5 Weird Foreign Fast Food Items That Companies Should Bring to America

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) --  McDonald's (MCD), Starbucks (SBUX),  Yum! Brands (YUM) and other fast-food giants may be overlooking one big opportunity to light a fire under their U.S. sales.

That is, taking advantage of their often eclectic menus of fast food served overseas, where patrons tend to be more accepting of unusual new sandwiches and side dishes. At least one fast food chain with a big international presence may have realized the sales potential of sourcing new products from abroad.

On Wednesday, Pizza Hut announced that beginning on June 18, one of its large one-topping pizzas will feature 28 hot dog bites baked into the crust that can be pulled off and shared. The pizza was inspired by similar products sold in the Middle East, Japan and the U.K.

"We create a lot of pizza all around the world, and sometimes they cross the pond and get attention here -- no pizza has been requested more by fans here in the U.S. than the hot dog pizza," said Pizza Hut spokesman Doug Terfehr in an interview. Terfehr added, "Outside the U.S., people love this idea of American foods, and they are willing to mash those up and try those things together."

For some of the largest fast food chains in the world, importing an unusual sandwich or item from abroad would make all sorts of sense from sales and marketing standpoints. U.S. diners seem to have grown bored with McDonald's (MCD) Big Macs and run-of-the mill deep dish pizzas at Yum! Brands (YUM) Pizza Hut. Consequently, sales have stagnated in the U.S. for many of the largest fast-food chains.

At McDonald's, U.S. same-restaurant seal declined 2.1% last year, and have continued to decline in 2015, due in large part to a lack of interesting new foods on the menu. Although Wendy's (WEN) and Burger King (QSR) have outperformed the struggling Golden Arches amid several limited-time sandwiches, sales at each chain in 2014 weren't anything to write home about.

Wendy's and Burger King saw U.S. same-restaurant sales gains of 2.3% and 2.1%, respectively, in 2014. But fast-growing fast causal chains such as Shake Shack (SHAK) and Chipotle (CMG) continue to delight U.S. diners with more interesting offerings, which keeps them hooked and visiting frequently through the week. Same-restaurant sales for Shake Shack and Chipotle increased 4.1% and 16.8%, respectively last year.

TheStreet takes a look at five seemingly offbeat fast foods from abroad that with a tweak here and there, could get people in the U.S. talking. And, more importantly for the fast food chains, spending. The list concludes with the one product that would bring the biggest challenge operationally to the fast food company, but potentially the biggest reward.

1. Starbucks Chocolate Brownie Matcha Green Tea Frappuccino

Currently sold in:

Product description: Matcha green tea-flavored frappuccino base blended with chocolate chips, topped with soft brownie chunk sprinkles and whipped cream

According to an annual report by the Tea Association of the USA, the wholesale value of tea sold in the U.S. rose from about $2 billion in 1990 to more than $10 billion in 2014. Green tea has a smaller market share than black tea, but the popular matcha -- finely ground green tea leaves--  is growing in popularity due to its high caffeine content and intense flavor. And, let's face it, matcha won't make your teeth brown like coffee. 

Matcha has a long history: it was first consumed during China's Tang dynasty, and later was brought to Japan by priests and monks.

Interestingly, Starbucks' Teavana division, which it bought for $620 million in 2012, sells matcha tea in powdered form. But Starbucks has not been very aggressive in expanding it into its pricey iced fraps to capitalize on the nation's growing matcha infatuation. Currently, Starbucks only sells a "Green Tea Crème Frappuccino Blended Crème" and while matcha is not used in the drink's name, it is listed as an ingredient.

Last year, Yum! Brands' Taco Bell introduced its AM Crunchwrap, a breakfast item stuffed with, among other things, a hash brown. The Mexican-cuisine chain's sales during breakfast have since taken off, quickly rising to about 6% of the brand's total business. And for a limited-time last year, KFC sold the "Hashbown Double" consisting of bacon, two slices of cheese and a hash brown between two chicken breast fillets.

Consumers love the oily, crispy hash brown, so why not add one to Burger King's signature Whopper?

The U.K.'s Crunchy BBQ Whopper is essentially that, with a "rosti" potato pancake in the middle. It's a more elegant solution than Burger King's somewhat silly French Fry Burger, and would give Burger King a unique item its rivals lack. 

3. Pizza Hut Crown Crust Carnival

Currently sold in:
Middle East; Japan; U.K.

Product description: Crusts with pockets filled with either mini-hamburgers or small chicken balls

"We have a history of innovating," said Terfehr when asked how the "Hot Dog Bites Pizza" came about. He wasn't kidding.

In the Middle East, Pizza Hut's Crown Crust Carnival series is a true party pleaser. It consists of traditional pizza and socially shareable fried goodies held in pockets on the crust.

If the "Hot Dog Bites Pizza" proves popular in the U.S. this summer, Pizza Hut could very well make crust mashups a permanent product platform by importing the Crown Crust Carnival options from overseas.

. Dunkin Donuts "Shake Shake Bites"

Currently sold in: China

Product description: Salty munchkins available in three flavors: Spicy, roasted, and pizza

Dunkin Donuts debuted the popular donut hole Munchkins in 1972. Depending on the location, though, they are only available in six standard flavors: glazed, glazed chocolate, jelly, powdered sugar, cinnamon, or sugar raised.

Dunkin Donuts has shown a growing willingness to branch out into new foods and flavors recently, such as steak on a bagel and the buzzy croissant donut. Sales have gotten a lift from the new, more interesting round of products. U.S. same-restaurant sales rose 1.4% in 2014, and accelerated to a 2.7% growth rate in the first quarter of this year.

Three new flavors of Munchkins now available in China would cater to a growing acceptance by Americans for mixing sweet and savory flavors, such as bacon with donuts or even bacon shakes.


Formerly sold:
Austria (2012)

Product description: Stir-fry bowl with noodles and vegetables, two flavor options

Introducing noodle bowls would be a bold leap for burger giant McDonald's. Its kitchens are set up for speed, and it takes time to correctly prepare noodles. But serving noodle bowls could be the bold move that addresses two emerging trends in the fast food business, and help lift McDonald's flagging U.S. sales.

The first trend a love affair with fast food noodles. Take a look at Noodles & Co. (NDLS), which has built an entire business model, and successful IPO in 2013, on selling bowls of noodles. Comparable restaurant sales rose 0.9% for Noodles & Co. in the first quarter of the year vs. a 2.6% drop at McDonald's U.S.

In January, Panera Bread (PNRA) unveiled four variations of broth bowls, two of which feature noodles and other Asian inspired ingredients. System wide same-restaurant sales for Panera Bread rose 0.7% in the first quarter, supported by sales of its new broth bowls.

The second emerging trend is that of millennials favoring fast food of all kinds inside of bowls, for convenience and perhaps cleanliness. In addition to Chipotle continuing to have success with its salad and burrito bowls, KFC's "$5 fill-up" bowls have been instrumental in reviving the chain's U.S. sales. First quarter sales for KFC surged by 7%.

McNoodle bowls with grilled artisan chicken bites, anyone?

This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held no positions in the stocks mentioned.

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