Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Fried

ostrich_burgerLast month Steve Johnson, pop culture writer at the Chicago Tribune, wrote an article about the identity crisis which seems to be gripping some fast food chains. Johnson points to relatively recent events like Subway offering falafel and McDonald’s foray into premium coffee, but this trend is something CT and I have discussed for years.


Wendy’s has always been our poster child for this behavior, because we were such fans of the classic Wendy’s offerings.  The various experiments have included the SuperBar, pitas, Frescata sandwiches, various attempts at breakfast, and boneless wings among others. Dave Thomas was around for some of those, but the menu extensions seem to have come more frequently since his passing in 2002. It would have been somewhat understandable if the base product was mediocre to bad like McDonald’s, but Wendy’s has always had a solid formula in my book. As Johnson points out, there’s a lot to be said for a place with simple options that are done right (Jimmy John’s, Chipotle, In-n-Out Burger).


Let’s hear it, fellow lunchers. What are your favorite examples of fast food places straying from the path?


CT said...

Burger King is a pretty big offender of the identity crisis as well. The classic example being the BK Dinner Baskets and the popcorn for those waiting for food.

It's funny to me when these places try to take on places that don't seem to be direct competitors. McDonald's taking on Starbucks and Chick-fil-A with the McCafe and Southern Style Chicken sandwich amuses me. Although, they seem to be somewhat successful. Back in the day, Hardee's was relatively successful with their attempt to serve fried chicken. And although I know you were never a fan of them, Jeeg, I liked them before the Carl's Jr merger ruined them about 15 years ago.

There are ton more examples. I'll keep mulling it over.

The Tyler Gang said...

Howdy, boys. Jack here to offer a bit of lore on Jeeg's fast food unicorn, Jack in the Box. These guys came to my neighborhood in 1961 in a location where they are still thriving. You could not go into the restaurant. It was a square box painted in bright colors to resemble a [say it with me] jack-in-the-box. There was a walk-up window and a drive-thru, and if you came in your car, you ordered from a clown head sticking out of a box. Hamburgers were 22c, cheesburgers were 27c, and fries were 17c. Cokes were about 20c, milk shakes were around 30c, and if you wanted dessert with your sumptuous meal, another 20c would get you an apple turnover. Both burgers were served with two slices of dill pickle, and a squirt of "Jack's secret sauce," which was Thousand Island dressing with extra relish.

They shortly added onion rings, and a little deep-fried taco (which they still serve at two for 99c; same price as the bargain burger). They kept expanding the menu, adding, mostly, fancier hamburgers, curly fries, that kind of stuff, but they also added a breakfast menu, croissants, waffles, the Breakfast Jack (basically ham and eggs on a bun), you see where this is going...

By about 1980, you could go into the restaurants and sit in a booth, and the marketers were pushing a scheme to upscale it to "Monterey Jack's." The ads of the day showed the clown speaker boxes in front of the restaurants being blown up with dynamite. I'm guessing that didn't play well with the profit margins, because within about five years, the ads had (and still feature) a guy in a business suit with a giant clown head walking into a board room, and coming back out before a huge explosion comsumed the place.

The clown is now firmly in charge. You can still drive through in your car, but now you can order huge meal-size salads, various steak sandwiches, Philly cheesesteaks, there's a whole Mexican menu that plays to a delighted audience here in San Diego, a place that is overrun with taco shops.

The thing is, I've never considered this offensive, a crisis, or any sort of abberent behavior. I love having a one stop shop when Bonnie wants a salad, Sidra wants a burger, and I want Mexican. No problems, no hassles. Food, drinks, desserts, all without getting out of the car. Now, if only they'd add a rack where you could buy super-size pants...

Jeeg said...

Dan Cortese wasn't enough to sell you on BK Dinner, CT?

Jack, I agree that a diverse fast food menu can be good like you and CT suggest. In fact, I think one of our local Midwest favorites, Culver's, is a fast food place that does well with a broad menu. Though there is real downside risk that focus can be lost and the quality or value of the "core" menu items suffers.

And I have to admit that I'm glad McDonald's expanded into the premium coffee area. Even if the product isn't stellar, it's a good thing to have someone putting price pressure on Starbuck's and Caribou.