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Fast food used to be about burgers. Then, salads got hot. Now, something unexpected might be fast food's next growth engine: fruit.
Fast food is embracing fast fruit.
McDonald's buys more apples than any other restaurant chain. Wendy's is testing a fruit bowl entree. Arby's chops apples into chicken salads.
But will folks go as gaga for fruit as they have for salads? In a world of increasingly nutrition-conscious consumers, many top names in fast food think so. Almost every major chain has some sort of new fruit salad or fruit side on the menu, in test or in planning.
Fresh fruit presents special problems. It has a short shelf life, is costly to store and requires refrigeration. Special packaging is needed to let nitrogen out, but keep air from getting in.
But consumers want it. Convenient fresh-cut fruit has ballooned into a $3.8 billion business at supermarkets. The fast-foodies want a piece of that.
''How we feel about ourselves is linked to what we eat,'' says Jeff Davis, a consultant at SandelmanEdge.com, which tracks consumer feedback on restaurants. ''You can get a kid to eat fruit before you can get him to eat a carrot.''
Here's how fruit is being packaged:
* In fresh fruit entrees. Some 184 Wendy's in Pittsburgh, Virginia Beach and Portland are testing fruit bowl entrees with cantaloupe, honeydew, pineapple and grapes. The salad, at up to $4.29, includes low-fat strawberry dipping sauce and romaine lettuce.
''People are looking for fresh, tasty, natural options,'' says spokesman Bob Bertini. If the fruit salad is a hit, it could go national next year.
* In fresh fruit sides. McDonald's has been testing Fruit n Walnut Salads in Southern California since summer. The $2.99 salads include sliced apples, red grapes, walnuts and low-fat yogurt.
''We're very encouraged by sales,'' says spokeswoman Lisa Howard. But she didn't say when the salads might roll out nationally.
McDonald's was among the first to offer a fresh fruit snack when its Apple Dippers -- sliced apples with caramel sauce -- were introduced this summer. They are also sold as substitutes for fries in Happy Meals.
Chick-fil-A, which began to sell fresh fruit sides this summer, has begun selling them at breakfast. ''It's bringing in customers who never came before,'' says Woody Faulk, brand development chief.
Wendy's offers mandarin oranges in kids meals and a la carte.
* Into applesauce cups. Jack in the Box began putting Mott's applesauce into kids meals this month.
Burger King next week will begin to sell Mott's strawberry-flavored applesauce as an a la carte item and as kid meal substitutes. About one in 10 customers substituted applesauce for fries in test marketing, says Denny Post, chief concept officer at Burger King.
Nutritionists are on board, too. ''It matches the consumer mood,'' says Richard Kowal, a New York nutritionist. ''At least there's a choice.''
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