Since Wendy’s (WEN) launched the pretzel bun in July, it has spouted nothing but praise for its bread-y sandwiches—even persuading 98 Degrees star Nick Lachey to sing love songs about them based on customers’ tweets. All the manic buzz helped to make the Pretzel Bacon Cheeseburger among the chain’s best-selling, limited-time offers in decades. And when that promo ended, it revived the pretzel bun via a chicken sandwich this fall. How is Wendy’s handling the success? Quitting while its ahead, it seems. For now, the pretzel bun’s days at Wendy’s are over—enter the brioche bun.
Wait a flame-broiled minute—why would Wendy’s want to end such a successful promotion? And what the heck is brioche? (Look it up, dude.) “We said all along that the pretzel bun was an LTO sandwich,” spokesman Denny Lynch says in an e-mail, using the abbreviation for “limited time only.”
Pretzel bun fans weren’t happy to see the item go.
The revolving door of artisanal breads at Wendy’s appears to be part of a strategy to brand the chain as a higher-end quick-service option via limited-time offers. These fleeting items can help boost traffic to restaurants, and in this case, it seems Wendy’s is looking to pique the curiosity of diners willing pay for a premium fast-food burger.
While it would be nice to keep successful launches on menus longer, Lynch boils down the problems to “logistics.” “Every time you add a new product, you add inventory in the restaurants,” he says. “Imagine making a cheeseburger on either a regular bun, pretzel, or brioche.”
Chief Executive Emil Brolick explained the challenges during an earnings call in July:
“When you look at our operating system, I will tell you it’s not easy handling things like Pretzel Bacon Cheeseburgers in the back of the house. And when you think about the build of that sandwich, you’ve got natural cheddar cheese, a very, very high-quality natural cheddar cheese. You’ve got cheddar cheese sauce, you actually have a Smoky Honey Mustard that’s specifically brought in for this. You have a bacon that is extremely hard to find out there; it’s center-cut bacon. … You put this on a spring mix, and not just leaf lettuce, and you put all of these things together, and we’re used to custom-building sandwiches and building sandwiches to order.”
While complex menus can jam up fast-food kitchens, it does seems like a lame excuse to ditch the popular pretzel bun—an innovation that Brolick recently hailed as “one of our most highly anticipated product launches in recent history”—especially since Wendy’s just replaced it with brioche. (So much for simplifying the bread bin.)
Here’s how Houston Chronicle columnist Ken Hoffman describes the new Bacon Portabella Melt on Brioche cheeseburger, which will be available until late December. “Ah, the brioche bun. It’s made with fresh eggs and milk, so the texture is moist and flaky. It bakes up billowy tall, with a distinctly sweet flavor. Brioche gets pretty close to pastry, which could push Wendy’s perilously close to putting a burger between two doughnuts.” Yum?
Barbara Cappaert, an analyst at KDP Investment Advisors, said in an e-mail: “They may be taking a play out of McDonald’s (MCD) playbook on the McRib sandwich. Have consumers clamor for the product and bring it back periodically to drive sales.” Still, she adds, competitors have recently introduced their own pretzel buns, which makes the offering less unique.
Lynch did not respond to questions about plans for the pretzel bun, saying only that whether a product becomes a permanent item depends on “many factors, and measured over a longer time.” Other hits that Wendy’s brought back onto menus weren’t always successful—flatbread sandwiches, for instance, were disappointing in their second run this year. So distance from the pretzel bun won’t necessarily make our hungry hearts grow fonder for a return.
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