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McDonald’s Spices Up McChicken as QSRs Revamp Menus

Wendy’s national introduction this week of Natural-Cut Fries while also beginning a tryout for the Dave’s Hot ‘n Juicy cheeseburger line in Las Vegas exemplify the heightened importance of menu development for top quick-service chains. New menu items bring in customers willing to try them at least once, and in an economy this shaky, every customer counts. As a result, test marketing has become less of a learning lab and more of a high-stakes prep school for national introductions.

McDonald's is testing Jalapeno Cheddar (l.) and Cheddar Onion McChicken sandwiches.

Even market leader McDonald’s, more inclined in recent years to try out foods with focus groups than in full market tests, is turning up the heat on product development. In San Diego, the chain currently is testing two variations on its McChicken sandwich: the Jalapeño Cheddar McChicken (with jalapeño pepper slices and white Cheddar cheese) and Cheddar Onion McChicken (with caramelized onions and white Cheddar). Both are served on toasted buns and are priced at $1.49, a premium over the standard McChicken but still within value-pricing territory.

This comes as McDonald’s also has been testing a Chicken Flatbreads line and Chicken Grande wrap. Products it has tried in Canada recently—including the McMini chicken snack and Smokehouse Deluxe burger—could move to the U.S.

Jack in the Box is trying focaccia sandwiches.

But every national QSR is testing more in order to meet consumers’ appetite for something new. Jack in the Box tested Breakfast Pitas and Grilled Sandwiches before moving them onto the menu nationwide. It has tried calzone-like Oven Bakes and now is evaluating a pair of new sandwiches: The Bruschetta Chicken (chicken, Swiss, lettuce and mayo) and Deli Deluxe (deli meats, cheese, pickle, Italian sauce) sandwiches testing in Austin, Texas, are both served on toasted focaccia bread (this from the chain that introduced ciabatta bread to the QSR category in 2005).

Ken Calwell has been saying that Wendy’s needed to strengthen its new-menu-item testing process and pipeline since he joined the chain as chief marketing officer in 2008, and he has fulfilled his promise to improve the company’s menu. After testing, the Bacon & Blue and Bacon Deluxe blue-cheese burgers became two of the chain’s most successful launches. It has tested a variety of items including a line of Fresh Wrap chicken wraps, a Fish Fillet Wrap and others.

Burger King has been the menu-development wild card, trying a broad and daring selection of items while announcing plans to do more now that it has upgraded the broilers in its units. New products moving from test to rollout have included BK Fire Grilled Ribs and Steakhouse burgers. Its much discussed test of brunch didn’t result in a full rollout, but that’s where the currently available Ciabatta Breakfast Sandwich originated.

Burger King also hasn’t made its Country Pork sandwich a national choice yet, either. Now it’s trying a shareable NY Pizza Burger at its Whopper Bar in New York City. Burger King has been developing a variety of interesting premium burgers outside the U.S. Currently these include the Bourbon Steakhouse in Chile, Smoky Whopper in Austria and Whopper Piñata in Sweden.

Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s owned the speed record for developing, testing and rolling out new menu items before an ownership shift showed them down a bit. But they remain the most innovative menu thinkers. Carl’s Jr. tested the year’s most audacious burger: the Footlong Cheeseburger. Sadly, it has yet to become a systemwide menu option.

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