Restaurants cross lines as they struggle through recession

Menus change with the times

But the new menu items also are about more than bad times. They are also about changing times. Consumer tastes, particularly for better-for-you foods, have evolved in recent years.

No one's more aware of that than KFC. So, last month, the fried chicken chain began undoing the image it's spent years building. It rolled out grilled chicken.

New ads urge consumers to "unthink what you thought about KFC. Taste the unfried side of KFC."

KFC has held nothing back in convincing consumers that fried is yesterday's news. "It's one of the biggest new product rollouts in the history of our company," President Roger Eaton says.

Perhaps it went too big. In a bid to get consumers to try the new chicken, it got Oprah to announce a deal on her TV show for freebie consumer meals. But KFC wasn't prepared for the enormous response. Stores ran out of supply — angering millions of customers.

The chain attempted to make good on its giveaway gone awry with downloadable coupons from its website. But in the end, many customers left empty-handed — and angry. "We didn't project the level of interest that occurred," Eaton says.

But Eaton insists it was worth all the bad press that KFC got over the fowl-up. "There's no one in America right now who doesn't know we're selling grilled chicken," he says.

What's changing at the chains

Other restaurant chains trying to break out of their usual boxes:

•McDonald's is selling designer coffee. It's some stretch from cheap burgers. But the fast-food giant is adjusting to evolving consumer tastes with the rollout this month of McCafe specialty coffee bars in many McDonald's, says Wade Thoma, vice president of U.S. menu management.

Now that espresso-based coffees have achieved "critical mass" with consumers, he says, "It's something we should be offering at McDonald's." That's just the beginning of the chain's beverage plans. It's also testing frappes and smoothies. "We're focused on beverages," he says.

Meanwhile, the burger giant has become a chicken giant. Since adding chicken to its menu four years ago, Thoma notes, "We sell almost as much chicken as beef."

•Pizza Hut is selling pasta. One year after adding pasta to its delivery menu, pasta has become a $500 million business at Pizza Hut, says Brian Niccol, marketing chief. It's on the way to becoming a $1 billion business, he says.

Pasta has been one of Pizza Hut's most successful new products, right up there with Stuffed Crust pizza, he says. It now accounts for slightly under 20% of it sales. While it has siphoned off some pizza sales, it has added to sales early in the week and on Sunday nights, he says.

Instead of insisting that "we're only in the pizza business," Niccol says, Pizza Hut is now asking consumers what they want the chain to sell, and when.

•Domino's is selling subs. The world's largest home-delivery pizza chain last summer started rolling out a line of sub sandwiches. Thanks to that new sub line, marketing chief Weiner says, Domino's posted a slight same-store sales boost in the first quarter.

"The trick is to grow in a place that consumers accept," Weiner says.

Last month, Domino's rolled out five pasta-stuffed bread bowls. Consumers accept that, he says, because the bread bowls are made from the same dough as the pizza.

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