Zoe Chace, the perky, gravel-voiced reporter who left Planet Money for This American Life in January, enlivens this week’s This American Life with her humor and smarts. Chace’s report takes us to one of those rare places where potheads and Fortune 500 executives find common ground: the Hardee’s headquarters in St. Louis, where food-marketing gurus test—and taste—wacky new sandwich ideas. We hear about the “Napa Burger” (a burger with caramelized onions, Merlot glaze, and arugula), “50 Shades of Pork” (pork, bacon aioli, and whipped bacon) and the “Big Chicken Masher” (chicken, mashed potatoes, gravy, garlic pepper, onion straws, and American cheese).
Why are fast-food companies churning out such outlandish dishes? The craft of devising cheap sandwiches has become infused with an air of avant-garde. Companies compete to launch creations that range from the odd but appetizing (Dunkin’ Donuts’ glazed donut breakfast sandwiches) to the all-out grotesque (KFC’s Double Down, a bacon and cheese sandwich with fried chicken as the “bread”).
Losing market share to healthier chains such as Panera and Chipotle, firms like Hardee’s, KFC, and Taco Bell can best thrive not by moving “upscale”—introducing salads and fruit platters (although many companies have done so)—but by hurling themselves downscale: introducing meals that double as a tasty lunch and a cholesterol-spiking spectacle. Cue pizza crusts stuffed with hot dogs, and beef burgers with pastrami, bacon, and chicken as “condiments”.
But downscaling has its risks. Restaurants want to develop sandwiches memorable enough that people will take photos of themselves eating one, but not so arduous to eat that customers will only order it once. Unless customers genuinely like the sandwich, it’s no more than an expensive lark.
The food-mashup trend—what Ira Glass calls “Frankenfood”—got a jolt in 2012, when Taco Bell released its Doritos Locos Tacos: tacos with nacho-cheese powder sprayed on the shell, à la Doritos chips. The product made Taco Bell $375 million in its first year. In 2014, The Atlantic estimated that the company was selling 1 million Doritos Locos Tacos a day. The Doritos Locos Taco, in other words, is the kind of breakthrough that makes the blood pressure of rival fast-food executives surge with envy—although all the Double Downs probably don’t help either.
Chace takes us through the process by which Hardee’s marketers winnow a list of 200 potential sandwiches down to the handful of ideas the company will develop. First is a cursory round of voting, which narrows the list to a few dozen finalists. Next is the taste test. The advertisers sample the meals that are under consideration—sandwiches stuffed with macaroni and cheese, steak-and-egg biscuits, pepperoni pizza fries. They chew, and they spit—filling plastic cups with chewed-up burger as the session winds on, Chace tells us.
Finally, they deliberate. The look of the sandwich—and the story they can tell about the sandwich—matters just as much as the product’s taste. At this stage, the marketers aren’t relying on focus groups or consumer polls. They’re using intuition, holding forth in pensive tones on such matters as whether a sandwich possesses internal coherence—all captured hilariously, and sympathetically, by Chace, who offers the marketing team some sandwich suggestions of her own.
Chace shows how the seemingly anarchic process of fast-food experimentation actually tilts conservative. The Masher (chicken, mashed potatoes, and gravy) for example, tastes scrumptious, but it’s a hard sandwich to pitch: the mashed potatoes and gravy are “too much of a leap”, one marketer concludes.
In addition to her Willy-Wonka-esque report, Chace shines in her banter with Glass in the opening segment. She asks Glass to try to figure out which burger is real: the Napa burger (described in the first paragraph) and the “Beyonce burger” (honey, and if you like it, you put an onion ring on it). Glass guesses the Napa burger is fictional: why would you market Merlot to a fast-food customer? He’s wrong, of course. “I made up the Beyonce burger,” Chace says gleefully.
The episode provides a lighthearted look into the marketing strategies that result in the grease-meat sculptures which servers at Hardee’s plop on our plates. And it gives Chace a chance to report on the area she does best: the intersection of money, culture, and the bizarre.
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