Restaurant chains that want to let diners customize their meals -- but balk at upending their kitchens -- have found the answer: sauce.
Buffalo Wild Wings is introducing a wing sauce made with Mountain Dew this year, and Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen is coming out with a red hot honey sauce in October. Chick-fil-A, meanwhile, will soon be testing a spicy sauce and updating its older varieties. KFC also recently added a signature sauce based on the secret recipe of its chicken seasoning.
Restaurants are struggling to appeal to younger customers who've grown up on bolder flavors and prefer to tailor meals to their own tastes. Sauces give restaurants a way to accomplish both goals without the complexity and hassle of adding entirely new menu items.
"Customers want more options," said Amanda Norris, senior director of product development at Chick-fil-A. "They certainly want more flavors, so we're trying to respond to that."
That's why the chain is testing sweet-and-spicy sriracha sauce, a tangy variety with chili peppers, as well as bolder versions of its classic ranch, barbecue and buffalo in parts of Florida and Alabama this year. The Atlanta-based company plans to introduce new sauces next year to its 1,900 stores nationwide.
Fast-food chains are desperate to keep American consumers from defecting to fast-casual rivals, which typically allow diners to customize their meals. So far, the upstarts are winning. Sales at fast-casual chains such as Chipotle Mexican Grill jumped 13% last year, while those at fast-food and casual-dining restaurants rose just 2.6% and 3.6%, respectively, according to research firm Technomic.
New condiments may give fast-food and sit-down brands a chance to fight back and lure Millennials and Gen Zers who want to build meals based on personal tastes.
"I definitely think it will drive traffic," said Michael Halen, a Bloomberg Intelligence analyst. "Will it take share from Chipotle and Shake Shack? I'm not sure."
KFC's new signature Finger Lickin' Good sauce, introduced in May, is helping sales at the chain owned by Yum! Brands Inc. Sales of its $5 meals are up 15% since KFC introduced the dip, which is made with the same 11 herbs and spices in its secret-recipe chicken.
"Young people are growing up with flavor profiles and an expectation that things are not bland," KFC U.S. Chief Marketing Officer Kevin Hochman said. "It's a lot more than just the chicken. You also have to have a sauce that wins."
Yum Brands' Pizza Hut chain also is using sauces to help boost sales. Pizza Hut, whose second-quarter same-store sales were flat, started a limited-time-offer pizza in April that's cut into 24 strips and comes with four dips. It also recently bolstered its menu with drizzles, such as balsamic and honey sriracha.
Casual-dining chains are experimenting too. Buffalo Wild Wings, which has 21 sauces, is adding two more -- ghost pepper and bourbon honey mustard -- to its permanent menu in November. It's also planning to sell a zesty citrus variety made with Mountain Dew, lemongrass, ginger, red peppers and soy sauce. That version will be available for a limited time starting before the Citrus Bowl football game.
Next year, the wing seller is looking to Mediterranean and Middle Eastern flavors for inspiration. There's even talk of making a sauce with Trinidad Moruga Scorpion peppers -- labeled the world's hottest chili pepper by researchers at New Mexico State University in 2012 -- to lure those seeking extreme spice.
"There is a really unique group of people out there that are really looking for lots of heat," said Todd Kronebusch, VP-innovation at Buffalo Wild Wings. The chain refers to them as "hotheads," he said.
Adding sauces also is easier and cheaper than creating new food items. It doesn't slow down kitchens or service times.
"It's not complicated," Popeyes Chief Executive Officer Cheryl Bachelder said. "It's one of the easier ways to offer variety because there's no preparation."
Popeyes, which has eight signature sauces, will start selling a red-hot honey sauce paired with wild-pepper tenderloin chicken in October. It also recently offered a new habanero ranch sauce for a limited time.
Diners often asked for more than one to go with their food, she said. The chain usually gives customers one or two sauces for free -- after that, they're 25 cents each.
"The customer loves to experiment," Ms. Bachelder said. "The excitement is in the sauce."