Everyone Is Just Throwing Leftover Shit in a Bowl Now

The problem with the recent "bowl" trend in fast food.

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hand over mac and cheese bowl
Screenshot: YouTube (Fair Use)

Have you ever gotten halfway through ordering a pizza and thought, “I wish I weren’t ordering pizza, but it’s too late now”? Papa Johns has a new menu item to cater to that kind of doubt. Papa Bowls are essentially a pile of pizza toppings, sans crust, tossed into a bowl and baked off. I’m talking cheese, veggies, meat, seasonings, and sauce for $7.99 a pop. How has it come to this?

Far too many fast food releases lately consist of stuff thoughtlessly thrown in a bowl. And these “bowls” always make us feel like we’re being fed leftovers.

KFC recently re-released a limited-time-only mac and cheese bowl that’s merely a helping of their mac and cheese with popcorn chicken sprinkled on top—plus shredded cheese, for some reason. (We questioned this idea back when it first debuted, since the combo could really benefit from some gravy.) This, of course, is in addition to KFC’s Famous Bowl, which is a layering of mashed potatoes, popcorn chicken, corn, gravy, and shredded cheese.

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Subway’s got its hilariously named No Bready Bowls, which feature sandwich guts in a bowl, and Portillo’s continues to sell beef bowls, which are just... bowls of meat. Are people ordering these things?

Papa Johns Papa Bowls product shot
Image: Papa Johns
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Fast food bowls feel like an insult to my intelligence. I’m no genius, but taking away a central feature from a longtime menu item and slapping the remaining ingredients in a bowl isn’t fooling me. Eating it from a personal slop tub doesn’t make me feel better about my choices. If I wanted a depression meal I’d finally open that ancient can of baked beans in the back of my pantry and throw some hot dogs and an egg on top, tears optional. Seeing everything piled up in disposable tableware makes me feel like I’m being fed scraps from the bottom of a hotel pan.

I acknowledge the fact that some of these bowls accommodate specific diets, such as the keto diet, by including only meat, low-carb veggies, and cheese. But how just many people are on keto, exactly? At least give it a new sauce, to make it feel less like you’re eating something incomplete. Shit, a sprinkling of a fresh herbs or even lemon juice might even do it. Anything to make it seem like a composed item in its own right. Is anyone excited about the contents of a Subway sandwich minus the bread (and excited enough to make a trip to Subway for it)?

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Some fast food restaurants manage to use the same old roster of ingredients to great effect. We talk about Taco Bell quite a bit (and no, we’re not secretly sponsored, sorry to disappoint), because it has nailed down a formula to make the same rotation of ingredients feel continually new and exciting. Taco Bell plays with the way its food is shaped—which goes a long way, because we’re all overgrown children—and tests infinite sauce combinations, and there’s usually at least one aspect of its limited-time-only releases that’s brand new. Unless it’s to accommodate something particularly messy, like Rattlesnake Fries, we don’t get bowls from the Bell.

I realize that novelty item R&D takes time and money. But it also demonstrates that customers are worth innovating for. Come on, global food corporations, you’re worth billions of bucks. Try to make us feel like we’re worth a unique $8 creation. I’m looking at you, Papa Johns.

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