Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Wendy's bold salad bid

By 2002, most fast-food chains were offering a salad of some shape or form, and it was fine.

Then Wendy’s replaced its greens with an upscale line, and it was better. Much, much better. Before long, the burger chain’s sales were soaring, and every other brand, from McDonald’s down, was replacing its plate of wilted iceberg lettuce with fresher, higher-quality ingredients.

They’d eventually catch up and outperform Wendy’s, in part because they’d matched its bid for women and the health-oriented, in larger part because they added more menu items targeted at the quality-conscious. Price and consistency remained important, but fast-food shifted decidedly up-market. Witness the rise of fast-casual challengers like Chipotle and Five Guys.

Now Wendy’s is replacing its Garden Sensations line with an even more ambitious array of salads. They feature ingredients like crumbled bleu cheese, applewood-smoked bacon, fresh pico de gallo made on premise, and a mix of spring field greens. Included are some locally purchased ingredients, according to Rick Tramonto, the white-tablecloth chef who was retained by Wendy’s to help introduce the salads at a press function today in New York.

As executives explain, the new choices are intended to be as good as what you might order in a well-rated independent café. But, at $5.99, they’re priced at a relative bargain rate.

So the hanging question is, Will lightning strike twice? Will this be the entry that restores Wendy’s reputation as the high-quality entrant among the mainstream quick-service chains?

I tried two of the salads, the BLT Cobb and the Apple Pecan, at the press function, and they were good. Very good. A Wendy’s representative noted that the salads had been delivered by a nearby unit; the chain didn’t stack the deck by having Tramonto prepare the batch, though he did demonstrate how they were made.

As far as quality goes, Wendy’s has nailed it. The price is also a bargain, at least by New York standards. We abound in tossed-to-order salad places, where you pick the ingredients and they’re combined for you—at a cost of roughly $6 to $12.
A $5.99 price tag might be a bit steep for some areas, but of course there’s no reason every market has to charge that much, especially when the replaced salads sold for a dollar less.

But there are two important differences between Wendy’s game-changing 2002 introduction and its current salad update.
Back then, it seemed almost reckless in aiming so high with a fast-food product. Mandarin orange sections? On a salad that’s sold via a drive-thru? What’s next, grilled ribs on a burger menu?

Being best-in-class is tougher these days. Consider, for instance, the salmon-topped salad that Panera Bread offered as a limited-time offer. Even when more mundane toppings are used, Panera can boast about the special supply process it engineered to keep the lettuce fresher and crisper.

The competition is clearly steeper these days. Still, Wendy’s doesn’t have to tip its salad tongs to anyone. If it can consistently deliver at the level of quality that was evident today, it’s making a legitimate claim to being the sector’s standard.

But there is another factor that comes into play. The sales setting for fast-food is far more important today than it was back in 2002. As I noted in an earlier post, the grab-and-go brands now want you to sit for awhile, or at least feel as if you’re in a restaurant rather than some food factory. A slew of chains are trying to close the gap on full-service restaurants in terms of design as well as menu.

One of the few exceptions to that trend, at least at present, appears to be Wendy’s.

For the convenience-minded, that’s not an issue. But if food quality and the caliber of the setting are indeed becoming intertwined in the mind of the up-market fast-food customer, Wendy’s may have to hire an interior designer quickly.
The new salads could be the recruitment enticement—and the inspiration for a new generation of Wendy’s.

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