If you’ve never had a ghost pepper before, be warned: They’re one of the world’s hottest peppers. Properly known as the bhut jolokia, the peppers are 107 to 417 times hotter than the jalapeño on the Scoville scale, which measures chili pepper heat. And they’re part of an emerging taste for spicy food in the United States that led Wendy’s to add them to their menu.
For the second year in a row, Wendy’s is adding ghost pepper-flavored items to their menu as part of a temporary promotion. Ghost Pepper Fries and a ghost pepper-ified Jalapeño Fresco Spicy Chicken Sandwich are now on the menu at the chain’s American restaurants; both items prominently feature a ghost pepper sauce that mixes small amounts of the ultra-hot pepper with a high amount of spicy food marketing.
The two dishes are intended to specifically target a specific and very loyal niche at Wendy’s: customers who love spicy fast food and patronize chains offering extra-spicy menu items, Lori Estrada, the chain's senior vice president of R&D, tells Fast Company.
"It’s not necessarily a product that would rise to the top in traditional screening tools, but a lot of customers told us they want chicken in a spicier format," Estrada added. Kurt Kane, the company’s chief concept and marketing officer, noted that the ghost pepper-ified chicken sandwich in particular didn’t do as well as other items in test marketing. But he adds, "As people dug into the data behind this one, a lot of consumers said that they made a special trip to Wendy’s for this product."
Yet there’s a secret behind the ghost pepper chicken and fries: They don’t contain that much ghost pepper.
Both dishes rely on a sour cream-based hot pepper sauce. Like most fast food condiments, they’re a wonder of chemistry and culinary science. The 20 ingredients include a variety of natural and artificial flavoring agents and preservatives. But of the 20 ingredients, ghost peppers are only No. 16 on the ingredient list. Jalapeño, by comparison, is No. 4 on the list.
So why ghost peppers? Wendy’s has to walk a difficult tightrope act in selling the menu items. Spicy foods are a reliable money generator for Wendy’s; their menu also boasts non-ghost pepper spicy chicken sandwiches, wraps, and nuggets. According to Estrada, "Consumer tastes evolve over time, and they get more used to spice. There is more [consumer] diversity as well, and tolerance for spice has changed over time. . . . We looked at our current product and looked for ways to ramp it up to a spicier level."
While Wendy’s patrons might demand spicier menu items, it's also a very mainstream fast food chain. Specialty establishments such as Atlanta’s The Vortex and Iowa’s Xtreme Smokehouse offer ultra-spicy burgers that provide an intense (some would say masochistic) eating experience. Wendy’s is a multinational corporation that wants to ensure diners come back and spend more money.
That means offering a sauce that is a jalapeño-ghost pepper mix instead of a traditional ghost pepper hot sauce. And the chicken sandwich features different layers of heat, which offer creaminess and cooling sensations to temper the spice. Alongside the ghost pepper/sour cream sauce, there’s a jalapeño cheddar bun, diced jalapeños, and Colby pepperjack cheese. "We played with other pepperjack cheeses, but the Colby gives some more creaminess. The ghost pepper sauce has sour cream as well—it’s a counterpoint for cooling," says Estrada.
The ghost pepper fries, meanwhile, weren’t part of Wendy’s original plans for extra-spicy food. Kane says that the fries were the creation of kitchen staff at Wendy’s restaurants participating in original trials who came up with the dish—which covers french fries in the ghost pepper sauce, cheddar cheese sauce, and jalapeños—by improvising with ingredients from the chicken sandwich.
For Wendy’s, the two dishes performed well enough to reappear on the restaurant’s menu. They’ve also inspired an atypical fandom for fast food dishes that includes YouTube reviews and tribute videos and social media postings. They also fit well into an industry trend of increasingly spicier items aimed at a niche audience of repeat customers: Burger King recently introduced a super-spicy Angriest Whopper, chain Jack in the Box has sold a similarly ghost pepper-ified Blazin’ Hot Chicken Sandwich, and fried chicken chain Popeyes’ test marketed ghost pepper wings.
The ghost pepper chicken sandwich and french fries are now on sale at Wendy’s as a limited-time offering. An end date for the campaign hasn’t been announced; Kane expects they will be available at restaurants for the next four to six weeks.