It’s a chilly fall morning and I’m walking into the heart of Wendy’s offices in Dublin, Ohio, a donut-shaped building with tall glass windows that could pass for a Silicon Valley campus in miniature. Flat TVs and inspirational quotes from the chain’s founder, Dave Thomas, line most of the long hallways. It also has a really nice gym.
We stop inside the fast-food chain’s top-secret “Innovation Center” which, in a few hours, will have the smell of sizzling bacon wafting through the air. Right now, though, it’s 9 a.m., where, surrounded by industrial cookware, I’m supposed to consume a different part of the pig, a meat that–if all goes according to plan–Wendy’s is hoping will carry the lucrative, premium part of its menu for the foreseeable future.
Before me are three new dishes, all made with BBQ pulled pork: One has the meat heaped on top of french fries drizzled with a cheddar cheese sauce ($2.99). Another is a pulled pork sandwich made with a shiny brioche bun and topped with slaw ($4.49). And, finally, a BBQ pulled pork cheeseburger ($4.99), making for a meaty fast-food chimera. A balanced breakfast this is not.
“That’s 100% pork cushion,” Lori Estrada, Wendy’s vice president of culinary development, assures me with a smile. “It’s been smoked for somewhere between 8 to 12 hours.” While cushion sounds like a congenial way of saying the rear end of a dead animal, it is actually a part of the shoulder, all of which has been pulled to shreds and adorned in sauces in varying shades of brown. (Wendy’s applies all of its sauces in a double “W” pattern.)
This week, Wendy’s will begin rolling out its new pulled pork menu in its 6,000 locations nationwide. For a company known for square burgers and chocolate Frostys, jumping into something like BBQ can feel like sacrilege, especially to purists.
Compared to its primary competitors–McDonald’s and Burger King, which hold the number one and two spots, respectively–Wendy’s sales last year represented a rare bright spot in an industry threatened by healthy consumer eating habits and “casual” dining. While McDonald’s domestic comps fell 0.2% in 2013 and Burger King’s fell 0.9%, Wendy’s sales rose 1.9% during that same time period, thanks, primarily, to high-end options like the Pretzel Burger. (Which was supercharged by a viral ad campaign starring Nick Lachey and Boyz II Men.)
For a chain known for its robust value menu, it may be surprising to learn that the majority of Wendy’s sales tend toward the relatively high end of its menu–a strategy called the “barbell.” And the Wendy’s barbell is indeed lopsided: “About 80% of the occasions in our stores tend to involve premium products,” says Wendy’s CMO Craig Bahner. “The other 20% are value occasions, where the primary purpose is to come in and sort of get some kind of value item.” Like chicken nuggets. Or baked potatoes. Or junior cheeseburgers.
Still, going all in on BBQ seemed to be a risky move, especially given Wendy’s current success. Until I took a bite.
If you disregard breakfast and the McRib, you will notice that pork isn’t served very often in fast food chains. Part of it has to do with consumer dietary restrictions. But the other part of it is because American fast-food tastes have been weaned for decades on protein staples like beef and chicken.
Subway, which recently began offering pulled pork to customers (Deadspin claims that it’s not actually that bad!), and now Wendy’s would very much like to change that. One reason is simple economics. “One thing that might be leading to pork being used a little more frequently is the price of beef is very, very high,” says Mark Kalinowski, the lead restaurant analyst at Janney. “In the next three to five years, we expect to see a lot of non-beef protein items. That might mean more pork, and certainly mean more chicken-oriented items being promoted.”
Wendy’s, in its own estimation, has been an innovator in items like square patties, or “chicken in restaurants, in salads,” as Bahner noted. They view BBQ as an arena “underserved by consumers.” In early 2013, the R&D team at Wendy’s began testing new concepts in front of online visitors, teasing out a collage of menu offering images like tater tots and smoked meat platters. Pulled pork was something that kept resonating with Wendy’s customers, and something that they felt would stand out in a fast food arena increasingly crowded arena of eye-popping Frankenfoods like Taco Bell’s Doritos Locos Taco or KFC’s Double Down monstrosity. “What we wanted was something consumers wanted, but something they couldn’t get on the go,” says Shelly Thobe, director culinary and product innovation. “I can’t just fly to Alabama all the time to get my favorite BBQ.”
And the quality was . . . surprisingly high! In particular, the pulled pork fries stood out for their crispiness, a kind of poutine variation minus the heavy gravy. The chain will offer three different flavor of BBQ sauces: Spicy, smoky, and sweet. Texturally, the meat was as tender as some halfway legitimate BBQ joints, and the sauce was applied with enough restraint that it didn’t overpower the smokiness of the pork, which, surprisingly, contained very little fat. (7g of fat per serving, according to Wendy’s.) Still, after eating about a fourth of each before 9:30 a.m., my mind started wandering. The pulled-pork sandwich alone had 469 calories. I wonder if they’ll let me use a treadmill. I felt slightly meat drunk.
As far as BBQ goes, pulled pork is one of the easier meats to pull off, explains Daniel Vaughn, BBQ editor at Texas Monthly. “Pork shoulder has lots of intramuscular fat to keep it juicy the whole way through,” Vaughn tells me. “You’re essentially overcooking the heck out of it. Basically there’s a wide window to work with.”
Rolling out a new meat category for a nation-wide fast food chain is different, and the R&D team at Wendy’s dedicated weeks to nailing the pulled pork’s texture and flavor profile. (One conspicuous aspect missing from the sourcing conversation, though: values like humane treatment of the pigs or sustainability in general.) At first, the team tried chopping up the meat, but found out through sensory panels that customers didn’t like the texture. Instead, Wendy’s opted to pry the pork apart with metal fingers. “We needed to figure out what it was going to look like,” says Teressa Johnson, Wendy’s director of sensory science & product evaluation, describing the Goldilocksian test phase that occurred before the three pork dishes were put through a trial run in five test markets, including Grand Rapids and New Orleans. “We didn’t want the pieces to be too stringy. Or too large.”
The biggest meaty breakthrough, though, was the decision to serve it dry, with the sauce options added sparing after the fact (remember the “W”?), thereby avoiding the sad, soggy fate of cafeteria lunch meats.
For the pulled pork sandwich, at least (which was received the most positively in the five test markets), the killer ingredient is the slaw–which was light, acidic, and stiff. The slaw’s dirty secret is it is made out shredded broccoli, a fact that Wendy’s doesn’t openly advertise in its marketing. (In the fact sheet, Wendy’s only describes it as a “cool, crunchy slaw.”) “Cabbage tends to get very soft,” says Estrada, noting that broccoli “keeps better in storage, too.”
While it’s relatively easy to roll out a new protein in 300 or so test stores, supplying pulled pork to Wendy’s 6,000 locations nationwide is its own logistical beast. In terms of training, employees will have to be taught not just how to assemble each product, but they will have to know how to walk customers through the (slightly) disorienting process of ordering one and recommending a BBQ sauce.
“Our stores are serviced daily, if not multiple times,” beams Bahner. “We serve fresh food. We have supply chains that are capable of bringing this to market in a very real way.”
It’s unlikely that Wendy’s take on pulled pork will ever win over the BBQ world’s more discerning palates. And that became clear when I posed the question of whether or not Wendy’s could pull off the unthinkable to Texas Monthly‘s BBQ critic, who said it’s probably a smart business decision. “If you look at the price of a pork shoulder versus the price of beef, anytime any of those places can sell the same weight of pulled pork instead of a burger, they’re going to be making more money,” says Vaughn. “But the main reason is they get to put the term ‘BBQ’ on it. That draws people in. It’s a hot ticket item, right? Oooh, great! BBQ! From their point of view, they think they can oven roast a bunch of pork, slather it in sauce, and idiots will come.”
But this isn’t a Double Down situation intended to gross people into curiosity. Wendy’s, unlike Burger King (which it recently briefly surpassed for the No. 2 spot in 2011), knows what it stands for in front of its customers. “Wendy’s brand is about being a cut above,” Janney analyst Kalinowski, who keeps close tabs on several restaurant chains, tells me over the phone. “They want to be a little bit better than the traditional fast food experience. The quality is in many ways a little better, but still priced within a traditional fast food thing. We think this thing is what resonates with that type of brand approach.”
Still, Wendy’s will have the not-insurmountable task of convincing customers to try something new–something the brand isn’t really known for. But for what it’s worth, Subway, which launched its own Applewood pulled pork sandwich in 2011, is still putting marketing muscle behind its food blog-friendly concoction. To promote the new pulled pork menu, Wendy’s is tapping a curious roster of celebrities–“Stone Cold” Steve Austin, Ralph Macchio, and Alfonso Ribeiro, aka Carlton from Fresh Prince–for a campaign called #bbq4Merica. “While we can’t disclose exact [financial] numbers,” says Bahner, “the campaign will unite BBQ lovers who live outside of America’s traditional ‘BBQ Belt.'” These people, he said, “have long been deprived of high-quality BBQ.”