In September, Wendy’s apparently formally launched their new line of hamburgers – cheeseburgers, in fact – after working for around two years on evolving their product recipe, according to news reports. Not normally prone to following or reading news about fast food, my first discovery of the new “Project Gold Hamburger” was a negative interaction with my local Wendy’s staff. I’ve researched a bit further, and I think their product redesign was bad. The burgers can make you fatter and more unhealthy.
Let me say right here: I’ve long been a fan of Wendy’s food, not only because of the cheap menu items which still are of excellent quality, but because they have a handful of really healthy options. I am also never, ever rude to fast food workers, and I’m sympathetic to how difficult it is to work inside of huge corporations and how there’s always some friction with customers when familiar products are changed.
Even so, I have to take Wendy’s corporation to task for how they chose to change their product, and the marketing decisions involved which resulted in my negative interaction at my local Wendy’s. It was quite clear to me that my negative experience was NOT the fault of the local fast food workers, but due to the decisions which came down from their headquarters in Dublin, Ohio. I’m writing this because I have been a longterm, very pleased customer of Wendy’s, and I have expertise in marketing — I’m hoping they understand very clearly how their direction of product change has negatively affected me, and how it’s likely to cause them increasing problems down the road.
So, back to my first interaction with the new versions of their “Old Fashioned Hamburgers” — I very occasionally eat a hamburger, and when I do, I prefer Wendy’s because of the taste, quality, and the fact that I can easily choose a side item that’s healthier for me than french fries (by contrast, I believe McDonald’s only began offering a few alternatives like apple slices a few years ago, whereas I could get either a side salad or baked potato at Wendy’s for nearly a decade at this point). I’ve been ordering Wendy’s hamburgers for years at this point — always the same, basic product: a Quarter-Pound Single Burger, never with cheese (I rarely ever eat any cheese, since it’s bad on my blood pressure), with all the standard toppings (I later add a bit more ketchup!).
So, I rolled up to the drive-through menu and microphone, and didn’t immediately see my standard order, but they were already asking me what I wanted so I just said “I’ll have a 1/4 pound single burger and a side salad with Italian dressing.” They told me the amount, I drove to the next window and paid, then drove to the pickup window where they promptly handed me my order.
I have a habit of always checking fast food orders, because I’m aware that with them moving so much through and so many customers and orders there’s often a chance for mistakes — so, I was not overly surprised to see that they gave me a cheeseburger instead of a burger without cheese. I told the attendant that I didn’t want it with cheese and handed it back. At this point, things went off the rails slightly as they peered at me suspiciously/unhappily and asked if I’d specified I didn’t want it with cheese. I said — “I only ordered a quarter-pounder single, and I didn’t say I wanted cheese.” At this point, they told me their menu had changed — and they only had burgers with cheese, and you have to ask specifically if you want it without. I thought this was an extraordinary thing to say! I told them I was unaware that they had made such a change, and if they’d just tell me how to order them properly, I would do so. I looked at the new burger they made me sans-cheese, and it looked different — I asked if it was smaller, too, and they stated it wasn’t. I wasn’t animated or rude or going overboard — I was just surprised at the change. However, they made a slightly bigger deal out of my neglecting to state I didn’t want cheese, taking great pains to convey that I had been the cause of the mistake, and even going to the point of calling the young worker who took my order over to the window to further clarify for me how I’d made the error. This treatment slightly pissed me off.
When I got home, I felt irritated. It seemed to me that a major menu change for something that had been a longterm standard item probably should’ve been conveyed better. Sure, maybe I should read the menu in-depth prior to ordering every time, but I go to fast food places when I want a familiar food item and quickly. For something that really hasn’t seemed to change in years and years, the change should’ve been highlighted and perhaps mentioned by the store employees for a number of months — instead of chastising customers about getting it wrong. I did feel strongly enough to write a complaint via the Wendys.com website and I explained what happened. I did get contacted back by a corporate-level customer service rep, as well as the local store manager who offered me some sort of free food coupons (these were messages left on my voicemail).
I didn’t ever take them up on the free food offer — it was never about that, although it does please me that they did acknowledge the issue and attempted to address it with me in a personal way.
But, I find that I’m still irritated every time I go back to one of the Wendy’s locations in my area of Dallas, because I have to specify in an abundantly clear fashion that I DO NOT WANT CHEESE. It’s hard to understand that on the fast food lane intercoms, even, so I find myself having to park and go inside frequently, just to make the interactions go more smoothly.
But, I also find it terribly unimpressive that they launched their new burger products, specifically geared to have more fat and calories as a standard configuration on the sandwiches, and they’ve made it more inconvenient on consumers to have to get it customized to undo the added unhealthiness!
Bumping up any unhealthy aspects of a food item and making it harder to order to reduce those back out probably has an overall negative effect upon their customers as a whole. Or — am I in a minority — perhaps they removed cheeseless burgers off their menus because they just didn’t sell well, and maybe their client base doesn’t care about healthy eating habits at all? I don’t think so.
For instance, the Krispy Kreme doughnut company stock fell pretty roughly back in 2004 (right around when reduced-carb diets became popular) — they same year they introduced a milkshake with blended-up donuts in it. And, they closed some of the many locations they’d rapidly expanded into, and the stock hasn’t ever come back up.
A loose connection, I admit. But, it’s definite that companies only known for unhealthy food have taken a hit from the health consciousness movement in America, which is why fast food restaurants added things like salads, fruit, wraps, and other alternatives to all deep-fried, calorie-heavy stuff. This is why McDonald’s added such food, and it’s why Wendy’s did as well — and, it’s why I shop at Wendy’s at all.
Wendy’s project to update their burgers and their removal of the cheese-free option from their menus made me wonder: are the new burgers more unhealthy than the old ones, even if you have them made without cheese?
Unhappily, the answer is no.
I pulled the nutritional info from Wendy’s website via the Wayback Machine from back in January of 2010, prior to when their new line of cheeseburgers was launched (the PDF is dated December 2009). When we compare it with their current nutritional information chart, you can see that even without cheese the burger has inched-up higher on some scores that are generally considered not ideal for health reasons:
As you can see, their statistics show that the new burgers, even when the cheese is withheld, have 30 calories more. That is a small difference in of itself, but the cumulative effect over time for anyone who eats this Wendy’s food frequently will add up. More concerningly, the extra calories come from 5 grams more fat! The cholesterol increased as well. The figures are worse if you include the cheese — which Wendy’s apparently feels is equivalent to the prior version of the burger.
With the cheese included, the sandwich jumps up to 580 calories, 33 grams total fat, 14 grams of which is saturated fat, and the sodium content jumps to 1240 mgs!
For those of us concerned with the slow build-up of plaque on our arteries (as everyone really should be) and the related negative effects on blood pressure, as well as those concerned with obesity, Wendy’s recent menu changes are not good news. If you were trying to maintain a consistent intake of fat and calories while still having one of Wendy’s burgers, the company hasn’t given you that option.
If we compare the Cheeseburger (with the cheese) with McDonald’s Quarter-Pounder with Cheese, McDonald’s comes out ahead:
As you can see, McDonald’s Quarter Pounder with Cheese has 70 less calories, 7 grams less total fat, 2 grams less saturated fat, and 50 miligrams less sodium.
Now, if we use McDonald’s meal builder, we find that if we hold the cheese on their Quarter Pounder burger, they beat Wendy’s Hot N’ Juice Quarter Pound single burger:
So, McDonald’s Quarter pounder has less calories, less total fat, less saturated fat, and less sodium than Wendy’s equivalent!
Considering all this, I have to give Wendy’s a failing grade on their burger retooling on the following points:
The product “updating” removed a well-established, standard menu item that would be more attractive to health-conscious people.
The new menu change was not well-highlighted for returning customers nor mentioned by staff when orders were taken, leading to confusion, and a negative experience.
The change made it hard for returning customers to order a burger without cheese. Really – how hard would it be to include a product name or combo number that was just for a cheeseless burger?
The change incrementally pushed the basic, single hamburger in the wrong direction on the health scales. Calories and fat were increased, even when customers asked to leave off the cheese.
Seriously, nearly two years in the making and you couldn’t retool the product to be healthier or at least equivalent?!?
So, here’s the effect on this consumer: I may incrementally improve my health slightly by choosing to go to McDonald’s when I want a burger in the future. The hassle I may face at having to request a Quarter-Pounder without cheese may be equal or less to what I encounter at Wendy’s, but I’ll feel good that I’m improving my diet slightly by reducing calories/fat/sodium in return. The company’s past moves in the direction of having healthy diet options attracted some consumer demographics, and now they’re moving in the opposite direction.
It’s a mystery to me why Wendy’s, in this day and age, chose to redo their core product and in so doing reduced its health score.