When Wendy's released the hugely successful Pretzel Bacon Cheeseburger last July, it wasn't just some sort of deliciously meaty fluke: it only happened because hundreds of people at Wendy's HQ (including clairvoyant food trend experts) worked with food suppliers and focus group burger-eaters (Editor's note: HOW DO YOU GET THIS JOB?!?) to create it. Strangely, that over-enthusiastic redhead from their commercials was left out of this process, despite her unabashed zeal for Wendy's products.
After talking to Shelly Thobe, Wendy's Director of Culinary Product Innovations, we learned the basics of how a Wendy's burger gets created:
1. They create flavor profiles that you don't know you want yet
Thobe's team stays 1-2yrs ahead of trends in what people are eating. (They would not tell us what flavors are coming up next, because that information could potentially make them a lot of money, but Sriracha definitely has to be in the mix, right?!?) They look at what foods are becoming popular regionally in the US and ask focus groups of consumers what they're interested in eating on a burger. The Pretzel Bacon Cheeseburger took about a year from development to the time it got on the menu.
2. Expensive restaurants provide them with ideas
Wendy's may be an inexpensive food option, but the first places you'll see an idea that'll eventually end up on their menu are high-end restaurants. Ideas pioneered there eventually filter down to casual restaurants and fast-food joints, followed by grocery stores. Kroger is mad lazy. The pretzel bun idea, in fact, came from Thobe's team seeing that pretzel breadsticks were becoming popular in restaurants.
3. They work with suppliers to make the idea a reality
Having an idea for a pretzel bun is one thing, but making it happen is very different. First, they had to ask their food suppliers, "Is turning a breadstick into a cheeseburger carrier possible?" Once they found a bakery that could do it, it was just one of many options for people to try in the focus groups. The burger idea could've failed there. But (SPOILER ALERT!)... it didn't.
4. Hundreds of people are paid to eat hamburgers
At Wendy's HQ in Columbus, OH about 100-200 people are invited to choose one of six different burgers on a table to try. For certain menu items, it's as many as 400 lucky bastards. Then they escape to a sensory panel booth where they try the burger and rate it based on flavor, appearance, and if they'd buy it on a regular basis. They use the data from these tests to refine the burger they're creating. So basically, everyone should move to Columbus.
5. Inspiration strikes
When Wendy's was focus-grouping different toppings to go on a burger in a pretzel bun, some people on Thobe's team were pulling for a mushroom burger. Others were focused on the cheese aspect of the burger. But it was the mustard that made the burger. Everything changed when they decided to combine honey mustard AND cheese on the burger, and the focus groups immediately responded by singing that Pharrell song "Happy" in beautiful 400-part harmony... or just liking the burger a lot or whatever.
6. Everyone and their mom at Wendy's has to work on the burger
Before any burger is even tested in the real world, 10 departments work to get the burger ready for the test markets. They have nutritionists looking at the calorie content, the IT team figuring out how they're going to program it into the registers, and people analyzing whether they're even able to create the burger on a mass scale. An operations team will sweat over details like the placement of lettuce on a burger, and if a burger-making employee will be able to properly make the burger considering all the other menu items they're tasked with creating.
7. Testing it in select markets
The PBC was tested in restaurants in Sacramento, Cleveland, and Miami. They like selecting a variety of test markets around the country because they want the product "to be something that everyone wants". Typically it's in the stores for about eight weeks. These tests are expensive to do, so they shoot for about 75-80% of the menu items tested to be successful.
The results of the PBC test were successful, and, when Wendy's launched the burger nationally, they kept it on the menu for a few months past its limited-time Summer release. It could potentially be back. But keep in mind that for every burger that gets added to the menu (like the recently retired Ciabatta Bacon Cheeseburger), this same complicated, incredibly complex process starts all over again.
Lee Breslouer writes about food and drink for Thrillist, and could really go for a Frosty right now. Follow him @LeeBreslouer, because you can't make up a name that good.