Sides Reach a New Era of Innovation in Quick Service

French fries may dominate the side menu at most quick serves, but new ingredients, toppings, and platforms are reinventing the category.
Let’s face it: When it comes to side dishes in limited-service restaurants, the french fry is—and will forever be—king.

But these days, with innovation key to driving customer trial and frequency, many quick-service and fast-casual operators are experimenting with outside-the-box menu items—including on the side menu. From onion rings to couscous and from corn on the cob to
loaded tater tots, exciting new side dishes are finding their way to menus across the industry.

“Side dishes are meant to accompany a main—not take away or distract from it, but to add to it in a way that is complementary,” says Daniel Holzman, chef and cofounder at New York’s The Meatball Shop. “I think if you can find a balance of a show-stopping
side that doesn’t take over the entire meal, then you’re in business.”

The Meatball Shop accomplishes that through seasonal veggie sides like braised greens, sautéed broccoli, and freshly milled polenta. It also has a risotto side option that frequently changes; in November, the six-unit chain served a butternut squash risotto
and in December swapped it out for a broccoli cheddar version.

These more upscale dishes are an example of the side innovation happening at fast casual 2.0 concepts, which are offering sides akin to casual-dining concepts—namely, sides eaten with a fork that aren’t a side salad. Whether it’s Tender Greens’ California
sprouted rice, Modern Market’s fire-roasted veggies, or Dish Society’s smoked gouda grits, the side dishes available at these fine-fast concepts goes far beyond the traditional potato chips or fries.

At Denver’s Brider, the sides get as much R&D attention as the center-of-plate items, says Chef Chase Devitt, and include more familiar items, like fried Brussels sprouts or sweet potato tots, but with a twist in the form of sauces like kung pao or cilantro-

“We try and make sure that all of our sides pack a ton of flavor and are big enough to share with the table,” Devitt says. “[It] really gives the guest a lot of bang for their buck.”
That shareable quality to side dishes is also leveraged at Dat Dog, the New Orleans–based concept dishing gourmet hot dogs and sausages. But while Dat Dog’s sides are unique among limited-service concepts, they’re also centered on the tried-and-true
standard: french fries. Side options include chili cheese fries, bacon cheddar ranch fries, and the signature Crawfish Etouffee fries.
“Side dishes, in a way that separates themselves from main dishes, provide a guest with that little something extra... that layers the dining experience with complementary flavors that are enhanced when enjoyed together with their main dish counterpart,” says
Bill DiPaola, president and COO of Dat Dog. “That’s why you have a burger with fries, chicken with rice, and Thanksgiving turkey with stuffing. Some things just aren’t the same when you have them alone, and that’s why we serve our sides family-style.”
Indeed, in quick service, sometimes a french fry or other fried side is the best pairing because that’s how it’s always been. That’s why so much innovation on the side menu is in the form of fried vegetables and starches. Onion rings are an example; according
to Datassential, onion rings are found on 28 percent of all U.S. menus.

Burger King has served onion rings for years; same goes for Culver’s, whose onion rings are thick-cut and made from whole white onions, and Burgerville, which offers Walla Walla sweet onion ring. Jack in the Box, meanwhile, just introduced a panko-
breaded onion ring to its menu in 2016.

“Many chefs and restaurants are adding their signature to onion rings with unique coatings and dipping sauces,” says Kim Reddin, public and industry relations director for the Greeley, Colorado–based National Onion Association. “Dipping sauces run the
gambit, using spicy flavors like jalapeño and sriracha to ethnic flavors like Thai sweet chili. I’ve also seen more healthful combinations like avocado, garlic, and lemon that make a creamy green dip.”

Tater tots have also enjoyed an uptick in popularity as operators seek side options that are familiar, yet different. Datassential reports that tots’ appearance on menus has grown 98 percent over the past four years. It’s not just ordinary tots; some brands are
providing house-made dipping sauces to explore new flavor frontiers; Chronic Tacos, for example, has a tots and queso option, while America’s Dog & Burger dishes parmesan tater tots that are tossed in parmesan cheese and black pepper and served
with sauce options like ranch, chipotle aioli, or white cheddar. A number of operators are taking tots to the next level by loading them up with toppings. Just look at Velvet Taco, the Dallas-based fast casual with gourmet taco selections. It features a Crisp
Tots & Local Egg side that piles tots with herbed goat cheese, smoked cheddar, avocado crema, chili butter, and bacon, along with a sunny-side-up egg.

Chicago’s Pork & Mindy’s, meanwhile, offers a “Totty Bar” with four tot dishes, including the Tot’Tine (smoked mozzarella, house-made smoked gravy, pickled red onions) and Buffalo Chicken Tots (smoked chicken, hot sauce, blue cheese, buttermilk
ranch dressing).

What’s the future of sides? Endless innovation, including from those brands pushing into more ethnic and hybrid cuisines. Take the street-food concept Seoul Taco as an example; it complements its Korean BBQ menu with sides like kimchi fried rice and
kimchi slaw.

“I utilize ingredients I have in the restaurant instead of adding additional ingredients just to enhance it,” says David Choi, Seoul Taco founder. “To me it is about making a flavorful compliment to the stars of the show, which should be your entrées. I stick with
a simple flavorful side and don’t overthink it.”
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