MEDIA & MARKETING
At Fast-Food Chains,
Era of the Giant Burger
(Plus Bacon) Is Here
By STEVEN GRAY
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
January 27, 2005; Page B1
ST. LOUIS -- The order sounded like heresy to Bruce Frazer, chief architect of hamburgers for the Hardee's fast-food chain. While Hardee's rivals were making menus leaner and greener, Mr. Frazer's boss ordered him to build a "bigger, better burger."
First, Mr. Frazer delivered the Thickburger, topping out at two-thirds of a pound of Angus beef. Good, his boss said, now make an even bigger one. In November, Hardee's unveiled Mr. Frazer's Monster Thickburger: a pair of 5.7-ounce patties, four strips of bacon and three slices of American cheese on a buttered sesame-seed bun slathered with mayonnaise. It weighed in at 1,418 calories -- 600 calories more than Burger KingCorp.'s Whopper with cheese, or the equivalent of more than two of McDonald's Corp.'s Big Macs.
"Food porn," cried the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the Washington advocacy group.
Jay Leno joked that the Monster Thickburger comes in a cardboard box shaped like a coffin. "Would you like a defibrillator with that?" wrote the Chicago Tribune's restaurant critic, while describing the burger as "unfortunately delicious."
It was just what Mr. Frazer's boss, Andrew Puzder, wanted to hear. "If I was going to survive, I needed to do things that people who weren't succeeding were afraid to do," says Mr. Puzder, chief executive of CKE Restaurants Inc., owner of Hardee's. He yearned for a burger like the ones he devoured at St. Louis pubs while attending law school. Now, he says, "we get thank-yous for putting out a burger that people can actually eat."
Big burgers aren't confined to Hardee's. Culver's, a Midwestern chain, has found a hot product in its Jumbo Bacon ButterBurger Deluxe -- beef patties, bacon, cheese, mayonnaise and pickles (1,100 calories); Burger King offers the Double Whopper With Cheese (1,060 calories); and McDonald's features the Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese (730 calories).
This week, a federal appeals court reinstated part of a lawsuit alleging that McDonald's misled young consumers about the healthfulness of its products. A trial judge had previously dismissed the suit; McDonald's said it believes the case will be dismissed again.
John Banzhaf III, a George Washington University law professor who is advising plaintiffs in the McDonald's case, says Hardee's could be asking for a similar lawsuit because it doesn't disclose on restaurant menus that the Monster Thickburger's 107 grams of fat far exceed the maximum daily fat-gram intake recommended by the federal government. Brad Haley, a spokesman for CKE, says, "We've been pretty up-front about what we're doing with regard to the Monster Thickburger ... People would be hard-pressed to assume it was anything other than what it was."
Harry Balzer, a vice president at market-research firm NPD Group, says, "Americans have the means to eat healthier. But when it comes down to the privacy of our eating patterns, we eat what feels good."
Wholesome or not, Thickburgers have certainly been healthy for Hardee's, based here in St. Louis, and CKE, of Carpinteria, Calif. Burger sales at the roughly 2,050 Hardee's outlets have climbed 20% since the 2003 introduction of the first Thickburgers. CKE has posted 19 consecutive months of same-store sales growth, after years of the opposite. The company's stock price, which hit a low of $3.69 in December 2002, was $14.11, up 42 cents, as of 4 p.m. yesterday in composite trading on the New York Stock Exchange.
Fast-food fare is usually prepared quickly and cheaply, with the most-basic ingredients. But as Mr. Frazer cooked up the Thickburger, he heeded Mr. Puzder's mandate to ignore conventional wisdom about ingredients and cost. "He took the shackles off our thinking," says Mr. Frazer, whose is head of product marketing, research and development at CKE.
Mr. Puzder is a tall, lean 54-year-old in a crewcut who paid his way through nearby Washington University law school playing guitar in a rock band. He was personal attorney to CKE founder Carl Karcher when Mr. Karcher brought him into the business. Mr. Puzder was named president and chief executive of Hardee's in June 2000, and a few months later became head of CKE.
At the time, Hardee's restaurants were grimy, service was poor, and the food was terrible, he says. But CKE had had success selling extra-large Six Dollar Burgers (they actually cost about $3.95) at another CKE unit, Carl's Jr. Mr. Puzder bet that while Americans talk a lot about eating healthier, they were behaving otherwise. In 2002, he gave Mr. Frazer his marching orders: "No more skinny burgers."
Consumers have long told fast-food chains that they want burgers with mayonnaise, but many chains eschew mayo because it is expensive. Mr. Frazer went with it anyway. Working with a development team in the Hardee's test kitchen, he increased the thickness of dill pickles on the sandwich and switched to a tastier, more-expensive American cheese.
The designers considered using a single thick tomato slice, but "it was just too tomatoey," Mr. Frazer says, so they settled on two thinner slices. Four slices of bacon overpowered the original Thickburger, so three were used, although the Monster Thickburger was big enough to handle four. Bigger burgers required a firmer bun, which required more dough -- at still more cost. Mr. Puzder wanted butter on the buns, so Hardee's commissioned the creation of a "butter wheel" that the bun's bottom is rolled over before it's popped onto a grill. Finally, Hardee's made franchisees pay for $7,000 grills with bigger flames that reduce cooking time and give burgers a "char flavor," Mr. Frazer says.
"The costs were pretty heavy [but] we had to do something," says Bill Boddie, chief executive of Boddie-Noell Enterprises Inc., the Rocky Mount, N.C., franchisee of about 320 Hardee's units. His sales had fallen throughout the late 1990s, he says, but are now climbing again.
Hardee's then splurged on advertising that cost $55 million last year. All the spending showed up in the price that Hardee's recommends franchisees charge for a Monster Thickburger: $5.49. By comparison, the most-expensive McDonald's sandwich, the Double Quarter-Pounder with cheese, is $3.60 in the Chicago area, while Burger King's Angus Bacon and Cheese sandwich runs just over $4.
The high price has helped boost the average guest check at Hardee's by 5% to $4.58 in the past year. Annual average sales per restaurant have risen nearly 19%, from a low of $716,000 in fiscal 2001 to $850,000 in the third quarter of fiscal 2005, but are still below the $1 million industry average.
As Hardee's had hoped, Thickburgers have done especially well with men aged 18 to 34 years old. Recently, at a Hardee's in Niles, Mich., a working-class town, Ben Townsend, 27, bit into a Bacon Double Cheese Thickburger -- all 1,300 gooey calories of it, plus fries. Was he worried it might endanger his health? "I've never even thought about it," said Mr. Townsend, who builds homes. "And to be honest, I don't really care. It just tastes good."
Write to Steven Gray at firstname.lastname@example.org