Four major trends and stories topped the year in chain restaurants:
1. Bread has gotten fancier. Wendy's had enough confidence in its pretzel bun to move its pretzel bacon cheeseburger to its permanent menu in August. Now Wendy's is hoping to replicate its pretzel success with brioche buns. Pizza Hut also added a pretzel crust to its menu in November, one of 10 new flavors.
2. Sriracha, the southeast Asian garlic hot sauce, is the new chipotle. The past year saw chain restaurants from Pizza Hut to White Castle incorporate Sriracha into its menu (Subway briefly brought in the sauce in late 2013).
3. Aiming its sights at McDonald's, Taco Bell launched a full breakfast menu. The campaign has already proved successful — same store sales increased 2 percent between first and second quarter of 2014 on the strength of items like its A.M. Crunchwrap and Waffle Taco, according to Ad Age.
4. The minimum wage debate ramped up in 2014, with fast food workers becoming the face of the issue. In September, fast food employees in dozens of cities walked off the job in support of raising the minimum wage to $15 (the current national minimum wage is $7.25). Most restaurant chains are against the idea, saying the added labor costs would depress business and force job cuts. This past Election Day, voters in five states voted to raise the minimum wage.
Our favorite fast food we tried in 2014
Our take: An outstanding, smoky bacon cheeseburger. The chopped cherry peppers adds a piquant vinegary zing, and the periphery of the beef patties verge on crunch from the flat top char. It checks off all my requirements of a satisfying burger, with a fluffy egg bun embracing the rich, smoky, spicy, tangy, crisp amalgam.
Nutritional: 575 calories 36 g fat, 1500 mg sodium
Pret A Manger
Albacore tuna salad
Our take: One of the better versions of tuna salads we've encountered. Love the crunchy snap of cucumbers and romaine lettuce. As prim and proper as a tea sandwich. Tuna salad goes light on the mayo. Accounts for higher fat and caloric levels but lower sodium than other sandwiches.
Nutritional: 450 calories, 28 g fat, 370 mg sodium
Slow-roasted ham & Swiss breakfast sandwich
Our take: Ham has an aged character, croissant discus arrives warm, flaky and crisp. Calories and fat on the high end, but so are most tasty sandwiches. Almost as good as the reigning king of chain restaurant sandwiches: McDonald's sausage McMuffin with egg.
Nutritional: 490 calories, 25 g fat, 830 mg sodium