McDonalds Fries Sleeve - ©

‘Limp, Listless’ Fries Challenge Resto Industry

Ever notice how the fries in your delivery or take-out food order start out fresh, hot and crispy at the restaurant but turn limp, soggy and even slimy by the time you get them home? It’s been an eternal challenge for Fast Food purveyors, and now it’s become even more serious…

Mounds of fries: The cheapest thing you can put on a plate…

Something we all take for granted – the fries –  can make or break a take-out or delivery meal. To be more accurate, I should probably say we don’t notice them until they really fail catastrophically on the way home from the resto.

While the Fast Food guys have methodically conquered the they confronted developing their food prep, packaging and handling protocols over the years, the age-old problem of soggy fries continues to confound operators across the map. And the issue is growing in importance as more people are relying on takeout and delivery foods due largely to the current pandemic.

Takeout soars in popularity

“Delivery orders at U.S. restaurants were 154 percent higher in January 2021 than they were a year earlier,” data analytics firm The NPD Group/CREST recently told Reuters. “Delivery comprised 12 percent of all restaurant orders in January 2021, versus just 5 percent a year prior. A chicken-fingers-and-fries combo was the top food item ordered for delivery in 2020 by third-party delivery service DoorDash Inc.”

With the take-out and delivery segment of the all-rest sales picture soaring, resto operators are naturally looking for a way to keep their fries fresher longer. “Tweaking their recipes, trying different additives, formulations, cooking techniques and temperatures,” a new Reuters story says. And those of us with backgrounds in the resto biz along with other keen-eyed folks have seen indications of this effort. One of the most visible thus far has been the addition of a special batter-like coating to regular fries that’s designed to protect outer crispiness and combat the development of inner sogginess.

A practical example

Potato processor Lamb Weston Holdings Inc., has been selling frozen, ‘Crispy on Delivery’ fries to major chains such as McDonald’s and KFC-owner Yum Brands Inc. since late 2018. It’s currently one of the leading brands using a ‘special coating’ approach. They call it a ‘revolutionary coating’. The company told Reuters it has seen restaurants’ demand for the product quadruple in the three months to Jan. 31 of this year from a year earlier.

Does the ‘special coating’ approach work? Yes. I’d have to say I see a major improvement in fries processed that way. Others I’ve discussed the issue with tend to agree. But, as with all good things, there’s a catch.

Cost versus benefits

There’s an old foodservice rule of thumb that says Potatoes (in whatever form) are the cheapest food item you can put on a plate. That’s why you get huge mounds of fries underneath your burgers, fried fish and other combo menu items both in-resto and with takeout / delivery orders. The resto guys want to look like they’re being ‘generous’.

But now, with resto operators testing and implementing new ways to enhance the esthetics of their fries, their cost to serve fries is quickly rising, too. There’s been little impact on the retail price of dishes with fries aside thus far, because most of the work has been done in small-market ‘test’ circumstances. But, while a 30-pound box of the cheapest french-fries can run about $12 to $15 wholesale to restaurants, according to Barry Friends, a partner at food industry consultant Pentallect, top tier fries made with drier, higher-quality potatoes and sealants can run up to $45 a box. And cost increases like that have to come home to roost somewhere close to your wallet, at some point.

How would you react? Stop ordering fries? How high would the price of fries have to go before you were stirred to action?

My take

I predict that resto operators will flock to the potato producers who come up with the best solution to the ‘staying crispy’ problem regardless and just pass along the cost, or a major part of it, to customers. It seems bizarre, but as the resto people have in the past, they’ll probably spend small fortunes promoting their new, ultra-crispy fries to customers along with the cost of the promo campaigns to ‘sell’ the whole idea.

The question remains: How much of the cost increase of ‘improved’ fries would resto operators download to consumers? What with the added costs of COVID-19 sanitation and service protocol changes mandated in the face of the pandemic, and the outrageous ‘fees’ and ‘premiums’ being charged by delivery companies for transporting orders from resto to home, one assumes that they would not pile on tripled wholesale costs for fries on top of that. But how far would they go? How much would you, as a customer, put up with?

~ Maggie J.