MONEY Food & Drink

Why You Should Blame Millennials for Spicy Fast Food

flame made out of still life of jalopeno peppers
Gallery Stock

If you want to know why fast food menus are being overloaded with hot flavors and extra spicy sauces, look no further than millennials and their "adventurous" tastes.

Walk into almost any chain restaurant in America and you’re sure to encounter spicy new menu items that’ll put a little sweat on your brow. A few examples:

• This week, Wendy’s rolled out two hot-hot-hot limited-time menu items: the Jalapeno Fresco Spicy Chicken Sandwich and Ghost Pepper Fries.

Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. introduced El Diablo, a burger featuring not one but “four sources of fiery flavor”: sliced jalapenos, crunchy Jalapeno Poppers, spicy habanero bacon sauce, and pepper-Jack cheese. The company has described the El Diablo—which translates to “like a fighting chicken,” according to Ricky Bobbie in Talladega Nights—as both “fast food’s hottest burger” and a “lava bomb.”

• New chicken-and-rice bowls from KFC offer the magic combo of spicy flavors for millennials—Sweet ‘n Spicy BBQ and Zesty Tex-Mex—and a cheap price point of just $5, including a medium drink and a cookie.

Burger King introduced both a Spicy Big Fish Sandwich and a Spicy BLT Whopper in 2015, as well as an April Fool prank burger-scented perfume called “Spicy.”

• The menu at Popeye’s had Ghost Pepper Wings for a limited time earlier this year, featuring the intense spice of one of the world’s hottest peppers.

Denny’s, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut are among the outlets that have mixed Sriracha sauce into the menu of late.

What’s behind the up-spice, so to speak? Surely the most extreme flavors will only appeal to a small subset of customers, won’t they?

“I think ghost peppers and other really spicy ingredients are gimmicks,” Nation’s Restaurant News senior food editor Bret Thorn said in a recent discussion about fast food trends. Still, reasonably spicy food is rapidly becoming more mainstream: “We actually are seeing a seismic shift in how Americans respond to spicy food. In fact, now the majority of Americans say they like spicy food.”

“When it comes to spicy food, a lot of the consumer research being done on the topic today clearly shows that the public’s desire for heat just keeps growing and growing every year,” Brad Haley, chief marketing officer of Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s, said in a press release announcing the El Diablo burger. “We’ve witnessed that phenomenon in our own restaurants, where potential menu items that used to be rated as ‘too spicy’ in our market tests just a few years ago are now just right.”

According to a 2013 Technomic survey, 54% of consumers said they preferred spicy foods and sauces, and high percentages indicated they’re driven to try new flavors (37%) and that new flavors can push them into visiting restaurants (41%). With that in mind, it’s easy to see why more and more restaurants are periodically adding hot new flavors to their menus.

For that matter, this is hardly a new trend. Red Robin first offered a Ghost Pepper burger in 2012, while McDonald’s, Sonic, Burger King, Wendy’s, and Subway have added menu items dashed with habanero, jalapeno, chipotle, and of course Sriracha in recent years.

Yet lately hotness on fast food menus seems to have picked up, well, heat. And, as with so many consumer categories nowadays, appealing to the tastes of millennials is a big motivating force behind the shift. Nearly 75% of millennials say they want to experience more flavors at restaurants, according to Mintel data, while 62% describe themselves as “adventurous eaters” (compared with 54% of all U.S. adults). Sriracha has been declared the “go-to condiment” for millennials as well.

By adding spicier options, restaurants can draw in more adventurous—and younger—customers, and they don’t seem nearly as concerned about alienating their core clientele as they used to be. In the NRN discussion, Thorn recalled that a decade or so ago, in order for a new item to be approved to go national, “it had to score high among the vast majority of their customers, and that meant that they never offered really spicy food because it was considered polarizing.” Tastes have changed for many consumers, and so has the thinking about what’s a good addition to restaurant menus. “Now,” says Thorn, “the food even at mass-market chains has gotten a lot spicier.”

TIME Business

How a Late-Blooming Entrepreneur Made McDonald’s the World’s Largest Burger Chain

Neon Arches
Hulton Archive / Getty Images The first McDonald's fast food franchise with its neon arches illuminated at night, Des Plaines, Ill., circa 1955

April 15, 1955: Ray Kroc opens a McDonald’s franchise in Des Plaines, Ill.

It’s perhaps the most American of American-dream tales: The son of Czech immigrants, without so much as a high school diploma, recognizes the vast commercial potential of the humble hamburger and becomes one of the world’s most successful entrepreneurs.

There are a few plot twists, of course, including the fact that it took Ray Kroc more than half a century to dream his American dream. He was 52 when, on this day, April 15, 60 years ago, he opened his first McDonald’s franchise in Des Plaines, Ill. The red-and-white tiled restaurant, with the golden arches that would become the chain’s trademark, sold $366.12 worth of burgers, fries, and shakes on its inaugural day, per the McDonald’s company website. (Today, the chain serves 69 million customers each day at 36,000 locations in more than 100 countries — and reported $27 billion in revenues for 2014.) By the time of Kroc’s death in 1984, his family fortune was worth at least $500 million, per the New York Times.

Before taking the step that would ultimately lead him to the helm of the world’s largest fast-food chain, Kroc paid his dues as a salesman — for 34 years. Half of that time was spent selling paper cups to fast food retailers like Howard Johnson’s and Dairy Queen, and the other half selling “Multi Mixers,” which could mix five milkshakes simultaneously. It was in this capacity that he met Dick and Mac McDonald, two brothers who ran a small chain of hamburger joints in California. They had bought eight of the mixers, and as Kroc once told the Times, “I had to see what kind of an operation was making 40 [milkshakes] at one time.”

He was so impressed with their operation that, despite what he described as “the opposition of family, friends, and business associates,” he opened the first franchise of what he called “the McDonald’s System.” In 1961, when Kroc’s ambitious vision no longer jelled with the McDonald brothers’ goals, he bought the company from them. He was so sure of his strategy that, at the age of 62, he gambled his life savings and then some — and won.

His years of selling paper cups and milkshake machines played a key role in his success, according to the French chef Jacques Pepin, who called Kroc “the ultimate salesman” in a 1998 profile for a TIME special issue about the 20th century’s greatest “builders and titans.”

“Kroc gave people what they wanted or, maybe, what he wanted,” Pepin wrote. “As he said, ‘The definition of salesmanship is the gentle art of letting the customer have it your way.’ ”

McDonald’s has withstood countless controversies over the years, the latest of which is its part as a target of nationwide protest slated for today to pressure the fast-food industry to raise employee wages, but it remains the world’s largest hamburger chain. Likewise, its founder remains a larger-than-life figure in the business world. Kroc, who may be the subject of an upcoming biopic (in which Michael Keaton is reportedly in talks to play the lead), put it this way in the Times: “I guess to be an entrepreneur you have to have a large ego, enormous pride, and an ability to inspire others to follow your lead.”

Read the 1998 profile here, in the TIME Vault: Burger Meister Ray Kroc

TIME Advertising

This Ad Is Making Italian Pizza Makers Very Mad

A stock photograph of pizza
Getty Images

Don't mess with the True Neapolitan Pizza Association

McDonald’s has besmirched the reputation of Neapolitan pizza, and Neapolitan pizza — as a whole — is fighting back. A TV commercial in Italy shows a young boy rejecting the gooey goodness of the traditional Italian grub in favor of a McDonald’s Happy Meal.

Amusing? Sure. But actionable? Maybe. The Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana (AVPN) — or True Neapolitan Pizza Association — is threatening a lawsuit, calling the Italian-language TV spot a “dishonorable attack against one of the symbols of the Mediterranean Diet.”

That claim may also be problematic: the Mediterranean Diet (the caps are AVPN’s) is perhaps the most healthy in the world, but it’s a stretch to credit cheese pie with that distinction. A better symbol might be a fish, or a head of lettuce.

The commercial depicts the boy and his parents at a fancy pizzeria. The waiter asks the kid what kind of pizza he wants, and he yells, “Happy Meal!” The family, apparently powerless under the spell of the boy’s unsophisticated palate, is suddenly transported to a McDonald’s, and all is well because, as the commercial informs Italian parents: “Your child has no doubts.”

This amounts to the “American colossus” that is McDonald’s “discrediting” the whole Italian diet, AVPN explains. And although the campaign is already over, the group might yet file a lawsuit. One pizza chef in Naples told The Telegraph that the commercial amounted to “blasphemy.”

McDonald’s reportedly hasn’t heard directly from the AVPN.

Legal action seems like overkill, but that doesn’t mean McDonald’s didn’t err culturally. Imagine Taco Bell running a commercial in Baton Rouge declaring that its burritos are better than the local gumbo.

The backlash shouldn’t come as a surprise to McDonald’s. If it wasn’t already obvious, Italians, and especially Neapolitans, take their pizza very seriously, and the AVPN is serious about protecting its reputation. The group has created a “certification” program that requires any pizza anywhere in the world calling itself Neapolitan to adhere to a strict set of criteria.

MONEY deals

Best Tax Day Deals and Freebies

Hard Rock Cafe, Denver, Colorado
Alamy Hard Rock Cafe, Denver, Colorado

Tax relief arrives annually in the form of freebies and deals on April 15. On the special promotion menu this year are cookies, burgers, hotels, coffee, and shaved ice.

Here’s a roundup of the best freebies and promotions on or around Tax Day, April 15:

Boston Market: Buy one individual meal on Tax Day, and a second is free.

California Tortilla: Any customer who makes a purchase and says, “Taxes, Shmaxes,” on April 15—ideally in “a bored, funny voice”—gets free chips and a choice of queso or salsa.

Great American Cookies: Relieve the stress of Tax Day with a regular sugar cookie on the house, no purchase necessary.

Hard Rock Café: Locations around the country allow customers to “Sing for Your Supper” on April 15. Specifically, you’ll get a free Local Legendary Burger by belting out a song in front of the rest of the dinnertime crowd.

Hotel Deals: A range of hotels are hosting promotions for Tax Day or the springtime tax season, with 15% or more off regular room rates.

Kona Ice: Shaved ice and Hawaiian leis will be handed out from Kona Ice trucks parked outside post offices and other businesses around the country on April 15.

Schlotzky’s: Buy a 32-ounce drink and chips and an Original sandwich is free of charge at this deli chain on Tax Day.

Wawa: You’ll have to wait for April 16 for Wawa’s freebie—free coffee, served all day, for the company’s anniversary.

UPDATE: Here are a few more Tax Day deals that have surfaced since we published our original post.

Hooters: Special all-you-can-eat wings deals are available at Hooters around the country. Depending on location, all-you-can-eat prices range from $11.59 to $12.99 for boneless wings and $13.99 to $14.99 for traditional bone-in wings.

Sonic: Half-price cheeseburger buddies are on the menu all day on April 15.

White Castle: Bring this coupon in (or just show it on your phone) to a participating White Castle location and get 15% off your bill on April 15.

Whole Foods: Many stores are giving out free coffee on Wednesday.

TIME

There’s Scientific Proof the All-Day McMuffin Is a Brilliant Idea

McDonald's
Justin Sullivan—Getty Images A sign stands outside of a McDonald's restaurant on Feb. 9, 2009 in San Francisco, Calif.

People really like the concept

McDonald’s recent announcement that it will begin serving breakfast all day in some stores as a test gave the burger giant a big boost in hungry customers’ minds, a new survey shows.

Fans of the Egg McMuffin and McGriddles were happy when the news broke last week that the fast food purveyor will start serving breakfast all day in some San Diego-area restaurants. According to YouGov BrandIndex, “42% of frequent breakfast eaters… would consider purchasing from McDonald’s the next time they are looking to eat.” That’s higher than Wendy’s, Burger King or Taco Bell.

“McDonald’s has also seen the biggest improvement on customer satisfaction among frequent breakfast diners,” YouGov says. And McDonald’s “buzz score,” which measures consumer perception of what they’ve heard about the brand in the past two weeks, is the highest it’s been since the beginning of the year among adults who eat fast food breakfasts at least once a month. The score ranges from -100 to 100, with zero as a neutral perception. At the beginning of the year, McDonald’s scored a 1. As of yesterday, that number had shot up to 11, passing Burger King’s score of 9 and Taco Bell’s score of 7 (which the research company notes is likely disappointing given how heavily the brand is promoting its breakfast waffle taco).

Other market research also shows that diners are ready to scarf McMuffins all day long. Market research company Technomic found that roughly half of consumers surveyed enjoy eating breakfast food outside of morning hours. “Demand is apparently robust for all-day breakfast… all-day breakfast could be a much-needed win,” the company said in a blog post Monday. And market research firm Mintel found that sales of breakfast meat and eggs went up by 300% between 2010 and 2013, while breakfast sales at fast food and so-called “fast casual” restaurant chains went up by 5% in 2013 alone.

Wall Street likes the idea, too — not because analysts necessarily crave the chain’s hash browns, but because rivals like Taco Bell have noticed that breakfast is a bright spot in an otherwise lukewarm fast-food market, and have been ramping up their breakfast efforts accordingly. “The customer demand is there” Janney Capital Markets analyst Mark Kalinowski wrote in a note to investors.

MONEY income

CEOs’ Hourly Pay Is Staggering

Minimum wage may have jumped slightly for some workers, but CEOs' salaries, measured by the hour, leave low-wage workers' pay in the dust.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: April 2

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. McDonald’s is raising wages for 90,000 employees. That’s a good start, and a strong message to other fast food outlets.

By Shan Li and Tiffany Hsu in the Los Angeles Times

2. “It must be right:” The human instinct to trust the authority of machines can be dangerous when life is on the line.

By Bob Wachter in Backchannel

3. As college acceptance letters roll in, women should ask about sexual assault prevention on campus.

By Veena Trehan at Nation of Change

4. When corporate values clash with policy in conservative states, big business has a powerful veto tool.

By Eric Garland in Medium

5. Amazon’s Dash button isn’t a hoax. It’s a step toward a true “Internet of Things.”

By Nathan Olivarez-Giles in the Wall Street Journal

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

MONEY Fast Food

Most McDonald’s Workers Still Won’t Get a Pay Raise

The fast-food chain announced a raise for some of its workers, joining other large retailers in raising pay without a federal push.

MONEY Fast Food

All-Day Breakfast and 4 Other Tests McDonald’s Hopes Will Juice Sales

McDonald's Breakfast Menu
Helen Sessions—Alamy McDonald's Breakfast Menu

After falling behind the times and engaging in a few failed experiments, McDonald's is trying to innovate with the likes of all-day breakfast, table service, and hot new flavors.

It shouldn’t seem like big news that McDonald’s is testing out the idea of selling Egg McMuffins 24/7—in a single city no less. But word spread quickly yesterday that “industry sources” said that all-day breakfast would be tested in San Diego-area McDonald’s this spring, and after a barrage of coverage McDonald’s confirmed the rumors were true.

“We know our customers love McDonald’s breakfast and they tell us they’d like to enjoy it beyond the morning hours. So next month, we will begin testing all-day breakfast at select restaurants in the San Diego area,” McDonald’s explained in statement released to the press on Monday. “We look forward to learning from this test, and it’s premature to speculate on any outcomes.”

McDonald’s may not be willing to speculate on the implications of all-day breakfast, but there are plenty of people who are more than happy to do so. Citing several analysts and observers weighing in on just how “craveable” McDonald’s Egg McMuffin and other breakfast items are, Slate described the arrival of all-day breakfast at McDonald’s as the “One Big Menu Change That Could Save Its Business.”

Breakfast has come to be seen as the most important meal of the day for fast food largely because it’s the only part of the day that’s seen steady sales growth in recent years. Today’s time-crunched, on-the-go culture has led more people to swing by the drive-thru each morning. And because of our hectic schedules, odd work hours, and changing tastes, consumers are more likely to crave coffee and breakfast sandwiches at all hours of the day—not just up until 10:30 a.m., when McDonald’s usually shuts down breakfast operations.

More people basically wear pajamas all day nowadays—that’s what yoga pants and leisurewear are, aren’t they?—so it sorta makes sense there’s increasing demand for breakfast all day as well. QSRMagazine.com recently cited a 2015 survey showing that 7 out of 10 consumers want restaurants to serve breakfast during all business hours, and the demographic most interested in having breakfast items available for dinner are the all-important millennials.

McDonald’s franchise owners have explained that all-day breakfast is problematic if not impossible because of the logistics: The grills needed for hot cakes and Egg McMuffins aren’t available during busy lunch and dinner hours because they’re already being used for burgers and such. But McDonald’s has been testing late-night menus in which Big Macs can be made alongside Sausage McMuffins and other breakfast items, and what with the company’s struggles in the marketplace (with millennials especially), the company seems to think it’s worth giving all-day breakfast a shot at revitalizing sales.

All-day breakfast is not the only way McDonald’s is trying to boost—or perhaps even revolutionize—the business. Here are four more interesting experiments McDonald’s is trying out right now.

Table Service
The McDonald’s at the airport in Frankfurt, Germany, is allowing customers to place orders via digital kiosk or with a waiter that comes around to their table. Yes, there are actual waitstaff at this McDonald’s, and once orders are ready they’ll bring food out to customers’ tables.

Shakin’ Fries, Shakin’ McNuggets
Tests involving seasoned French fries surfaced at McDonald’s in a couple markets last spring. Dubbed Shakin’ Fries, they’re fries that come with your choice of flavor seasoning (garlic parmesan, zesty ranch, spicy buffalo), along with a special mixing bag where customers can literally spice things up. More recently, McDonald’s has been testing the sales of Shakin’ Flavors with McNuggets. The concept plays into two notable restaurant trends at the same time—one in which food is customizable, the other involving more variety of spices, the hotter the better.

Build Your Burger
Another customizable option being tested by McDonald’s is the “Build Your Burger” program spotted at restaurants in southern California early last fall. The menu option is being expanded to a handful of states in 2015, and customers are being asked to pay up for the right to mix and match exactly what they want on burgers and, in some cases, chicken sandwiches as well. A customized burger with medium fries and a medium drink has been priced at $8.29 at some locations. For that, customers can personalize what the burger comes with, including a choice of buns (artisan or brioche) and toppings (spicy mayo, classic ketchup, cheeses, guacamole, jalapenos, bacon, etc.). McDonald’s employees hand deliver the order to customers’ tables as well.

The Corner
Taco Bell, KFC, Denny’s, and Cracker Barrel are all experimenting with more upscale fast-casual restaurant concepts, so why not McDonald’s? Late last year, the fast-food giant opened a new restaurant in Sydney, Australia, called The Corner, and at first glance you’d never guess McDonald’s was involved. Described as a “hipster café” and a “super healthy test concept, The Corner is a prototype featuring craft sodas, tofu, pulled pork, cold-drip coffee, gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches, and the like. There is a tiny “McCafe” logo on bags that hold orders, and even if the restaurant itself is never duplicated, if they’re popular enough some of the menu items may one day appear in McDonald’s around the world.

TIME Diet/Nutrition

Finally, Some Good News About Kids and Fast Food

a fast food tray full of hamburgers
Getty Images

Kids are eating fewer calories from burger, pizza and chicken restaurants

Fast food is rarely the harbinger of good news, but here’s some: kids are eating less of it. According to a new report published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, the percentage of kids eating fast food on any given day has dropped, along with the number of calories they consume at certain fast-food joints.

Using data collected from National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, researchers found that back in 2003-2004, nearly 39% of American kids were eating fast food regularly. But in 2009-2010, about 33% of kids were eating it. In addition, children consumed fewer calories from burger, pizza and chicken fast-food restaurants. Calories from Mexican and sandwich fast-food restaurants remained stable.

MORE: This Is the Scary Amount of Pizza Kids Are Really Eating

“We’ve seen similar trends in adults, so we suspected the trend would be similar in children,” says study author Colin D. Rehm, a postdoctoral fellow at Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. “What was surprising was the difference in trends by type of fast-food restaurant.”

The study didn’t look at why children were consuming fewer fast-food calories, but Rehm speculates that the trend is due to a combination of factors. “I think some are related to consumer preference and demand, and some are changes made by restaurants, which may include reducing the portion sizes, reformulating existing items or offering different items to potentially replace higher-calorie offerings,” he says. Less likely, he says, is the idea that people are eating less of their meals at each sitting.

During the eight-year period of the study, none of the restaurant types experienced a significant increase in the calories their children customers consumed.

“We saw a decrease in the number of calories per eating occasion, which suggests that a combination of consumer behavior and changes made by the restaurants can actually impact diet and change the amount of calories people are consuming,” says Rehm. “That’s promising. It means people are not unchangeable.”

The researchers acknowledge that their study looked purely at reported calorie consumption, and not on the quality of those calories. “If the calories are dropping and sodium, added sugar and refined grains are increasing, then we haven’t made much progress,” says Rehm. “We are going to need to drill deeper and figure out if the quality of the calories have changed or remained stable. The last thing we want to be doing is replace calories with even poorer quality calories.”

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