grilled chicken sandwich
These grill marks are likely fake. | Brent Hofacker/Shutterstock
These grill marks are likely fake. | Brent Hofacker/Shutterstock

Why Most Fast Food Has Fake Grill Marks

The grill marks rarely come from an actual open flame.

Fast food burgers always look near perfect in their advertisements. The squares of melty cheese appear gooey, cascading over slabs of meat alongside glistening ketchup, while lettuce and tomatoes look fresh, plump, and crunchy. The buns are toasted and glossy, and the star of the show -- the patty -- looks juicy and thick with precise, even grill marks that evoke the smell of charred beef on the grill. Unfortunately, it’s all a facade; lettuce and tomatoes are fluffed and pinned, ketchup is squirted only in precise spots, and grill marks are burnt on with a machine -- not an actual grill -- or filled in with eyeliner. In fact, in the world of advertising and packaging, it’s someone’s entire job to make sure certain foods look delectable and alluring -- despite the item being a processed, frozen product that’s never touched a flame.

“It’s important to see the grill marks [on food products] because that is what makes it ‘grilled,’” said Claudia Ficca, a food stylist who has worked with brands like Coca-Cola and styled for publications like Bon Appetit and Vogue. “Even if the brand uses a smoke flavor and doesn’t actually grill the meat, in advertising and on packaging the grill marks work as a visual cue for the consumer.”

This philosophy extends to the frozen chicken breasts found in your local grocery aisle, as well as fast food burgers and fake rib sandwiches that arrive in plastic packaging with perfectly stamped on grill marks. In fact, reporting from Fast Company found that Chick-fil-a is the only fast food restaurant that grills their chicken in-house.

Often, these products go through a machine called a rotary brander which -- as the name implies -- brands cutlets with high heat grill marks before they are frozen and shipped off. The machine, which is produced by the company Heat and Control, can add sear marks to meats, seafood, and even vegetables for “an appetizing just-grilled finish.” Adding the veneer of sear marks is more efficient and cheaper than taking the time to meticulously grill every piece of meat, poultry, or tortilla.

Aside from the branding machine, grill marks in advertising are calculated and can also be achieved with an electric charcoal starter. These ensure that the spacing and size of the actual grill marks are even. Some food stylists even have tools custom made just for grill marks.

The result of these advertisements and the rotary brander is a processed product that convinces consumers that it is something that its not -- an item that appears to have been conceived with care and attention, despite merely going through a stamping assembly line. “In aisles full of frozen products, grill marks on chicken breast give the bland product contrast and texture. It also visually conveys heat and charred flavor to our brain, all things that make the item appealing and can trigger hunger,” Ficca explained.

Despite all this deception, not all fast food establishments elect to use grill-stamped patties. Burger King has been flame-grilling their beef since 1954, a fact they reminded consumers in a 2017 ad campaign that showed Burger King restaurants erupted in flames. El Pollo Loco prides itself on their fired up whole chicken, while the Flame Broiler lives up to its name by actually grilling their chicken, beef, and tofu entrees. If you’re craving something fast that’s actually touched a grill, opt for those establishments.

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Kat Thompson is a staff food writer at Thrillist who is fascinated (and mildly grossed out) by food styling. Follow her on Twitter @katthompsonn.