Last week I fretted that America—and American business, in particular—seemed to be running out of ideas. On Sunday, in a drive-through lane just off Exit 28 of I-84, outside Southington, Connecticut, I received further confirmation of this hypothesis. God help me, I tried Burger King’s new French Fry Burger.
And as much as fast-food innovation can sometimes inspire awe and confidence in this great nation (like Taco Bell’s Doritos Locos Tacos), it can also leave one full of questions about the future of our common enterprise. Burger King’s French Fry Burger falls into the latter category.
To back up a little, Burger King, like the lower end of the food food-chain, is suffering. Its low-quality, low-wage, low-price business model is in trouble. There’s a lot of competition from above in the burger space. The people who eat at Burger King, like the people who work at Burger King, don’t have a lot of disposable income to spend at places like Burger King—in part because places like Burger King aren’t paying them enough. Labor dissatisfaction is spilling over into strikes.
And so the business in the U.S. is actually shrinking. In the first quarter of 2013, same-store sales in the U.S. and Canada fell 3 percent from the year before, and the net count of restaurants open in the U.S. and Canada fell by 29. In the second quarter, same-store sales in the U.S. and Canada fell 0.6 percent compared with the year before. Because the company closed a bunch of restaurants, the net count of restaurants open in the U.S. and Canada fell by 31.
Now under the control of a Brazilian private-equity firm, Burger King is trying to modernize stores, improve operations, expand around the world, and introduce new, more au courant menu items like sweet-potato fries. And it is doubling down on the provision of cheap food. The French Fry Burger, launched September 1, is part of a fall menu campaign aimed at reviving growth.
But this is a pretty weak effort. The price may be right—the French fry burger costs $1. But the execution—and, more important, the concept behind it—is all wrong. My version was assembled with great indifference. It was a basic hamburger, with fresh lettuce and tomato (a plus), slathered with a sloppy oversize dollop of mayonnaise. For good measure, a few french fries were thrown into the mix.
What’s wrong with this picture? To begin with, I hold with the conventional wisdom that Burger King, while it has superior burgers to McDonald’s, trails badly in the french-fry competition. Burger King’s fries lack the combination of crispiness, saltiness, and oily satisfaction that the Golden Arches’ spuds deliver. They have some sort of coating on them. ( I disapprove of the innovation of coating French fries with stuff.) From my youth, I’ve believed that the optimal meal at Burger King is, in fact, a chocolate shake and a Whopper, no fries. So from the outset, the notion of adding fries to the burger is the opposite of gilding the lily—it takes a passable experience and makes it materially worse.
Second, the very idea of putting french fries—or any potato product—on a bun is problematic. I’ve roamed far and wide, eating street food and junk food in 40 states, a couple dozen countries, and several continents. And it has been extremely rare to encounter the phenomenon of potatoes put into bread. Sure, some falafel places in Israel stuff a couple of french fries into the pita. But beyond that, I’ve rarely seen a potato product stuffed inside a grain product. (If I’m missing something, please enlighten me via Twitter: @grossdm.) Maybe there’s a good reason for this global conventional wisdom. A potato sandwich is redundant. It’s carb overkill. It’s like taking a circular loaf of bread, hollowing it out, and stuffing it with pasta, as Domino’s does. Raise your hand if you’ve ever eaten a bread bowl.
Finally, there’s nothing particularly interesting or innovative about this innovation. Alchemy is taking two great tastes that don’t naturally co-exist and putting them together. Remember the classic Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup ads in which the serendipitous collision of chocolate and peanut butter creates a whole more delicious than the deliciousness of its parts? You need a contrast: the saltiness and sweetness of peanut butter and chocolate; the heavy bitterness of espresso combined with the light froth of steamed milk; the savoriness of a Taco Bell taco combined with the sodium-laden Doritos shell. But Burger King’s fries and its burgers don’t achieve that kind of harmony. As solo acts, they are fine. As a duet, they’re less Steve and Eydie and more Robin Thicke and Miley Cyrus.
The real innovation would have been putting McDonald’s fries into a Burger King hamburger, charging a few dollars more for it, and raising the pay of the workers who put it together. That’s the sort of out-of-the-box thinking that would have me believing in America again.