Fast-Casual Restaurants Roll Out Holiday Menu Items

Let the peppermint parade begin: Fast-casual restaurants are hoping favorite holiday flavors will tempt consumers this winter. And this year, the chocolate-mint cookies, mochas and shakes are joined on seasonal menus by savory limited-edition breakfast sandwiches, indulgent baked pastas and assorted layered-flavor treats.

As we’ve discussed before, seasonal menus offer an ideal opportunity for operators to test new menu platforms or ingredients. And at the holidays, fast-casual restaurants can build on their positioning as a destination for better-quality, better-tasting limited-service fare by highlighting original takes on winter favorites.

Take the new Fontina Grilled Cheese Sandwich from Panera Bread. Grilled cheese is a cold-weather classic, but rather than rolling out a version with a standard blend of three or four hard cheeses, Panera called upon one of its signature menu items, reduced-fat chive-and-onion cream-cheese spread, to provide a bit of grilled-cheese differentiation. The Fontina Grilled Cheese pairs the flavorful cream-cheese spread with Vermont white cheddar, fontina and an Italian four-cheese blend; the cheeses are “melted to perfection,” according to Panera, on all-natural miche, a traditional French bread.

At Vancouver, WA-based Burgerville—long known for incorporating regional produce into seasonal menu items—the holiday selections this winter include de rigueur chocolate-peppermint and egg-nog milkshakes. But there’s also a signature Timber Joey shake, named for the Portland Timbers Major League Soccer team, that features Oreo cookies and mint. It’s enough of a twist on the traditional chocolate-mint formula to help the shake stand out from similar offerings, and the MLS tie-in lets the regional chain play up its local roots. (Also worth noting: 24% of consumers polled earlier this year for Technomic’s Dessert Consumer Trend Report said that at restaurants, they like to purchase desserts made with name-brand ingredients, e.g. Oreos.)

Finally, up-and-coming fast-casual pizza concept 800 Degrees is offering an eye-catching and out-of-the-ordinary take on a seasonal pie: The Los Angeles-based chain’s Cavolini di Bruxelles is topped with fresh in-season persimmons (a sweet and slightly tangy fruit), Brussels sprouts and cooked prosciutto.

The new seasonal selections from fast-casual concepts are wide-ranging, spanning classic baked goods as well as entrées that spotlight winter-friendly produce (such as mushrooms). A small sample of the holiday offerings:

Einstein Bros. Bagels

  • Cinnamon Toast Egg Panini: egg, bacon, melted cheddar and a cinnamon-butter blend grilled on a cinnamon-raisin bagel
  • Cinnamon Caramel Latte: flavored with cinnamon and caramel and topped with whipped cream and a caramel drizzle
  • Cookie Crumble Latte: topped with whipped cream and a snickerdoodle cookie

Au Bon Pain

  • Chicken, Mushroom and Swiss Sandwich: all-natural chicken, spinach, Swiss cheese, sauteed mushrooms and tomato spread on the chain’s new sprouted grain roll
  • Egg White and Mushroom Frittata Breakfast Sandwich: egg whites, sauteed mushrooms, spinach and cheddar on the chain’s new sprouted grain roll
  • Peppermint Chocolate Shortbread: chocolate-dipped shortbread sprinkled with peppermint topping

Pie Five

  • Peppermint Brownie: rich chocolate brownie packed with chocolate chips and a hint of peppermint, topped with a peppermint drizzle

Pret A Manger

  • Holiday Cranberry and Goat Cheese Sandwich: goat-cheese spread, nut roast stuffing, cranberry sauce and spinach on granary bread (vegetarian selection)
  • Holiday Ham & Fig Chutney Sandwich: Niman Ranch applewood-smoked ham, fig-almond chutney, sweet potato, toasted almonds and mesclun on an artisan baguette
  • Holiday Fig & Almond Pot: fig-almond spread, almonds and dried berries with Greek yogurt

Panera Bread

  • Chicken Tortellini Alfredo: blend of ricotta, Swiss and Romano cheeses in Alfredo sauce, topped with smoked, pulled antibiotic-free chicken and Asiago-Parmesan sauce
  • Country Style Mushroom with Truffle Soup: made from tender white mushrooms, onions and tomatoes simmered with cream and then flavored with truffle, shallot purée and red wine
  • Hot Chocolate with Chocolate Chip Marshmallows: made with premium dark chocolate, Madagascar bourbon vanilla and steamed milk, topped with whipped cream, chocolate-chip marshmallows and a drizzle of salted-caramel sauce

From sandwiches that incorporate favorite holiday flavors to hot beverages taking decadence to new heights, fast-casual holiday eats aim to hit the sweet spot of comfort-food craveability. Layered flavors—whether in the form of a half-dozen cheeses or caramel combined with cinnamon or chocolate—can provide points of differentiation for seasonal menu selections that will entice diners to not just try new items, but find reasons to treat themselves again and again.

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Christine LaFave Grace

Christine LaFave Grace writes for and produces Technomic's Trends & Directions e-newsletters. She joined Technomic in 2013 as an associate editor. Her previous roles include assistant digital editor for Crain Communications’ Modern Healthcare magazine and associate editor at Reed Business Information’s Restaurants & Institutions magazine.

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