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Sides Prove Profitable Check Builders

Filed under Marketing, Pricing, Trends/Forecasts

If the goal is to increase average checks, a popular means to that end for quick-service restaurants recently has been to bundle fries and a beverage with a burger to ensure that high-margin sides are purchased. An example is Wendy’s new “4 for $4 Meal”: Jr. Bacon Cheeseburger, four chicken nuggets, small fries and a small drink in one tidy package.

Wendy's BBq Pulled Pork Fries side dish

Wendy’s BBQ Pulled Pork Fries

But a check-building strategy also being tried at some burger bars and QSRs is to keep sides a la carte and build up their price with upscale ingredients. For example, Wendy’s recent BBQ Pulled Pork Cheese Fries, priced alone at $2.99, which was two-thirds the $4.49 price for the BBQ Pulled Pork Sandwich it was intended to accompany. Earlier this year, Carl’s Jr. tested Pepperoni Pizza Fries for $2.39.

Interestingly, the same maneuvering is happening at UK pubs, restaurants and hotels. British researcher Horizons’ latest Menu Trends report notes a 45% increase in side dishes, along with upgrades and extras compared with last year. “These add-ons are ways the operator can boost average spend, without appearing more expensive on the menu,” noted Horizons analyst Nicola Knight in reporting the trend.

Beer Cheese and Sausage Fries at Grange Hall

Beer Cheese and Sausage Fries at Grange Hall Burger Bar, Chicago

In the U.S., sides at some burger bars have escalated beyond chili-cheese fries and now are priced at $5 and up, often more than half the price of an upscale burger. Asiago-garlic fries with garlic-aïoli dipping sauce add $6 to the bill at Grind Modern Burger in Boise, which moved fries from included-with to a la carte in order to expand fries choices. Add $8 for Beer Cheese and Sausage Fries (sharp Cheddar beer sauce, andouille sausage, green onions) at Grange Hall Burger Bar in Chicago.

Some of this can, I think, be traced to increased U.S. interest in poutine, the Canadian dish with fries topped with cheese curds and gravy. Red Robin’s current Oktoberfest menu includes a $14.49 ÜberBurger and a side of Great Northern Poutine Fries priced at $9 (again nearly two-thirds the burger price).

Great Northern Poutine Fries at Red Robin

Great Northern Poutine Fries at Red Robin

The Americanization of poutine has predictably given rise to more elaborate loaded-fries creations such as the $6 Brew House Fries (fries covered in garlic and Parmesan, green onions and malt vinegar) at Brunch Box in Portland, Ore., or the $8.99 Tri-Fry Tasting Tower (hand-cut Russet fries, maple-bacon sweet potato fries and Parmesan waffle fries with choice of three dipping sauces: ranch, beef gravy, chunky garden salsa or smoked tomato ketchup) at Burger Jones in Minneapolis. Truffle Parmesan Fries are $11 at Gordon Ramsay Burgr in Las Vegas.

The mac ‘n cheese fad also made a la carte sides more chic, and chic can command a higher price. Cowbell burger bar in New Orleans menus its Signature Cowbell Mac & Cheese side for $8.95.

Other sides are more exotic substitutes for fries. Victory Burger in Oakland, Calif., offers Fried Pickled Vegetables ($7.50) and Fried Plantains ($7). Deep-fried corn on the cobb is $9 at Burger Bistro in Brooklyn while the three Bill’s Bar & Burger locations in Manhattan offer roasted brussels sprouts on the side for $5.95.