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That Fast Food Burger Took a Year to Prepare: Inside a Test Kitchen

Megan Lynch @MLynchOnAir
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(KMOX/Megan Lynch)

(KMOX/Megan Lynch)

ST. LOUIS (KMOX) – That burger and fries you pick up for lunch today may only take you minutes to eat.

But it may take months for a restaurant to design it for the menu.

One nationwide chain makes those key decisions in it’s test kitchen right here in St. Louis.

A cook’s line that duplicates what you’d see in any of their restaurants.  A stainless steel counter and stools that serve as an eat-in conference table where all the major decisions are made.

“Let’s try catsup instead of mayonnaise.  Let’s try another slice of cheese, I’d like to try American cheese instead of Swiss cheese.  It’s sounds silly to even talk about it.”

Yet those ingredients can be make or break for a new menu item for Hardee’s.  Bruce Frazer, Senior Vice-President of Product Marketing and Research and Development, says the research doesn’t necessarily start in the kitchen.

Bruce Frazer, Senior Vice-President of Product Marketing and Research and Development, in a conference room (note the menu board)

Bruce Frazer, Senior Vice-President of Product Marketing and Research and Development, in a conference room (note the menu board)


“On average, it takes about a year from the time we sit around and say ‘you know what would be a good idea?’ to actually introducing it into all the restaurants and letting everybody see it.”

There’s a lot that has to stack up between the buns.

When the executives at Hardee’s start researching what they hope will be their next big seller, they’re not looking at their fast-food competition.

“We’re watching what’s happening in fine dining and casual dining to look for the next new ideas that are bubbling up,” explains Frazer.

He says an average brainstorming session can produce 200 possibilities.  “Maybe, one of those will actually eventually become a product.”

Two hurdles: 1,700 stores have to be able to duplicate a new menu item perfectly, and there have to be vendors to supply it.  “On day one we might sell 60,000 of a new burger the very first day and we need to have enough to keep doing that.”

Even it if makes it to stores, without a sexy name it can fizzle.  Take the recent Memphis BBQ Burger.  “We tested that originally as the Pulled Pork Thickburger.  It didn’t sell nearly as well.”

Ultimately, taste buds have the final say.  That’s why Hardee’s pulls in real people to help them make the final cut.

Sensory room at Hardee's test kitchen in downtown St. Louis (KMOX/Megan Lynch)

Sensory room at Hardee’s test kitchen in downtown St. Louis (KMOX/Megan Lynch)

At a counter in a long narrow room, a metal hood slides up and a tray appears with a cup of water, a survey and the most important item: a freshly prepared burger wrapped in carefully folded paper.

This is the sensory room.  Each panelist in their own cubicle.  They’re not allowed to talk, but Bruce Frazer admits some have been known to give out an  “Mmm”.  “It’s way too easy if we were just in one big room and we were serving food around the table, everybody’s going to turn to the guy next to him and say, ‘hey, I think it’s the cheese!’.”

On average, a new item may be for sale six months, until the next big idea changes the menu board.  This week’s big roll-out? The Jim Beam Bourbon Burger.

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