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Sweetgreen may boast a reported $1 billion valuation—and a devoted crowd willing to wait in long lines for a bespoke salad—but it and other, newer chains are still fighting to break through the stranglehold traditional fast food has on our lunchtime habits, new research finds.

In a survey on Gen-Z spending habits released Tuesdayinvestment researcher Piper Jaffray found teens’ most-preferred restaurant brands were Chick-fil-A, Starbucks and Chipotle, all chains that are over two decades old (Chick-fil-A is 73 years old). The top 10 restaurant chains in the U.S. by sales in 2018 were all quick-service or fast-casual joints more than 30 years old, with familiar names like McDonald’s, Subway and Taco Bell topping the list, according to a report by food service industry tracker Technomic.

While last century’s favorites have the lead, Sweetgreen and other, newer restaurants emphasizing customization and health are gaining traction. Lizzy Freier, senior managing editor at Technomic who analyses menu trends, found a nearly 7% increase in the appearance of entree bowls on menus in the past year. Technomic’s five fastest-growing fast-casual chains—CoreLife Eatery, Cava Grill, Halal Guys, Poke Bar, and MOD Pizza—are more Sweetgreen than Burger King, all to some degree founded on a healthy, build-your-own premise. Still, legacy chains like Chick-fil-A, Jersey Mike’s and Panda Express all enjoyed double-digit growth in 2018.

“These new bowl-based companies—they’re awesome. They have great sales. They’re growing,” says Piper Jaffray senior research analyst Nicole Miller Regan, who covers publicly traded restaurant companies. But, she adds, “McDonald’s will not fail as they succeed.”

Peter Venti, director of operations at food service consultancy Real Food Consulting, says older franchises maintain their lead, in part, because newer restaurants may capture fleeting fads, like poke, instead of fundamental shifts in the food service industry.

Dan Levitan, founding partner at venture capital firm Maveron, invested last year in Spyce, which offers customizable ethnic cuisine in bowls. He says he put down capital because Spyce offered a compelling consumer experience and not because it tapped into a buzzy trend.

“Bowls for the sake of bowls, I’m not interested in. Consumer tastes change,” Levitan says. “We try to invest in things where we feel that there are tailwinds rather than headwinds. You’re seeing all sorts of indications that eating healthier and convenience are two trends dominating the success of the restaurant world today.”

This may be where legacy chains hold the upper hand. Rather than chase trends, they can rely on their already well-known brand identities. Venti says newer chains, like Cava and Sweetgreen, have to buy expensive real estate in urban areas just to be considered by the customers they seek, whereas legacy chains like McDonald’s already have dozens of locations and a loyal following.

Older restaurants still have to adapt. Jimmy John’s announced Tuesday it was launching a smaller, lower-calorie $3 version of its original sandwiches. The chain already offers the “unwich,” a sandwich with lettuce as the encasement instead of bread, which chief marketing officer John Shea says is one of the fastest-growing menu items. Freier notes that growing legacy chains like Chick-fil-A and Jersey Mike’s have made greater commitments to antibiotic-free meats. And many fast-food stalwarts, like Burger King and Dunkin’ Donuts, have begun to offer plant-based meat. Freier says White Castle’s addition of the Impossible burger to their menu may account for the chain’s uptick in sales in 2018.

But for fast food restaurants, trying too hard to keep up with the trends can be more dangerous than missing out. Chipotle experimented with fast-casual spinoffs ShopHouse Asian Kitchen and Tasty Made, which closed in 2017 and 2018, respectively. Similarly, Red Robin opened a fast-casual concept Burger Works that failed to get off the ground, Freier says. If it feels inauthentic for a burger place to start offering salad bowls or for a chain known for its good service to make customers order on digital kiosks—they shouldn’t, Venti says.

“The trap is to say, ‘Here’s where the market’s going, here’s where the consumer demand is, let me change my business,’” Venti says. “If that compromises your strategy and the clarity of your identity and your brand, then you’re screwed.”

Freier says that this clarity of branding is integral to legacy chains’ success. “Chick-fil-A and In-N-Out continue to root themselves in their religious beliefs and have loyal followers because of it,” she stated in an email. “Portillo’s and Culver’s have strong roots and major followings in the Midwest and have extended that Midwest vibe to locations around the country.”

Potbelly Sandwich Shops chief marketing officer Brandon Rhoten says that while the chain has expanded into salads and “skinny,” lower-calorie sandwiches, he is confident their classic subs will continue to resonate.

“[A sandwich is] classic American food at its core, but with the right ingredients so you can always create something new and interesting. We’re working hard now to ensure toasted sandwiches will always be an option for lunch,” Rhoten wrote in an email. “Potbelly has a great menu, but we have to keep top of mind awareness with our customers given the fast casual competitive landscape.”

Source: Burgers Beat Bowls: Why Legacy Fast Food Still Wins Lunch