Once, they were all but hermetically sealed in a glass case with Dobermans standing guard to protect against a single atom being altered. Now even the most sacred menu signatures are being tweaked, reinterpreted or recast as virtually different products. With tougher times has come a newfound willingness by restaurant chains to experiment with their most iconic products.
Consider McDonald’s sacrilege. For six decades, its core menu items were sacrosanct, as immutable as Mount Everest. Now customers can wash down any of three Big Mac variations with one of four riffs on the Shamrock Shake, a limited-time item arguably second only to the McRib in its cultlike following. And they can round out the meal with a takeoff on McDonald’s revered french fries.
That willingness to tinker with fans’ favorites can be found in most segments. Here’s a look at some of the experiments.
Outback Steakhouse: Bloomin’ Onion
One of casual dining’s big problems is the sameness of the menus sported by the segment’s behemoths. A contributor to the commoditization is the fried-onion appetizer that originally appeared at Outback as the Bloomin’ Onion. It’s since become as much of a segment staple as nachos, burgers or beer.
Now the originator is tweaking the prototype in hopes of bolstering traffic. The most recent iteration: The 3-Point Bloomin’ Onion, or a basic Bloomin’ Onion topped with steak, chopped bacon, french fries and two types of cheese.
It follows the successful limited-time offer of the Loaded Bloomin’ Onion, which was virtually the 3-Point (so named in recognition of the NCAA playoffs) with ranch dressing replacing the steak. Liz Smith, CEO of Outback parent Bloomin’ Brands, cited the Loaded version as a prime example of how the chain intends to woo customers without cutting prices.
Health advocates continue to blast Outback for taking a product that already packed nearly 2,000 calories and increasing the payload with fat-rich toppings.
Del Taco: The Del Taco
As part of a freshening by new ownership, the Tex-Mex chain unveiled an update last year of the product that helped the chain first find an audience back in 1964. The revised version of the brand’s namesake product packed twice as much meat and cheese inside a larger taco shell that was reformulated to be crunchier. The next generation of The Del Taco was marketed as being “bigger, fresher and better tasting.”
Del Taco said the item has become its best-selling product ever, with 11 million sold during the first three months the revised version was offered.
Good Times: Burgers
Competitors of the regional quick-service chain are inching toward more natural, less-processed products. Good Times has already staked out that ground, specializing in what it touts as “all-natural burgers.” Yet it’s giving that core product a tweak, aiming to ramp up the perception of quality. Good Times’ updated burgers deliver “an upgraded bun, a hotter burger with better cheese melt and a higher level of cheese-to-meat ratio,” in the words of CEO Boyd Hoback.
The effort is enabling the brand to nudge up its prices and woo customers without having to slash prices, Hoback has explained. Good Times’ Classic Double is priced at $3.
The chain is also revising the two other pillars of its menu, chicken nuggets and frozen custard.
Wendy’s: Chicken sandwiches
The burger chain has already revamped its signature chicken sandwich once, switching last fall to a grilled fillet (“for caramelized flavor,” according to Wendy’s) that’s served on a whole-grain bun. Next up is a behind-the-scenes change: taking the fillets from smaller birds. It also pledged to thaw the version that’s deep-fried before dropping them into the oil.
The result, Wendy’s said, will be a juicier, more tender piece of chicken. It’s betting $20 million on the changeover, convinced customers will notice and appreciate the difference.
Burger King: Chicken Fries, Whoppers, chicken sandwich
It’s tough to isolate a BK signature that has not been tweaked to offer customers a fresh take on a familiar favorite. Whoppers have been offered in “angry,” Halloween and Western forms. Chicken Fries have been coated and spiced in sometimes bizarre fashion (including a revamp into a Cheetos version).
The most recent menu staple to get a makeover is the chain’s fried chicken sandwich, the Tendercrisp, now recast as the Crispy Chicken Sandwich. The updated version is made with a white-meat fillet rather than a chicken patty, and the foundation is a potato bun.
The revised sandwich sells for a premium price of $4.39.
“The sandwich takes the classic fried chicken sandwich to a new, improved, possibly even iconic level,” Burger King says.
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