Wendy’s, Taco Bell, White Castle Reinventing Themselves to Compete With Fast-Casual Restaurants
There’s a restaurant in Wichita, Kan., that now offers a Bacon Portabella Black Label Burger (with mushroom sauce and Muenster cheese), an Apple Pecan Chicken Salad, a Monterey Ranch Crispy Chicken Sandwich and an Asiago Ranch Chicken Club. Interested? No need for reservations. You can pick them all up at the Wendy’s drive-thru.
In fact, you can order most of these items at Wendy’s 6,000 restaurants worldwide.
Just a few years ago, when Americans hungered for exotic flavors or artisinal anything, they didn’t seek it at Wendy’s or any other fast-food establishment. But quick-service restaurants are redefining themselves, starting with changes to the sorts of menu items they offer. They’re placing a sharper focus on ingredients and transforming their dining rooms into Starbucks-style hangouts, largely so they can compete with the growing popularity of so-called fast-casual restaurants like Five Guys, Chipotle and Panera Bread, which don’t offer table service but do have higher-quality items than fast-food joints. (Think of them as the middle ground between McDonald’s and Applebee’s.)
“I promise you three, four, five years ago, we couldn’t pronounce ‘asiago,’” says Wendy’s Senior Vice President Denny Lynch. “We certainly wouldn’t have known it was a smoked cheese that tastes great with chicken. It’s one of our more popular chicken sandwiches now.”
Last week, food industry research firm Technomic announced that Wendy’s had edged out Burger King for the first time ever as the country’s No. 2 hamburger chain. That’s thanks in large part to Wendy’s recent moves — and a lack thereof by Burger King. BK is just now starting its own makeover, firing its bizarre King mascot last year while unveiling a new line of BK Chef’s Choice burgers.
The movement toward higher-end menu items and a more friendly physical space won’t stop with Wendy’s and Burger King. Taco Bell recently announced a new Cantina Bell menu that looks like Chipotle-lite while White Castle is testing three special menus within existing White Castles: one that offers Southern-style barbecue and beer, another Asian noodles, and one offering paninis.
But this trend didn’t start with these restaurants either, but rather with the one fast-food chain that’s still beating everybody else.