Whether it’s due to inflation, supply chain issues, or the dog days of summer, lately it seems as though many fast food chains are losing steam when it comes to creativity, and going for more of a “work with what we have” approach. Recently, we noted that many major fast food chains are just throwing leftover shit in a bowl, but it turns out that “throwing everything onto a crust” is an equal and opposite approach to menu innovation. Yes, everywhere you look, some chain is adding a pizza or flatbread to the lineup.
This isn’t to knock pizza or flatbreads as a menu option. It makes sense that fast food restaurants might fall back on an item that they can whip up using ingredients they already have (with the possible exception of the crust itself). But any chain setting its sights on pizza should do so with some caution, because pizza-lovers are not a community to be messed with.
In late 2020, Panera bucked the tradition of its soup/salad/sandwich-based menu and added three flatbreads: Cheese, Margherita, and Chipotle Chicken & Bacon.
For between $8-$11 Panera customers can have a flatbread pizza that includes mozzarella, cilantro, basil, and whatever respective toppings. Since their debut, the flatbreads have done so well at Panera that the brand decided to expand the line by adding pepperoni and a four-cheese blend as options, reported FastCasual.com.
Look closer at the ingredients for these flatbreads and you’ll notice some overlap with items on the rest of Panera’s menu. The Frontega Chicken Sandwich, for example, shares the mozzarella and basil, so the pizzas are not only a way to multiply uses for the same ingredients but also complement the flavor profiles of other offerings.
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According to an email sent to The Takeout, Taco Bell is testing a Cheesy Chipotle Chicken Flatbread at some of its locations in Charlotte, North Carolina. Featuring chicken, chipotle sauce, tortilla strips, onion, and a three-cheese blend, the flatbread will cost $3.99, and customers have the option to add jalapeños. It looks to be about the same size as a Pizza Hut personal pan pizza. (This item is not to be confused with the brand’s popular Mexican Pizza, which is once again a permanent menu item.)
Some might point to the new pizza as an example of Taco Bell’s creativity, considering the brand’s menu is mainly Tex-Mex-inspired, but for better or for worse, I’d say this offering actually blends in with the rest of the menu. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing for consumers. Sure, the flatbread doesn’t exactly stand out among Taco Bell’s wilder creations like the Chicken Sandwich Taco or the Big Cheez-It, but it does allow customers to always have a pizza option wherever they pull up to the drive-thru, and that in itself could make this a valuable addition to the menu.
Also recently enacting the flatbread fallback plan is Buffalo Wild Wings. The sports bar chain recently added two new Boneless Bar Pizzas to the appetizer menu. One of the options features mozzarella, chunks of boneless chicken wings, blue cheese crumbles, Buffalo sauce, ranch dressing, and green onions over a thin crust. The other includes cheddar-jack, mozzarella, boneless honey BBQ wing chunks, bacon bits, pickled peppers, green onions, and Buffalo sauce on thin crust.
Although the offerings aren’t actually called flatbreads, their ingredients, baking technique, and rectangular shape suggest that’s what they really are. And just one glance at the toppings on these pizzas will be enough to convince you that it’s a creative way to repurpose leftover odds and ends in the most profitable way possible.
I’m all for a no-waste kitchen, and if that results in delicious pizza, even better. Brands should just be aware that dabbling in pizza-making is not for the weak. Whether it’s flatbread or not, the pizza-loving community comes with some strong opinions. If a restaurant chain is going to put pizza on its menu, it better be prepared for some very harsh critics.