Recent days' developments have underscored both the potential power and limitations of menu innovations within the hyper-competitive fast-food industry.
Burger King announced that most of its North American franchisees are dropping its heavily marketed healthier fries option, Satisfries, less than a year after the launch of the item billed as a "game changer."
Meanwhile, Wendy's announced that its Pretzel Bacon Cheeseburger has now officially earned a permanent place on the chain's menu.
Satisfries — with 270 calories, 11 grams of fat (1.5 from saturated fat, zero trans fat) and 300 milligrams of sodium in a small portion — offer 20% fewer calories and 25% less fat than BK's regular fries, and 30% fewer calories and 40% less fat than McDonald's' fries.
They are being phased out by two-thirds of the chain's approximately 7,400 franchises in the U.S. and Canada due to disappointing sales, although about 2,500 of the franchisees opted to retain Satisfries as permanent menu items, reported The Wall Street Journal.
In what seems a strategically timed move, the Satisfries news was released a day after Burger King's announcement that it is bringing back Chicken Fries as a limited-time item, in response to "an overwhelming number of enthusiastic tweets, Change.org petitions, dedicated Tumblr and Facebook pages and phone calls."
Chicken Fries, which were on Burger King's menu between 2005 and 2012, have 290 calories, 17 grams of fat (including 3 grams of saturated fat and 1.5 grams of trans fat) and 780 milligrams of sodium per a nine-piece (102 grams) serving.
Wendy's, which had a major success with its Pretzel Bacon Cheeseburger in a limited run last year, brought it back this summer, also offering new creative variations on its original Pretzel Love Songs video/social campaign.
After whipping up buzz and sales, Wendy's this week used the final video in the #PretzelLoveSongs "encore" campaign to announce that the cheeseburger is being added to the permanent sandwich menu as "Combo 11."
The Pretzel Bacon Cheeseburger has 680 calories, 37 grams of fat (including 16 grams saturated fat and 1.5 grams trans fat), 115 mgs cholesterol, and 1,090 mgs sodium.
Surveys continue to show significant and growing numbers of consumers saying that they're actively trying to eat healthier diets, and the leading burger chains in particular have come under heavy pressure as a result of efforts to curb America's obesity crisis.
But while chains like Chipotle Mexican Grill and Subway are thriving by attracting more nutrition-conscious consumers with better-for-you fast-food positioning, most patrons of the major, long-established QSR brands continue to go there for the core menu items and new items that emphasize taste innovation more than healthy nutritional profiles.
Satisfries are the latest instance of less-than-spectacular responses to a number of the healthier options introduced by these QSRs in recent years — McDonald's salads (which according to the chain still account for just 2% to 3% of its U.S. sales) being the most often-cited example.
On the other hand, there has been some evidence of change in recent years. In addition to introducing at least some healthier options, most big QSRs now list calories and other nutrition information on their Web sites. McDonald's began listing calories on its store menu boards and drive-throughs in 2012, prior to implementation of the federal rules requiring that. And studies have found that seeing calories on menu boards does appear to be associated with consumers ordering somewhat lower-calorie options.
Also, consumers have proved adaptable to new fast-food recipes since pressure from the medical community, government and consumer watchdogs like the Center for Science in the Public Interest caused many major QSR chains to stop using the partially hydrogenated oils that result in high levels of trans fats in food.