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'Combo meals' are a hit at fast food burger restaurants - hamburger chains take a bite out of the pizza market.

The value menus adopted by several fast food hamburger chains seem to have succeeded with a bargain-hungry public, especially at dinner, according to data just released by the National Restaurant Association.

Also known as "combo meals," the special menu offerings usually consist of a larger burger, french fries and a soft drink, all of which have experienced strong growth in orders.

Following three consecutive years of decline, orders for large hamburgers and large cheeseburgers increased 6 percent and 14 percent, respectively, in 1992 compared with 1991. In contrast, orders for regular hamburgers declined 4 percent, while orders for regular cheeseburgers were up, but only by 4 percent.

After virtually no growth in 1991, orders for french fries increased 5 percent in 1992. Carbonated soft drinks also enjoyed a rebound in orders, rising 6 percent in 1992 -- double the 3 percent gain posted in 1991 and following several years of even more moderate growth.

"The numbers clearly indicate that American fast food consumers are just as preoccupied now with a strong price-value relationship as they were in the midst of the recession," commented Stephen E. Elmont, president of the National Restaurant Association.

A less-than-robust economic recovery means that consumers want to feel they are getting more than ever for their dining out dollar. When a deluxe burger can be had for a special price, complete with beverage and fries, standard fare seems skimpy by comparison," Elmont said.

Viewed in terms of relative market share rather than by growth in orders, it is no surprise that the components that make up a value meal remain the top-selling menu items in the fast food industry. Overall, restaurants in the hamburger category account for 35 percent of traffic in the quickservice segment, according to Consumer Reports on Eating Share Trends (CREST).

As for specific menu items, hamburgers and cheeseburgers (large and regular) were eaten on 21 percent of quickservice eater occasions in 1992, while french fries accounted for one out of five occasions. Carbonated soft drinks were overwhelmingly the beverage of choice, ordered on 36 percent of quickservice eater occasions that year.

Pizza Paying the Price?

The apparent success of the "combo meal" strategy implemented by hamburger chains, coupled with their aggressive pursuit of the dinner market, seems to have come partially at the expense of the pizza segment of the fast food industry.

Pizza places, which account for 20 percent of quickservice traffic and have consistently outperformed other categories of fast food restaurants in recent years, did not fare as well in 1992. Customer counts (including orders for home delivery and takeout) were up only 1 percent in 1992, following gains of 5 percent in 1989 and 3 percent in both 1990 and 1991.

In addition, traffic for the critical dinner meal -- which accounts for nearly three quarters of total customer transactions at quickservice pizza places -- rose just 1 percent in 1992, following increases of 3 percent in 1991 and 7 percent in 1990.

By contrast, customer counts a quickservice hamburger restaurants posted an overall 3 percent gain in 1992, fueled largely by a rebound in the dinner market, a day-part for which the "combo meal" is ideally suited. Dinner traffic at quickservice hamburger establishments jumped 7 percent in 1992, following small declines in 1989 and 1990 and only a modest 2 percent rise in 1991.

In an effort to enhance perceived value and broaden their appeal for the dinner meal, the major pizza chains quickly added bigger pizzas to their menus. TIME recently pictured an example of one of the new mega-pies super-imposed over a shot of a toddler, describing the new effort as "a pizza a boy can hide behind."

What's next: The Egg Roll That Ate Albuquerque?
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Title Annotation:special menu of burger, french fries and soft drink
Publication:Frozen Food Digest
Date:Oct 1, 1993
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