Meat and potatoes are, well, the meat and potatoes of almost every fast-food operation in America. This industry was quite literally founded on the buns of the noble hamburger -- with some notable legwork from its loyal sidekick, the French fry. It's a classic partnership.
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"Wendy's sells one million baked potatoes a week"
But only one national fast food chain in America, Wendy's, stocks a baked version of the humble spud at all of their locations -- with Arby's slinging baked potatoes at a select 250 of their 3,300 U.S. locations, (and in Canada). The baked potato has been on Wendy's menu for three decades, and has become a steady success for the brand. The restaurant sells an astonishing 1 million baked potatoes a week, which works out to 52 million a year, according to a company spokesperson.
So why haven't more chains thrown their caps in the baked-spud ring, and how did Wendy's even come to develop a slow-cooked baked potato for its fast-food menu in the first place?
They started as "health food"
"Originally, we launched the baked potato in 1983 along with our salad bar, to provide a healthy option to sell alongside our hamburgers" says Lori Estrada, Wendy's VP of culinary innovation for over 16 years. And the timing couldn't have been more perfect: The mid-'80s and early-'90s marked an obsession with low-fat diets all over the world. Saturated fats became an enemy of those looking to slim down during the Reagan/Bush era, bringing the potato, a naturally fat-free food, into the national spotlight.
"In the mid-to-late '80s, almost everyone in the industry was playing around with healthy options in their menus, so Wendy's was actually probably a little ahead of the game with the potato," Estrada adds.
The "basic" baked potato at Wendy's, free of toppings, is 270 calories. A medium order of fries, in comparison, is 420 calories. If you load up the baked potato with generous amounts of cheese and a dusting of bacon bits, it's still only 480 calories. The rest of the potato options offered on the menu (bacon and cheese, chili and cheese, sour cream and chive, broccoli and cheese) are about the same, despite the seemingly gluttonous toppings.
While health trends have shifted in recent years, Estrada believes Wendy's baked potatoes still endure as a nutritious fast-food option. "You know carbs in general have fallen in and out of health trends, of course. But these baked potatoes are full of fiber, low in fat, have a great mineral content... they can still be a healthy vehicle for toppings," Estrada said. "As they always were."
Though cut from the same cloth as French fries, the baked potato was never designed to act as a replacement for fries. And while it technically lives on the sides menu, the baked potato isn't a bridesmaid to the burger -- it was always designed to be a star of the show.
"The potato has always been more of a self-contained meal," Estrada said, "Not as a side or an accompaniment, at all. They are usually about 11-and-a-half ounces, so there's a lot there. It can be your dinner."
"The potato has always been more of a self-contained meal"
It's also one of the best deals on the menu. For nearly the same calorie count, the baked potato offers nearly twice as much food by weight than an order of fries. Also, the hefty baked potato costs around as much as its fried counterpart. In New York, a plain baked potato costs $1.89, the same as a small fry.
Best of all, the baked potato is extremely customizable. "Anything we top our fries or burgers with, you can add to a baked potato," says Estrada. "So right now for example, we're offering bacon queso -- if you ask, we can put that on a potato for you. And it's pretty delicious."
But, they are a logistical nightmare
So if the baked potato is such a cheap and healthy option, why is Wendy's the only fast food chain to currently serve them all across America? Like Arby's, Carl's Jr. has previously experimented with serving baked potatoes. And during Burger King's ill-fated attempt to bring sit-down restaurant vibes to their chain, they introduced a "Dinner Basket" line which featured baked spuds as a side. Why does it seem so hard for fast food restaurants to give baked potatoes a spot on their menus?
The answer comes down to logistics. While the potatoes only really require baking to prepare, it requires a lot of organization, Estrada explains.
"If you've ever cooked baked potatoes at home, you know it takes a while," Estrada said. "And we cook them from a raw state, in an oven, wrapped in foil, baked for an hour, just like you would at home." Wendy's also had to introduce new convection ovens to every single one of their locations to make the potatoes -- an expensive move.
"It's a challenge to serve them"
"It's a challenge, operationally, to be able to serve them, and have them ready for every customer who comes through our doors," she says. "I can only guess that aspect has made it hard for other places to be willing to put something like this into production."
The humble baked potato lives on
Of course, in the world of food and big business, even the greatest of ideas are undoubtedly questioned after decades of remaining the same. Change is scary! Luckily, Wendy's has avoided any errant impulse to mess with their taters.
"We've definitely explored changing things, tweaking them, reengineering items on our menu and the baked potato has come up," Estrada said. "But it still remains the same."
Why mess with a good thing? Especially a good thing that is cheap, filling, and somewhat healthy... even when you drench it with cheese and bacon.
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Wil Fulton is a staff writer for Thrillist. He is also as humble as a baked potato. Follow him: @wilfulton.