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Even your favorite drive-thru joint has hot trends for 2018

Even your favorite drive-thru joint has hot trends for 2018

Houston, Hoffman drive thru gourmet, wendy's Junior Bacon Cheeseburger
This ingenious item known as a “cheeseburger” should be 2018’s hot seller. Courtesy photo

Each year around this time, food writers and critics comment on upcoming restaurant trends. Since I am the most-read, longest-running, hardest-working, and only syndicated restaurant critic in Houston —under $10 — I have a few ideas about what will be hot in 2018.

(Hey, who are you going to trust when it comes to cheap eats: Eric Sandler or me? Granted, Sandler is an authority on restaurants, and I’m just a guy with no patience — and bad eating habits.)

Bon Appetit magazine says the hot new sandwich will be a Torta Ahogada. It’s complicated.

Here’s my pick for 2018’s big seller: You take about quarter-pound of ground beef, and form a flat round patty. You fry or “flame broil” it. Then you put a slice of American cheese, some pickles, maybe lettuce and tomato on top. Add a slather of ketchup or mustard or mayo.

It’s called a “cheeseburger” — the undisputed, all-time, unchallenged king of the drive-thru. As Ric Flair said, “You want to be the man? You got to beat the man!” And the man is a Quarter-Pounder with Cheese.

Here’s another item that I think will sell in 2018: You take a whole chicken, cut it into eight pieces, shake the pieces in a bag filled with flour and throw them in a vat of bubbling oil. It’s called “fried chicken.”

Also: take some dough and roll or twirl into a round flat shape. Cover it with tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese and pepperoni. Feel free to stuff the mozzarella in the outer edges of the dough. I call this one a “pizza.” It shows lots of promise. I think consumers will like it in 2018.

More trends for 2018: look for vegan desserts, floral flavors, root, and stems on your plate, something called “slow growth chicken,” and dishes made with algae.

Not in the restaurants where I eat. You know me, I don’t call ahead for reservations. I just ask, “Is your drive-through open 24 hours?” I consider it fine dining if their $4 Value Meal includes a chocolate chip cookie. I don’t eat algae on purpose. I once had a burger down the Jersey shore that looked a little green. (And so did I, about an hour later.)

However, food scientists swear they have come up with a meat substitute using spirulina, a species of algae, that tastes like the real thing, that will fool even a beefy burger fan like me. I highly doubt this. In fact, get serious — I’ve been through this a hundred times with veggie hot dogs.

If I’m in the mood for a burger, I want a real burger. You know that Jimmy Buffett song, “I like mine with lettuce and tomato, Heinz 57 and French fried potatoes — a big warm bun and a huge hunk of meat?” Nowhere in that song does he mention algae.

Don’t tell me about those new 15-calorie pints of “frozen dessert” in the supermarket, either. Give me a pint of Graeter’s double chocolate chip, and a spoon...and some privacy. I’m not saying eat a pint of ice cream every night — that would be dumb, and dangerous. But when the mood strikes, strike back hard. Just run the treadmill an extra 20 minutes or ride your bike a couple extra miles.

These “trend” stories aren’t just for elegant restaurants that cater to business people with expense accounts and husbands having dinner with women who aren’t their wives.

Nine trends for 2018
QSR Magazine, the bible of the fast food industry, says nine new trends will dominate the drive-thru in 2018. By the way, QSR stands for “Quick Service Restaurants,” that’s the insider term for fast food joints like McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King, the Hut, the King, the Queen and the rest.

According to QSR Magazine, here’s what to expect the next time you roll down your window and shout your dinner order:

1. Value Menu Wars
Bundle up, baby: McDonald’s has its new $1-$2-$3 Dollar Menu. Wendy’s has a 4 for $4 deal. Burger King is pushing two Whoppers for $6. Subway has a slew of $5 footlongs. Dairy Queen has a Bacon Cheeseburger $5 meal that includes a small sundae. Carl’s Jr. stuffs two sandwiches in its $5 bag. Franchisees aren’t thrilled with these bargain meals because the profit margins are thinner than ham slices at Subway, but they do drive customers to the drive-thru.

2. More kiosks, where customers can order before they reach the counter
Look for “adult playgrounds” with video games, free Internet, and other bells and whistles to improve the in-store “dining experience.” Here’s a tip: restaurants need to have three televisions: one tuned to Fox News, one tuned to CNN, and a third showing sports, for customers sick of the blather on Fox News and CNN.

3. Healthier choices
Why do fast food restaurants even bother? Customer in Hooters: “How are your salads?” Hooters Girl: “We have salads?” Remember when Minute Maid Park, home of the “WORLD SERIES CHAMPION HOUSTON ASTROS” had veggie hot dogs? They struck out. 

4. More exotic drink selections
QSR Magazine says watch for charcoal lemonade, turmeric carrot juice, green tea variations, and blood orange drinks. Let’s see, what pairs with a Whopper? I know, Coke! I am liking the Coke Freestyle machines, where I hit Coke Zero with Lemon.

5. Black food
Menu items made with activated charcoal will gain in popularity. Didn’t Burger King try black burger buns a couple of years ago? I am not making this up — customers said the King’s black buns turned their poop green. You can’t buy publicity like that. Charmin is still thanking Burger King.  

6. Pretty food
As more and more people take and post photos of their meal on social media, fast food restaurants will make their food more camera-ready. Your double bacon burger might not look like the picture on the menu board. Remember that scene in Falling Down, where Michael Douglas shoots up a fast food restaurant? He ordered a “plump and juicy and 3-inches thick” Whammy burger, but got a “sorry, miserable, squashed thing?” Sort of an over-reaction. (Welcome to my world, crazy person.)

7. I’ll have what she’s having
Jewish deli food is set to make drive-thru inroads across the country. Look for pastrami, corned beef, Reubens, blintzes, and latkes. Some chains, like Arby’s and Subway, have already tried deli sandwiches. Kenny & Ziggy’s has nothing to worry about.

8. Contrasting flavors
I have no idea what this means. Maybe ordering half-regular, half-spicy at Church’s Chicken? QSR gives McAlister’s Jalapeno Turkey Crunch and Verde Chicken Sandwich as examples. My McAlister’s needs are well met by their terrific Horseradish Roast Beef and Cheddar Sandwich, thank you.

9. Faster!
Restaurants will up their speed game. Because who can wait to dig into the same Wendy’s Baconator you’ve had 25 days in a row?