Will BK’s fries be fast-food’s health breakthrough?

Burger King snagged considerable attention in the consumer media for daring to try a lower-calorie, reduced fat French fry. If the new Satisfries proves a hit, the chain should command even more attention from the fast-food business, a serial flop artist when it comes to better-for-you products.

A brand synonymous with “whopper,” BK is trying to break a long, long string of edible Edsels—products that looked like milestone additions at the focus group stage, but were quickly added after rollout to the What Were They Thinking? roster of follies.

Here’s a sampling of those earlier misfires. Some were terrible products. Most, though, were not accepted because of mis-perceptions, prevailing mores, or sheer lack of trust.

Consumers couldn’t reconcile “healthful” with “fast-food,” and just didn’t believe unrepentant users of deep fryers would actually add something good for them.

Others talked about the importance of health, but seldom ate with wellbeing in mind, or at least not as routinely as they do today.

In short, the products were ahead of their time. Before there was a Chipotle, a Panera, a Protein Bar or a Jason’s Deli, the public couldn’t believe that wholesome food, never mind healthful fare, could truly be on the menu of a quick-service restaurant, or at least not one outside of Berkeley, Calif.

Here’s some proof:

The McLean Deluxe: I ate this product often, probably because I strongly wanted it to succeed. If McDonald’s could get mainstream America to accept a better-for-you burger, a new behavioral path would be blazed. But this wouldn’t be that game-changer. The problem seemed to be the execution. Either the burger sat forever in the holding bin because it wasn’t ordered much, or it was made from scratch each time for the same reason, forcing the orderer to wait. And wait.  And wait. It didn’t help that the breakthrough ingredient was carrageenan, a binding agent extracted from seaweed. In the days before Spongebob Squarepants and The Little Mermaid, consumers viewed seaweed as the slimy refuse that washed ashore at low tide.

Taco Bell’s Border Lites: Understanding the influence Taco Bell wielded back in the 1980s and ‘90s is difficult today. Then-president John Martin was the industry’s Steve Jobs, changing the market through the addition of products like 49-, 59- and 69-cent tacos. But Martin had his Newtown in the reduced-calorie versions of products that surfer dudes had been scarfing down with little worry about their figures. The Taco Bell super-user shopped for value—the most bulk they could get for a buck or two. The flavor of the Lites was good, but that was irrelevant. It didn’t help that Martin had lost considerable weight before the rollout, prompting speculation that the introduction was an ego indulgence.

Hardee’s The Lean 1: There was some thinning, all right—of sales. A lean burger didn’t jibe with the image of Hardee’s as a place where you could get a hot, dripping burger, or an indulgent breakfast of biscuits and sausage gravy. Amazingly, burger lovers in the small towns of the Southeast, Hardee’s core market at the time, weren’t craving a sandwich that cut their fat intake.

KFC’s Lite ‘n Crispy: More than two decades ago, Col. Sanders’ brainchild was already feeling intense pressure to offer chicken that wasn’t battered and fried. With Lite ‘n Crispy, one of the chain’s first nods to health, the chicken was still breaded and fried, but the skin was removed first. The fat and calorie counts dropped accordingly. So, apparently, did appreciation of something called Lite. Before completing the chicken’s rollout in the early1990s, KFC decided to change the name to Skinfree Crispy. Oven-baked, grilled and more skinless chicken would follow.


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