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NEW YORK -- For the first time since the chain began in 1969, Wendy's restaurants this week started serving a new burger, Dave's Hot 'N Juicy. Named after late Wendy's founder Dave Thomas, the burger features extra cheese, a thicker beef patty, a buttered bun and holds the mustard, among other changes, according to a report by the Associated Press.
"Our food was already good," said Denny Lynch, a Wendy's spokesman. "We wanted it to be better. Isn't that what long-term brands do? They reinvent themselves."
For Wendy's Co., based in Dublin, Ohio, reinvention is critical. That's why executives at the 6,600-restaurant chain spent the past two and a half years going over burger minutiae during an undertaking they called Project Gold Hamburger. That included deciding whether to switch from white onions on its burgers to red (they did); to change the fat/lean ratio of the meat (they didn't); or to go with plain or crinkled pickles (they picked crinkled.)
Wendy's is trying to boost lackluster sales and fight growing competition from much bigger rival McDonald's on one end and expanding fast-casual chains like Five Guys on the other.
"We have a lot of catching up to do in some areas," said Gerard Lewis, Wendy's head of new product development. "But after we launch this hamburger, there will be folks who need to catch up to us."
Project Gold Hamburger started around early 2009, shortly after hedge fund magnate Nelson Peltz bought Wendy's and combined it with Arby's. The marriage ultimately failed, with Peltz selling Arby's to a private-equity firm this summer, the AP report noted.
Anxious to reverse declines, Wendy's polled more than 10,000 people about their likes and dislikes in hamburgers. Surveys showed people like Wendy's food, but thought the brand hadn't kept up with the times. So, executives were shipped off to eat at burger joints around the country to measure burger characteristics like fatty flavor, salty flavor and whether the bun fell apart.
"I've traveled more with this burger than I have in my entire life," said Shelly Thobe, Wendy's director of hamburgers and new platforms.
Then, it was time for Wendy's to consider the chain's own burger, ingredient by ingredient. Each time researchers made a tweak, they asked for feedback, visiting research firms around the country to watch through two-way mirrors as people tasted the variations.
Wendy's chefs also tested new products at the company's headquarters in Dublin, just outside Columbus. From test kitchens, they slipped new burger incarnations through little windows into a "Sensory Test Area," a white-walled room with 16 cubicles where tasting volunteers -- and sometimes employees -- ranked each burger.
Tasters said they wanted a thicker burger, so Wendy's started packing the meat more loosely, trained cooks to press down on the patties two times instead of eight and printed "Handle Like Eggs" on the boxes that the patties were shipped in, so they wouldn't get smashed. And Wendy's researchers knew that customers wanted warmer and crunchier buns, so they decided that buttering them and then toasting them was the way to go, the report explained.
In the end, Wendy's changed everything but the ketchup. It switched to whole-fat mayonnaise, nixed the mustard and cut down on the pickles and onions -- all to emphasize the flavor of the beef. The chain also started storing the cheese at higher temperatures so it would melt better, a change that required federal approval.
"It's not about getting real exotic," said Lori Estrada, Wendy's senior vice president of menu innovation and packaging. "It's about making everything work."
Wendy's is hoping the burger will be one of many successful changes. The chain, which got a new CEO last week, wants to expand overseas and on the West Coast; relaunch a breakfast line that's easier for on-the-go eating; and sell more high-margin snacks and beverages.
And early next year, it will introduce new chicken sandwiches.
The project's code name is Project Gold Chicken.