Fulfilling the promise of a fast food brand used to be simple; it had to be fast, and it had to be food. It was really no more complicated than that. In fact, as long as the need for a rapid injection of fat, salt and sugar was fulfilled, quality, provenance and presentation were largely irrelevant (look no further than the late-night kebab for proof).
But consumers are getting more sophisticated and demanding. It's no longer enough to be fast and it's not enough to be just 'food'. Chains such as Byron Burger and Leon are proving that it's possible to turn around the covers while providing quality food and a great experience.
Does this mean that the fast food stalwarts of a Friday night are on the way out? Not necessarily. But if the food part of the equation is proving difficult to bring up to snuff, then the fast part is really going to have to deliver.
In Dominos Pizza's case, they've taken this literally. The company took searing honesty to the next level when it based an ad campaign on just how bad its pizzas are in its 'Our Pizzas Suck' ad. Instead, the pizza delivery company has upped the ante on the 'fast' part and blistering doesn't even begin to cover it.
Making the most of mobile and biometric tech, it's now possible to order a Dominos Pizza just by opening the app. No clicking, no selecting and certainly no tedious card entry. This is just one more in a long line of Dominos tech experiments which include Tweet for a Pizza and talking to Amazon's Echo. It proves that, where convenience is concerned, food is only part of the equation.
The fast food industry has form when it comes to being first on the innovation bandwagon. Visa chose McDonalds and the London 2012 Olympics as the perfect testbed for contactless payments. Until that point, the whole idea of contactless payments had been viewed with some skepticism by consumers but the ability to fly through queues in one of the busiest sporting events in the world was a compelling use case.
Since then, McDonalds has been working on both the food and the fast. On top of eggs from cage-free hens, removing corn syrup and artificial preservatives the company has been adding kiosks to the centre of its restaurants. It is also introducing ordering by app allowing customers to be served at the table. This solves a number of the experience issues fast food chains face.
First, the menu and number of potential combinations has grown significantly since Big Mac and Fries. Visual cues and direct from listing ordering helps guide customers without the pressure of a harried cashier and hungry customers hopping from one foot to the other in the queue behind.
Next, it opens the potential for McDonald's to grow its revenues, pure and simple. Presented with all the options, the luxury of time to choose them in and tantalising extras that the customer might not have considered, there is ample opportunity to cross and upsell - even for a fast food sandwich.
And it improves consideration in a competitive marketplace stuffed with similar products. While McDonalds' and arch-rival Burger King may be the sandwich version of the Cola wars, the brand that offers the best burger experience wins. Being able to order at the table - as you can with McDonalds' mobile app - removes the uncomfortable five minutes spent circulating the restaurant, tray in hand waiting for places to come free.
Although they have the chance to improve the immediate experience in-store, these innovations aren't all about the customer. Bringing tech into the bricks and mortar environment provides a rich seam of data for the marketers to mine.
Cinnabon in the US was one of the first to innovate using mobile POS (mPOS). It certainly sped up the morning queues for commuters wanting a sticky, sugary hit. But more importantly, it delivered a bunch of customer data back to the business. From that information Cinnabon can fine tune production (essential given the limited shelf life of product), understand peak customer flows and the impact of special offers.
The increased use of AI is another trend hitting convenience. KFC in China is experimenting with ordering by selfie. Still very much in a beta phase it claims to be using recognition technology to understand customers' moods and make recommendations, encouraging exploration and experimentation.
It may seem a triumph of 'just because you can' rather than 'you should' when it comes to using tech in a fast food environment but this may well be the tip of the iceberg. Ordering via the voice interface in Amazon Alexa is becoming much more commonplace and its integration into Ford's on-board telematics system will accelerate this. MasterCard is trialing the concept of selfie pay as the next step in its improved biometric authentication process. And why should this feel so strange, we've been standing in front of things, ordering things for decades. It's just that they used to be a little bit more human.
Digital environments have made it clear to producers that the actual product is only a small part of the equation. It's all about experience. Staying competitive in an experience-driven fast food sector is all about being either faster than fast or foodier than food. And if you can manage to do both then you're on to a winner.