MIAMI - When Burger King set about to fix its ailing empire, the fast food giant started by scrutinizing everything on the menu - even the mayonnaise.
A group of Burger King executives and franchisees last year sat through a lengthy presentation complete with charts and graphs on how oils and eggs affect the quality of the spread. A blind taste test of 30 varieties followed. The verdict: They liked the one Burger King was already using.
"That was actually a pretty hard day," recalls John Koch, Burger King's executive chef.
In this Wednesday photo, Norman Garcia eats a burger and fries at a Burger King restaurant in Miami. Burger King launches 10 menu items including smoothies, frappes, specialty salads and snack wraps in a star-studded TV ad campaign. It’s the biggest menu expansion since the chain opened its doors in 1954.
It wasn't the only one. Over the past year, Burger King evaluated all of its ingredients from the bacon to the cheese slices it serves on its chargrilled burgers as part of a yearlong quest to reverse years of slumping sales of its Whoppers and fries. The result: On Monday, it plans to launch a lineup of smoothies, frappe coffees, chicken strips and snack wraps. The 10 new items mark Burger King's biggest menu expansion since the chain opened its doors in 1954.
Burger King's food odyssey shows how grueling it can be for a fast-food company to come up with new menu items - a process most Americans aren't aware of when they're handed a bag at a drive-thru window. Burger King is the latest chain to revamp its menu as part of the fast-food industry's move away from its nearly single-minded courtship of young men. Once the lifeblood of the industry, the economic downturn hit those junk food fanatics particularly hard. At the same time, Americans' generally have been demanding healthier options.
Burger King has failed to evolve even as competitors have gone after new customers with breakfast items and healthier fare. Last year, Wendy's for the first time edged out Burger King as the nation's No. 2 burger chain behind McDonald's. To stem the decline, Burger King executives last year decided to remodel its aging system of 7,200 stores to make them more contemporary, redesign worker uniforms with aprons so they stay clean and even serve the iconic Whopper in cardboard cartons instead of paper burger wrapping for the first time in more than 20 years. The food, however, is at the heart of its plan.
Consumers have longed for more food options at Burger King, but the revamp is a gamble. The new menu may not go far enough to differentiate Burger King from its competitors.
After all, there are striking similarities between Burger King's new items and the offerings of its much-bigger rival McDonald's. The Golden Arches already rolled out specialty salads in 2003, snack wraps in 2006, premium coffee drinks in 2009, and fruit smoothies in 2010.
"Being an innovator is critical in the fast-food industry," said Darren Tristano, an analyst for researcher Technomic Inc. But in recent years, he said Burger King has been more of a follower.
Burger King executives don't deny that its new items are pretty close to those on McDonald's popular menu. But they say the new menu was created as a result of Burger King's own research.
"Consumers wanted more choices," said Steve Wiborg, president of Burger King's North America operations. "Not just healthy choices, but choices they could get at the competition."
THE RAMP UP
The fast-food industry has undergone a shift in recent years. Just five years ago, the top three fast-food companies were all burger chains. But concerns over obesity have paved the way for competitors like Subway, now the second-biggest chain, and Starbucks, which climbed up the rankings to the No. 3 spot. Smaller players such as Five Guys, which sells made-to-order burgers, are gaining ground too.
McDonald's quickly adapted. The world's biggest burger chain reinvented itself as a hip, healthier place to eat by offering wireless Internet and rolling out a string of hit menu items such as fruit smoothies, iced coffees and oatmeal.
Burger King failed to keep up. Its share of sales among burger chains fell from 17 percent a decade ago to 12 percent last year, according to researcher Technomic. McDonald's share rose from 42 percent to 50 percent.
All Tom McDonald had to do was look at Burger King's competitors to see why sales at the chain were falling. A Burger King franchisee since 1989, McDonald said the chain's menu hadn't changed much over the years.
"We were getting behind with the wraps and salads that were coming on the market," said McDonald, who owns 19 franchises. "We had salads, but they weren't as good as the competition. We focused on burgers maybe longer than we should have."
McDonald said he expressed his concerns at the company's failure to keep up with the times. But the Miami-based chain had gone through a series of owners over the years, and McDonald said he got little response from corporate about addressing the problems.
He said the attitude from the top changed, however, after New York-based private equity firm 3G Capital bought Burger King last year. That's when Burger King assembled a group of 15 key executives, franchisees and suppliers to evaluate the chain's menu, item by item.
The process, which took three months of daylong meetings, was grueling at times. French fries took multiple days, given the various factors like seasoning, oil and frying method. Even the day for soft-serve ice cream, which was rolled out last summer, wasn't as fun as it might sound: A supplier that had 400 vanilla flavors presented the nuances between Madagascar and honey vanilla.
"Trying to come up with the exact intensity of vanilla you need is a little bit daunting," said Koch, Burger King's chef.