Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Shock of the New

It's tough going out there in fast food land. Competition is fierce and marketing budgets are immense. In an attempt to get a leg up, fast food outlets are forced to continually update their menus with new—or apparently new—items.

More often than not, the hot new menu items are simply slight variations on a well-worn theme, like a regular chicken sandwich with some sort of Chipotle-Blaster honey mustard or a little extra black pepper to make it "spicy." Other times, they take a regular food item and do something wild and crazy like change the shape, as Burger King has done with their French Toast Sticks, and Arby's with their evidently much wilder French Toastix. Burger King recently set the gold standard for this technique with the introduction of Chicken Fries, which are basically McNuggets shaped to look like french fries—the logic being that they're somehow more "portable."

Other promotions take familiar offerings and super-duper-size them, as Hardees has done with their new gigantic hamburgers and Burger King with their Enormous Omelet Sandwich. Talk about truth in advertising: the latter fare, which consists of bacon, sausage, cheese and eggs on a bun, weighs in at 730 calories, 47 grams of fat (including 87% of the daily allotment of saturated fat) nearly 2,000 mg of sodium and 138% of the RDA for cholesterol. God, it would take Nicole Richie a week to eat this thing.

Things get truly ridiculous, however, when fast food marketers try to think outside the styrofoam box and create entirely new menu items. The McRib sandwich from McDonald's—which I must confess a weakness for—is a classic example. The McGriddle, which takes a slab of sausage and slaps it between two syrup-infused griddlecakes, is another. But originality has its limits, as do the bounds of good taste. Take for example, Arby's new Roast Beef Gyro, or the Crunchwrap Supreme from Taco Bell. Seriously, take them. I'm not going near them.

Other great misses in neo-fast food include the Double Decker Taco, also from Taco Bell, which is a regular taco in a crunchy shell that has then been superfluously smeared with refried beans and wrapped in a flour tortilla—proof that bigger is not always better. Pizza Hut is trying to make inroads with their unappetizing stuffed crust pizzas. They should just go to the inevitable conclusion and offer a Cholesterol Lover's Pizza with stuffed crust and cheese-stuffed pepperoni. I'm sure their food scienticians can figure it out.

By far the greatest sin against the fast food-eating public, however, has to be KFC's brand new "Famous Bowl." (I'm quite convinced a copywriter left the In- prefix off that title.) The Famous Bowl consists of mashed potatoes, corn, bite size pieces of crispy chicken, gravy and a 3-cheese blend. Maybe three of those ingredients would be good together, but all five? Who wants gravy and cheese? This bowl sounds like what you might throw up the morning after Thanksgiving.

The Famous Bowl doesn't seem like it was designed by a chef or even a marketing team. It looks much more like the handiwork of some drunk loser trying to polish off scraps of chicken and leftover side dishes from the back of the fridge without having to wash more than one dish afterwards. This may be something to console you in the dark, lonely hours between 2 and 4 a.m., but it's not something I'd think anyone would ever buy on purpose or eat in public.

But that's the great thing about America: you're constantly amazed at what some people will eat. That and all the freedom.
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