Ever since Wendy’s launched its limited-time pretzel burger in 2013, there’s been strong consumer demand to bring it back. The original was a very successful LTO, but when it came to developing a line extension to launch this fall, John Li, VP of R&D and Culinary for Wendy’s, felt that he and his team could do better.
“We wanted to take advantage of our flavor exploration platform and come up with something that screams fall,” says Li. “So we brainstormed all of the ingredients we could think of that related to Oktoberfest. Pretzels, beer and cheese rose to the top.”
The team took those ideas and got to work. Every element was key, says Li, starting with the pretzel bun.
“We had a good one,” he says, referring to the bun used on the previous pretzel burger, “but we wanted to make it better.” Li sampled buns from many artisan bakers and after 10 tries, found the right supplier-partner. “The bun is a little chewy and a little soft, just like an authentic German pretzel. It also has a little sweetness from the malt. Every component makes it better—1 + 1 =3—almost like an umami kick,” he says.
Next, the team focused on sourcing a beer cheese sauce that would complement the burger and bun. Wendy’s tested 18 different beers before a product from an Indianapolis brewery worked its magic to create the perfect cheese topping. The bun and beer cheese were the only two new SKUs added.
“We already had the best bacon in the segment,” says Li. Three strips of that applewood smoked bacon, along with a grilled fresh beef patty, crispy onions, natural Muenster cheese, honey mustard and pickles complete the build.
The original pretzel burger was layered with sliced American cheese, lettuce and tomato, but this new version contains two types of cheese plus crispy onions to add for more layers of flavor and texture. Li calls it “an Oktoberfest kitchen sink sandwich.”
From ideation to launch
About 80% of the burger’s development was completed before coronavirus hit in March, but there was still additional consumer testing and employee training needed before the Sept. 1 launch.
The burger was tested at various stages in the R&D process, but once the new pretzel bun and cheese sauce were finalized, it was again put in front of consumers. “The concept score and product score both improved and we realized we had a home run,” says Li.
Operations got heavily involved at this point, taking over from the R&D team. “Every new item requires special training so crew members are as engaged with the process as possible, making it easy to execute chainwide,” says Li. COVID did make it more challenging to train and spot check at key locations in Wendy’s 6,000-store system, he adds. But the process was perfected in about two months and the burger was ready to roll out on Sept. 1.
In-store merchandising and word of mouth created a lot of buzz, and even before Wendy’s began its national advertising campaign, “we knew we had a big hit,” says Li.
The Pretzel Bacon Pub Cheeseburger sells for $5.69 and is part of Wendy’s higher end “Made to Crave” line, targeted to customers seeking premium items.
“We’re working on more products in that group,” says Li. “Consumers are looking for more comfort foods with a twist, and the pub burger delivers on that.”
It also sets the bar very high, Li admits. But future development will focus on the same attributes: authenticity, “real” ingredients and maximizing value. At Wendy’s, his team’s goal is to be “forward leaning,” on-trend but not too far out, he says.