The debut of the “W” cheeseburger stands out at a time of transitions and milestones for Wendy’s. It is a sign that the Dublin, Ohio-based quick-service chain, now charting a course as a single-brand company and wearing the mantle of second-ranked burger player in the industry, is reassuming a laser-like focus on the hamburger.
The recipient of the 2012 MenuMasters Award for Menu/Line Extension, The “W,” at a recommended price of $2.99, occupies the middle ground between the burgers on Wendy’s My 99-cent Everyday Value Menu and higher-priced sandwiches on the menu.
“Everybody wants to eat our double cheeseburgers,” said Gerard Lewis, Wendy’s senior vice president of innovation. “There is something about a double cheeseburger that is very indulgent.”
The “W” features two 2.5-ounce patties of fresh, never-frozen beef, giving it a halo of freshness as well as making it more generous in size than the quarter-pound burgers in the marketplace. In addition, it sports two slices of cheese and a signature sauce the chain describes as made with hints of pickle, tomato and red pepper. To that it adds some of the fresh toppings that are hallmarks of the so-called better burgers popular in the industry today, including Wendy’s more upscale item, Dave’s Hot ‘N Juicy cheeseburger.
“We also use hand-torn lettuce, which we wash in the store; nice, thick, fresh tomato; and our pickles are fresh, too, not canned,” said Lewis. “We actually cut our onions in the store, as well. And we go ahead and toast and butter the bun.”
“The red onion is crunchy, crispy and fresh, and the bun has the perfect chewiness,” said Mark Laux, managing partner of HotOperator, a menu consulting company in Oshkosh, Wis. “The mouthfeel is incredible. They are very good with that.”
Laux also remarked about the presentation of the burger, which is wrapped in paper and placed in a half-box that protects it and holds it upright on the tray.
“It sits up. It doesn’t tip over or lie flat,” said Laux. “Wendy’s really understands that the burger is king. They are making it look proud.”
Award-winning burgers like the “W” and Dave’s Hot ‘N Juicy are the fruits of a menu-making effort that Lewis and Lori Estrada, vice president for product innovation, have been running in high gear. The Wendy’s team, which also includes Shelly Thobe, director of menu innovation — hamburgers, has re-examined every component of the chain’s cheeseburgers, from the buns to the beef to the toppings, making selective improvements along the way.
“Our beef has always been the best you can get,” said Lewis. “We have improved our small patties. We took them up in size substantially and improved their thickness and improved our process so it is more like a hand-formed patty.”
Amid all the creative activity in Wendy’s kitchens, the actual challenges involved in developing the “W” were minimal. Only one new ingredient, the signature sauce, was brought in for the new item.
“When you have great ingredients in the store, it makes it much easier,” said Lewis. Another industry observer regards The “W” as proof that Wendy’s is concentrating its efforts on its core menu category.
“I think the most important aspect of what Wendy’s is doing is focusing once again on the burger and not on the peripheral products they have used to broaden their menu,” said Darren Tristano, executive vice president of the Chicago-based research and consulting firm Technomic Inc.
“It appears from the Dave’s Hot ‘N Juicy that they have implemented changes that not only consumers want, but competitors have been doing for awhile, whether it is the crinkle-cut pickle from Chick-fil-A or the buttered buns from Culver’s or the red onion from the higher-end restaurants,” Tristano added.
The launch of the “W” took place in December in the aftermath of an important transition for Wendy’s: its separation from Arby’s Restaurant Group, its sibling chain in Wendy’s/Arby’s Group.
“Shedding the Arby’s brand from their overall company business I think is really helping them to focus on the task at hand,” said Tristano. “I think they are really focusing on the customer, the brand, the product, and I would expect them to continue to improve their business.”
The $2.99 premium-quality burger should appeal to consumers who are still careful about how they spend their dining dollars.
“I think that is a good price point,” said Tristano. “The ‘W’ cheeseburger continues to enhance the product line, but at a value price point which is south of the $4 price tag you see at Five Guys, but well north of their value-menu items.”
The “W” also gives Wendy’s a double cheeseburger to anchor an attractively priced combo meal. At a Wendy’s in suburban Chicago, the “W” Combo, with fries and a fountain soft drink, is priced at $5.29 plus tax.
“Many consumers are looking for that value, and in general they are finding it in a combo meal,” said Tristano. “It definitely will influence and support the growth and sales of that product.”