It was a fun year for fast-food, if quirky new menu items are your idea of fun. In their never-ending quest to outdo each other, the big chains kept customers guessing with a steady raft of new concoctions, some better than others.
I sometimes get asked why I write about fast-food, since technology is my main purview. I generally give one of three reasons. For one, it’s something of a holdover from Sex, Bombs and Burgers, the book I wrote about how the military, pornography and fast-food industries are technology leaders. I don’t write as much about the other two businesses these days, but fast-food has strangely proven to be a popular topic with readers. I can also justify it with the notion that all these new products come through similar research and development pipelines as smartphones, tablets and other gadgets. Mostly, though, I write about fast-food as the occasional diversion – it’s nice to take a break from the routine every one in a while. As such, I’ve made it my mission to try the big new releases. I’m happy to report that I got to most of them this year.
McDonald’s had a busy year, especially here in Canada. The company finally gave vegetarian Canadians something to eat this summer with two veggie wraps. Coming in two flavours – spicy Santa Fe or garlicky Mediterranean – the wraps are sizable and pretty tasty (my vegetarian wife, normally a harsh critic of such things, approves).
Earlier this month, McDonald’s Canada also rolled out poutine nation-wide, at long last. As I said in my review, it’s not exactly a “destination poutine” – or one that you might go out of your way for – but it’s not a half-bad option unto itself.
Down in the United States, the chain’s biggest product launch – Mighty Wings – didn’t go so well. The wings themselves were surprisingly decent, but awkwardly shaped sauce containers made them difficult to dip and enjoy properly. Customers’ biggest complaint, however, was that at about $1 a pop the wings were too expensive, which resulted in the company having a huge surplus of them to finish off the year. Will McDonald’s give up on wings or try again next year at a lower price?
The company’s biggest rival Burger King didn’t seem to try as hard with innovation in 2013, with its biggest new product being the lower-fat Satisfries – or, for some unknown reason, Gratifries in Canada. The chain hasn’t yet made the item permanent, meaning that the jury is still out on sales. However, executives are pleased with the media attention they received and the potential for Satifries to give Burger King a bump in the reputation department. It might almost be enough to erase the embarrassment of its other big 2013 launch, the Fry Burger, which was basically just a burger stuffed with some French fries.
Taco Bell did its best to imitate Hollywood in 2013 by further milking its blockbuster Doritos taco with yet another sequel. In late summer, the “fiery” Doritos Locos Taco became the latest flavour in the lineup, alongside Cool Ranch and Nacho Cheese. I have to admit that I haven’t tried it yet. While I was initially gung-ho over Doritos tacos, I’ve cooled on them in recent months mainly because they come at a nearly 50-per-cent markup to regular tacos.
The novelty has worn off, at least for me, which is ironic given that the DLT finally came to Canada just this year. Taco Bell tried to placate Canadians in the meantime with Doritos Nachos, but as I showed during my own home recreation, that was a lame placeholder.
It was actually Wendy’s that had the best fast-food innovation of the year with its Pretzel Bacon Cheeseburger, an item that I said was almost gourmet. The doughy pretzel bun and the better-quality ingredients amounted to a surprisingly good burger for a mass chain (I can’t lie – the cheese sauce also helped). It was successful enough to inspire the similar Pretzel Pub Chicken Sandwich, but it amazingly didn’t do well enough to survive beyond the traditional “limited time offer” run.
Chief executive Emil Brolick explained back in the summer that the pretzel burger was relatively difficult to make and was therefore slowing down the chain’s kitchens, which is probably enough justification since fast-food chains are all about speed. Still, with its big success this year it’s hard to imagine that the Pretzel Bacon Cheeseburger won’t somehow find its way back onto menus in 2014.
Just as with technology companies, fast-food chains depend on flashy new products to keep customers interested, which is why we can surely expect more of these concoctions in the year ahead. Let’s just hope there are more delicious pretzel burgers ahead and fewer poisonous cronut burgers.