around the U.S. Recently, chains like Checkers, Fazoli’s, Pretzel Factory and Rally’s have also leaped into the fray by opening in nontraditional fast-food locations — specifically inside Walmart and convenience stores.

For fast-food franchises, it’s easier and cheaper to set up and run an operation within another store — and take advantage of the steady stream of customers — rather than build from the ground up. “I’ve got a lot of existing franchisees banging on the door saying, ‘Tell me when the next Walmart opportunity is opening up in my market,’” Jennifer Durham, vice president of franchise development for Checkers and Rally’s, told NRN. “They can take their organization infrastructure and add a unit without too significant a cost.”

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On the flip side, the presence of an on-site restaurant is beneficial for retailers because it provides another reason why shoppers might want to swing by, browse the aisles, linger longer in stores or just fill up the car with gas.

While new fast-food locations keep opening, existing restaurants are trying to drum up the most business possible out of every minute of every 24-hour period. To do so, chains are staying open longer and giving customers excuses to come in for a bite no matter what the time of day.

McDonald’s caught a lot of grief for encouraging franchises to stay open on Christmas — thereby forcing many employees to work on Christmas — but the push was part of a larger one to give hungry customers access to fast food whenever and wherever they want. Many McDonald’s are now open 24/7, and chains have been testing a late-night breakfast option to attract Egg McMuffin munchers after midnight.

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Restaurant executives and marketers are fascinated with terms like dayparts, a wonky word that usually refers to breakfast, lunch and dinner. They’re even more fascinated with breaking down barriers and expanding dining hours well beyond these traditional “parts.”

Not only are restaurants open longer hours, menus are also packed with items that may not necessarily fit into a particular time slot for consumption. Mini-wraps, chicken bites, pancake bites and other selections aren’t traditional entrees but instead are snacks that can be enjoyed any hour of the day — perhaps during the late-afternoon, postlunch, predinner lull? Fast-food-restaurant owners would certainly like that. The word snack itself has spread like wildfire on menus, as has snack culture in general.

Beyond rolling out the snacks, fast-food restaurants are attracting new customers — or just old customers during nontraditional times of day — by offering new and unusual menu items. McDonald’s led the pack in upgrading to better “premium” coffee a few years back. Taco Bell and other previously lunch-through-late-night chains have begun offering breakfast, while KFC and others have expanded into the dessert market.

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Then there’s the innovation that looks to make it unnecessary to leave one’s house at all in order to get a fix of fast food. Burger King has been offering home delivery in select locations for months. Don’t be surprised if there are problems with your order, though: in a recent study of leading fast-food chains, Burger King had the slowest and least accurate drive-through operation of the bunch.