||The Calendar of Fast Food
Restaurants Create New Seasons As Reasons to Indulge
This time of year it's hard for Cheryl Warn to avoid fast food.
She is drawn to McDonald's almost every week in February and March, first by its Filet-O-Fish sandwich. As a Catholic, she gives up meat on Fridays during Lent, a time when her mother would bring her to McDonald's for the fish sandwich during her childhood. The minty Shamrock Shake at McDonald's, only available for a limited time around St. Patrick's Day, seals the deal.
"It's not the best thing for me to be eating, but it brings back good memories," says the 45-year-old criminal defense lawyer who lives in Burnsville, Minn.
Beyond holidays, occasions like Lent and St. Patrick's Day are increasingly marketing opportunities for fast-food companies to attract consumers more frequently or boost their spending during each visit.
This year, during Lent -- the over 40-day period observed by Catholic and other Christian denominations by attending mass and giving up indulgences such as chocolate, McDonald's introduced Fish McBites -- breaded, fried fish pieces. Carl's Jr. and Hardee's, both owned by CKE Restaurants Inc., introduced a new Charbroiled Atlantic Cod Fish Sandwich and Wendy's brought back a fried cod sandwich for a limited time.
People are more likely to bite on these "limited-time offers," or LTOs in industry parlance, such as a new shake flavor, burger topping or cut of fried fish that are available only during a window of weeks or months. Many consumers these days are becoming less responsive to the glut of deals advertised at chain restaurants, such as two-for-the-price-of-one deals.
Consumers like "the familiarity of their old favorites with a little dash of risk every month," says John Costello, president of global marketing and innovation for Dunkin' Brands Group Inc. Dunkin' Donuts is introducing more limited time offers including heart-shaped doughnuts with various icing colors and fillings for Valentine's Day and Father's Day. (For the royal wedding in 2011 of Kate Middleton and Prince William it had a special doughnut—white frosting with chocolate drizzle).
Among the 250 largest chains in the U.S., limited-time offers have increased 25% over the last five years, according to the MenuMonitor created by Technomic, a food consulting and research firm.
Creating an unofficial calendar of limited-time fast foods can build anticipation. And consumers buy more when a limited-time offer is seasonal or linked to a specific holiday or event, say restaurants. "It's just fascinating how when leaves begin to turn consumers begin to think about pumpkin," says Mr. Costello from Dunkin' Brands. As winter approaches, people tend to have peppermint and chocolate on the brain, he says.
Even baseball season has become a peg for a new treat. Last May, Sonic's limited-time Hey Batter Batter Blast blended chocolate-chip cookie-dough batter and brownie batter with ice cream.
Spicier dishes make ideal limited-time offers because consumers may be curious about them, but not want to eat something spicy every day, say restaurants. Also, releasing a new version of a customer favorite like "snackable chicken," works well, says James O'Reilly, chief marketing officer for Sonic Corp. "Consumers love to eat chicken in portable forms," so Sonic introduced a spicy version of its Jumbo Popcorn Chicken for a limited time last month, he says.
Chick-fil-A resisted offering limited-time flavors or dishes, fearing customers would fall in love with a dish only to see it taken away, says David Farmer, vice president of product development and design for the Atlanta-based fast food chain. "We have been on a little bit of an LTO journey." he says.
In 2007 it introduced a "mint cookies & cream" flavored milkshake for a limited time. It was "hard for us to get comfortable with. But now it's so common," consumers expect some dishes to disappear, says Mr. Farmer. Now Chick-fil-A does about three limited-time milkshake flavors a year.
Restaurants ask customers on social media to vote for the flavor or food they want to bring back, and create elaborate countdowns to the end of the offer.
Earlier this week, Whataburger Restaurants LLC customers could enter a Twitter-based competition to win 200 tubs of "limited-batch" Spicy Ketchup spiked with jalapeños. Last spring, about 20,000 people entered the contest when it released the limited-time ketchup flavor for the first time, says a spokeswoman for the San Antonio-based company.
McDonald's website features a Shamrock Shake page asking fans of the creamy, frozen drink to play an interactive game that slowly makes the shake disappear while it taunts, "This page lasts only as long as this minty shake does."
Perhaps the most epic cat-and-mouse game in fast food is the limited-time release of the McRib, McDonald's boneless pork sandwich. While some recoil at the restructured pork product sandwich's approximately 70 ingredients, others track the timing and logic behind McDonald's release of the sandwich.
An academic paper from the University of Dayton published last year hypothesized that McDonald's brings out the McRib when the competition promotes a pork sandwich. Not so, McDonald's told the paper's authors. Two years ago, website the Awl published a 3,000-word article by writer Willy Staley exploring the relationship between the price of pork over time and the release of the McRib (conclusion: the relationship is unclear). McDonald's declined to comment on McRib sales or how they decided when to sell it, but a spokeswoman said the price of pork isn't a factor. Franchises can sell the sandwich outside of national promotions.
The McRib is unlikely to end up on the permanent menu. "I wouldn't ever say never," says Danya Proud, a spokeswoman for McDonald's USA but "customers are excited about it because it's a limited-time offer."
Expect to see more indulgent or high-calorie dishes promoted as limited time offers, says Bonnie Riggs, restaurant analyst at NPD Group Inc., a market research firm. They are generally exempt from the growing number of laws requiring restaurants to list calorie counts on menus. "It's a good way of getting around that," she says.
Sometimes logistics prevent a limited-time customer favorite from making the leap to the year-round menu.
The Memphis BBQ Burger, a burger on top of pulled pork and covered with fried onions, has been a hit for Carl's Jr. and Hardee's, says Brad Haley, chief marketing officer for CKE Restaurants.
"We've had quite a bit of success doing these meat-as-a-condiment burgers," says Mr. Haley. But the sandwich isn't going on the permanent menu because preparing two extra ingredients -- fried onions and pulled pork -- is hard for restaurants if they aren't selling lots of sandwiches at once, he says.
(Source: The Wall Street Journal, 03/06/13)