Move To These Cities If You Want To Be The First To Try The Newest Fast Food

Fast food restaurants need to see how new dishes do before unleashing them on all their customers. This venture usually takes one of two forms. The first: test kitchens, which can be either open to the public or closed for invite-only tastings. Then there are test markets, where restaurants function as early adopters to see how customers respond to a new dish in the wild. In that model, new products may be available in one location or a few, and they may be available indefinitely or for a limited time. Either way, the idea of being among the first to try a new recipe is exciting to many diners.

Those who are really into novel fast food can either wait and see if anything shows up where they live, or they can travel to one of the cities that fast food companies tend to test in. If someone is determined to be at the front of the line for these goodies and has to move anyway, then heading to one of these test cities starts to sound like a serious goal. 

However, test markets for fast food vary from chain to chain, so living in one of these regions doesn't guarantee you'll get to try a new dish before it goes national. But if you want to end up in a place where your food dreams stand the best chance of being fulfilled, take a look at these lucky cities that often get the latest fast food innovations.

Columbus, Toledo, and Dayton, Ohio: Multiple chains

Likely the hottest spot for finding new fast food items, at least east of the Rockies, is in Ohio. Columbus, especially, seems to get all the new fast food before anyone else. Other Ohio cities like Toledo and Dayton have also joined Columbus in the fast food world's pantheon of test cities, but Columbus is still the top place to go. The corporate reasoning is that the city's demographics reflect those of the nation at large, giving fast food restaurants a smaller, more manageable market in which to try out new things. 

It's not just new menu items that get tested, either. Companies often test new concepts for things that go beyond food. Back in 2017, Wendy's opened a location in the Clintonville neighborhood of Columbus to test out a much more upscale physical presence — think amenities like outdoor couches and bar seating — than what can be experienced at the chain's more standard locations. Of course, Ohio's population demographics are changing, like in just about every state. But for now, Columbus and other Ohio cities still provide the representative slice of American life to help companies learn what the average person thinks of their food.

Bakersfield, California: Multiple chains

As wonderful as Ohio may be for getting a wide range of opinions on new fast food recipes, it isn't the only state where fast food companies can test items. Many choose the city of Bakersfield, California, as their West Coast test market. The stores on the city's Ming Avenue in particular have become hotspots for new items. One reporter for SFGATE wrote that he had often seen unusually long lines at the fast food restaurants located on the street, but couldn't figure out why for years. New dishes aren't always announced, however, so sometimes all you can do is show up and see what's on offer that day.

Quite a few big names have turned to Bakersfield for testing, including McDonald's, Taco Bell, Del Taco, Wienerschnitzel, Long John Silver's, and Carl's Jr. If a fast food chain has a store on Ming Avenue, there's a good chance that test items appear on those menus. 

Companies consider the city to be the perfect size for testing, with plenty of people but not so many that getting opinions becomes overwhelming. It doesn't hurt that residents like fast food, either. Advertising in the region is also fairly cheap compared to rates for larger metro areas. One customer interviewed by SFGATE noted that the city had a good mix of travelers passing through, too. The aforementioned chains do test outside the city, too, but if you want the best chance of finding something new in California, go to Bakersfield.

Pasadena: Panda Express at Innovation Kitchen

While Panda Express has tested new items at random locations in the past (such as when it tested a paw-shaped serving plate in Bakersfield in 2012) its tests now have a permanent home: Panda Express at Innovation Kitchen in Pasadena, California. And when they say "innovation," they mean it. Not only is the location known for creating meals like the Orange Chicken Burrito, but the location has also floated ideas like Orange Chicken Scallion Pancake Wraps, Orange Chicken Sandwich Baos, and Honey Sesame Chicken Breast Shepherd's Pie, the last of which comes complete with a mashed potato topping.

Panda Express at Innovation Kitchen opened in 2014 with a tea bar and a new ordering system that allowed people would construct their meals by choosing a base and customizable toppings. Customers could also make suggestions if they had an idea for a recipe. 

Back in 2014, the company was considering opening additional locations of the Innovation Kitchen if the first spot proved to be popular. The company did open a second Innovation Kitchen in the Westwood neighborhood of Los Angeles in 2016, yet the company's website now lists only the Pasadena location. Yelpers, however, were still reporting as of March 2023 that you could get the burritos and boba at the Westwood location.

San Diego and Carlsbad, California: Rubio's

Rubio's, the chain known for bringing fish tacos to the U.S. from Baja California, has offered publicly accessible test locations since 2011. The company started by converting one of its regular restaurants into a test kitchen where people could order from an ever-changing menu. It later opened another location in Carlsbad, just north of San Diego, where customers were given specific dishes complete with surveys. The Carlsbad location closed when the company moved its headquarters, although the new space includes another test kitchen that Yelpers say is invite-only for members of the Rubio's rewards program. In 2023, the test kitchen will host a cooking contest where finalists will present taco recipes for a chance to have theirs added to Rubio's lineup.

You'd think being able to go to a test kitchen whenever you want would be a welcome idea. But the first Rubio's test kitchen got off to a rocky start, with many customers loving it but some lamenting the loss of the standard Rubio's that it replaced. One commenter on Facebook complained that the new kitchen used greater amounts of spices, causing her kids to no longer want to eat there. On Yelp, one commenter was frustrated by the changing menu and the inability to order one of the chain's regular burritos. But overall, the response was positive.

Minneapolis-Saint Paul: Taco John's

Taco John's, the Wyoming-based taco chain known for its highly popular Potato Olé side dish, has taken a two-pronged approach to testing new menu items. To take part in both efforts, you'll want to be in the Twin Cities, or at least in the southern part of the Minneapolis-Saint Paul metro.

First, QSR reported in 2022 that the company was opening a test kitchen. While it was not open to the general public, QSR noted that testers there would be eating food in special booths designed to isolate their sense of taste. Taco John's also introduced special lighting in the facility, designed to reduce tester's reliance on judging food by its appearance instead of flavor alone. Unfortunately, neither QSR nor Taco John's gave any information on how to apply to be one of the testers.

In November 2022, the chain opened a couple of company-held, non-franchised stores in the communities of Burnsville and Eagan. These are meant to serve as public test locations for new technology and equipment. Among other innovations, the chain has attempted to make the kitchen easier to work in by reducing the humidity and heat inside.

San Antonio: Whataburger

Not every fast food company makes its test kitchen open to the public, even if the location of that spot is well-known. Take Whataburger's huge test kitchen located in San Antonio, Texas, which underwent a well-publicized expansion in 2022. It's not open to the public most of the time, however. The company held a contest in 2015 where the winners would get to visit the test kitchen, but other than that, it's closed to the average fast food diner.

Whataburger doesn't restrict the chance to try new items to one city or state. When the company created the Whataburger 5-3-1 burger in 2010, a press release said the company released the new item to all its locations for just over a month. You stand a better chance of finding yourself in the middle of a product test if you live in the San Antonio metro, however. That happened at three high schools in the Judson Independent School District, located on the northeastern edge of the metro area. Students there got to choose between Whataburger's spicy ketchup and fancy ketchup varieties. The company studied how many packets of each variety were left over after lunch. Fancy won, by the way.

Various cities in Wisconsin, plus Chicago: Culver's

Sometimes it's not a city but a region that gets a fast food company's tests. If you're a fan of Culver's, the Midwestern chain known for its Butterburgers and custards, you may want to consider moving to either Chicago or somewhere in the state of Wisconsin.

Wisconsin residents got to try a new burger from Culver's in March 2023 that raised a few eyebrows at first. The burger was a "PBB&J" creation that included peanut butter, jelly, and cheese on a pretzel bun along with two burger patties and bacon. According to one Redditor, her store's managers got to try a test version and said it was seriously good. Another mentioned that the burger hadn't passed muster for focus groups, but one user confirmed that they'd had one of the burgers in Middleton, Wisconsin.

If you're really into helping a fast food company test out its new ideas, consider looking past the food, as quite a few companies also set up test locations to try out new procedures. In 2021, Culver's started opening locations, including in Chicago, that had two drive-through lanes in an effort to reduce wait times.

Knoxville: Taco Bell

Taco Bell seems to like testing items in Knoxville, Tennessee. While the company also often conducts tests in cities in Ohio, California, and other spots around the nation, it's returned to Knoxville time and time again to try out recipes that were either new or that the company was considering bringing back. You don't even have to go to Knoxville specifically to take part, as suburbs of Knoxville can see test menus, too.

In March 2023, the chain debuted the Cheesy Chicken Crispanada at Knoxville locations. In June 2022, the company started serving its Grilled Cheese Biscuit at Taco Bells only in Knoxville. In September 2020, Knoxville residents were told they'd be the test audience for the returning Quesalupa. And in 2017, Redditors reported that Taco Bells within a 30-mile radius of the city were testing the return of the chain's Lava Sauce with new menu items, namely the Volcano Chickstar and Crispy Lava Chicken Chips.

Can't move? You might get a random test location in your city

If you can't move to one of the above cities that are consistently used as fast food test locations, take heart. You're not doomed to a life of predictable fast food menus. Companies have a few favorite locations for testing out new dishes, but they may also choose additional cities to get even more feedback 

Lucky locations in the past have included Phoenix, which got to try out both a plant-based topping and a round pizza box from Pizza Hut in 2019. Pizza Hut also chose Albany, Houston, Jacksonville, Macon, and Columbus, Georgia to test a Beyond Meat version of its pepperoni in 2021. Sbarro opened test units in 10 cities including National City, California and Providence, Rhode Island in 2012. Baskin-Robbins chose one location in New York City to test its chicken and waffles flavor in 2023, while Carl's Jr./Hardees tested new menu items in 2021 in not only the testing hub of Bakersfield, California but also cities in Alabama, Kentucky, and Illinois, among others. If you're hoping to one day find a test location in your city, check out the company's website. Chick-fil-A, for example, has a page devoted specifically to announcing its food tests.