The full article is here. The synposis goes like this – since 2002, Wendy’s has seen its market share decline by almost 10%, has seen its sales remain flat, and its menu grow stale (in the same time, McDonald’s increased their marketshare almost 20% and now owns just under 50% of the market). So, two years ago, the company began a multi-year project (Project Gold Hamburger) to figure out how to revamp their basic offering. They sent executives around the country trying different burgers, they interviewed thousands of people to find out what people like and dislike about Wendy’s food. They started at the most basic level and worked their way up from there.
Then, it was time for Wendy’s researchers to consider the chain’s own burger, ingredient by ingredient. Each time they made a change, they asked for feedback, visiting research firms around the country to watch through two-way mirrors as people tried each variation.
Wendy’s chefs also tested new products at the headquarters in Dublin, just outside Columbus. From the 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, or sometimes employees, ranked each burger.
Many suggestions sounded good but didn’t ring true with tasters. They tried green-leaf lettuce, but people preferred to keep iceberg for its crunchiness. They thought about making the tomato slices thicker but decided they didn’t want to ask franchisees to buy new slicing equipment. They even tested a round burger, a trial that was practically anathema to a company that’s made its name on square burgers. (Wendy’s ultimately did not go with the round shape, but changed the patty to a “natural square,” with wavy edges, because tasters said the straight edges looked processed.)
Tasters said they wanted a thicker burger, so Wendy’s started packing the meat more loosely, trained grill cooks to press down on the patties two times instead of eight, and printed “Handle Like Eggs” on the boxes that the hamburger 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 putting them through a toaster was the way to go.
In the end, Wendy’s researchers changed everything but the ketchup. They switched to whole-fat mayonnaise, nixed the mustard, and cut down on the pickles and onions, all to emphasize the flavor of the beef. They also started storing the cheese at higher temperatures so it would melt better, a change that required federal approval.
There’s a history of product “improvements” not working, New Coke being the gold standard of not working. But the whole process reminds me of a line Coke executives used – “We’re not that smart and we’re not that stupid.” After New Coke didn’t work in the US, the company reintroduced Coke Classic here but left New Coke on the market where it worked and overall ended up improving their marketshare. Some people thought the whole thing had been planned from the beginning – it had been a hoodwink. Coke executives laughed when they heard that and replied “We’re not that smart and we’re not that stpuid.” The loyalty to the classic formula surprised company executives. In taste tests, the classic Coke formula was less popular; the new formulation was more popular. But when they weren’t blind taste tests, the results changed. The folks at Coke did everything executives are supposed to do and they had no back up plan – when New Coke flopped they scrambled to reintroduce classic Coke to fix an error none of them saw coming.
I look at Wendy’s efforts and think if this doesn’t work, they have done all the things smart people are supposed to do – same as Coke. They’ve done their homework. The Wendy’s folks are doing all the smart things – testing recipes, doing taste tests, checking with consumers, using the best information available to them. Later this year, they’re going to test new chicken sandwiches. They’ll no doubt use a similar process – working through test kitchens and taste tests and surveys and meeting with people. They’ll sample God knows how many different iterations of the sandwich before arriving at a new chicken sandwich.
It’s fascinating – as trivial as it might seem, creating a new hamburger or a new chicken sandwich is not a random process nor it is in any way careless. It’s methodical, scientific and careful. Given that Wendy’s is the only fast food I like, I hope they’re successful.