Walking into some quick-service restaurants these days can make you feel like you’ve just wandered into the produce section at Whole Foods. A colorful cornucopia of fresh fruit—from deep-yellow mangos and light-green apples to purple pomegranates and ruby-red strawberries—is getting highlighted in every menu category. Fruits from across the world are showing up in breakfast items, as part of eye-catching salads, as accompanying elements to entrees, as fresh-pressed beverages, and as healthy dessert options.
This fruit usually travels a long and complex road from the orchards, fields, and groves to a quick-service chain’s multiple outlets. Ensuring that consumers get a fresh product can be difficult, so operators use a variety of tactics to maximize that freshness and extend its window of usage. Given the scale of use—Wendy’s alone uses more than 750,000 pounds of fresh fruit per week on its offerings—operators are trying to make their fruit processes as efficient as possible.
Some operators rely on fruit that is picked prematurely so that it ripens in transit, a process that can often take weeks. Others employ the individually quick frozen (IQF) technique to flash-freeze fruit and lock in its consistency, flavor, and freshness. Still others use a variety of chemicals to help extend freshness. Sourcing location, prepping approaches, and storage methods also play a role. All of these strategies inherently help cut down on spoilage and moisture loss, which can be a major cost when using fresh produce with a limited shelf life.
A number of high-profile quick-service chains have begun incorporating fresh fruit into their menus. Wendy’s, Chick-fil-A, and Panera Bread have all worked fresh fruits into their salad offerings; Arby’s offers sliced apples as a part of its kids’ meals; Saxbys Coffee uses fresh fruit on frozen yogurt and in made-to-order smoothies; and Corner Bakery utilizes fruit in a variety of menu items, including several salads that highlight fresh fruit.
One concept making a big splash with its fresh fruit offerings is a quick-service chain best known for burgers and fries: McDonald’s. Whether kids order a Happy Meal with a hamburger, a cheeseburger, or Chicken McNuggets, they now are always going to get a 1.2-ounce vacuum-sealed bag of apple slices to complement it. (The price of the Happy Meal will remain the same.) Apples were chosen after McDonald’s market research consistently demonstrated that it was consumers’ favorite fruit, so the chain uses a number of varietals, including Granny Smith, Gala, Jonagold, Golden Delicious, and Empire.
Though the company has been offering a larger portion of the apples as an add-on since 2004, it became a standard element in Happy Meals earlier this year. Research conducted by McDonald’s showed that while 88 percent of consumers were aware of the apples’ availability, only 11 percent ultimately ordered them.
“McDonald’s wants to help support parents in encouraging their children’s habit of eating produce at meals,” says McDonald’s USA’s family category marketing director, Molly Starmann. “By automatically including them, McDonald’s is offering parents and kids a balance of the foods that are good for them along with the foods they love.”
It was an exhaustive, multiyear effort to get these apples out of the orchards and into the classic red-and-yellow Happy Meal boxes. It took the company several years to simply get its suppliers to grow enough trees to accommodate the company’s expansive needs. Starmann estimates that this newly implemented program will serve up to 100 million cups of fresh apples this year alone at the company’s 14,000 stateside outlets. McDonald’s is sourcing its apples primarily from Washington, California, New York, and Michigan, though it does use apples imported from Chile, as well.
It’s part of the company’s broader health initiatives targeted at younger consumers, dubbed the “Commitments to Offer Improved Nutrition Choices” campaign. “McDonald’s has consulted with nutrition experts, while also working with our supplier partners, owner/operators, and our menu development teams to invest in ongoing menu evolution efforts, as well as nutritional communications,” Starmann says.
The apple addition also speaks to the restaurant’s larger goal to offer more fresh fruits, including blueberries and strawberries, to consumers in a variety of items. Customers now have the opportunity to order Real Fruit Smoothies, Fruit & Maple Oatmeal, a Fruit & Walnut Salad, and a Fruit & Yogurt Parfait.
“While we can’t share specific sales data or volume information, we can say that many of our new menu items with fruit are very popular among a wide variety of our customers,” Starmann says.
Oftentimes restaurants will use a limited-time offer as a way to test just how fresh fruit would work into their system and how consumers will react to it as part of their brand offerings. In 2011, after Daphne’s Greek Café changed its positioning to become Daphne’s California Greek, it used this strategy to incorporate fruit.
“The California orientation toward freshness opened the window for new items on the menu,” says Karen Gorrell, a culinary consultant for the National Mango Board who worked with Daphne’s to develop new menu items. “That led the way to new ingredients that hadn’t previously been appropriate for the brand.”
Daphne’s ultimately developed a fresh mango salsa, which was a part of the LTO Mango and Shrimp Salad. It then worked with Gorrell and her colleagues to learn how to best handle the fruit to ensure that it enjoyed the maximum shelf life in the store, which would lead to the lowest amount of product loss due to spoilage. Gorrell estimates that fresh mango has about a seven-day window of opportunity for use.
Photo of mango salsa courtesy of Daphne’s California Greek.