6940 Transit Rd., Williamsville, NY 14221
Web: Wendy's Old Fashioned Hamburgers
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"Wendy's has always had one item we've loved: the Frosty. This post-meal treat of super-soft chocolate ice cream served in a cup is now part of an entire family of products."
Oh, to be back in the 1980's, the halcyon days of fast food - when "burger wars" made the covers of national magazines, and big chains fought to see whose oddball character - Wendy's old "Where's the Beef?" lady, Burger King's nerdy Herb, or McDonald's pack of weirdos (e.g. "Hamburglar" and "Grimace") - could grab attention and win over customers. We grew up in those times, saw the ads, ate the burgers, and had strong opinions, which frankly haven't changed much since then. Apart from its comparatively no nonsense approach to marketing, the appeal of Wendy's has always been sort of confusing to us. Ranked third in size relative to number one McDonald's and number two Burger King, it's been fairly visible in Western New York for decades, but there are places in the United States where people hardly know or care that it exists - the burgers and fries have never been standouts on taste. So it wasn't a complete surprise when last year, in the middle of a downturn, the chain got bought out by Triarc, owner of the much smaller Arby's chain. Yet despite questions over its appeal and value, Wendy's somehow nabbed the Zagat survey's number one overall ranking amongst "mega" burger chains, a voting result that surprised us almost as much as the recent Iranian elections. Had Wendy's changed, we wondered, or was it merely successful in flooding Zagat's ballot boxes? We decided that it was time to pay the place another visit.
If nothing else, Wendy's has succeeded in living up to its full name - Wendy's Old Fashioned Hamburgers - by giving off the impression that it hasn't needed to evolve much with the times. While McDonald's and Burger King have spent the last 20 years marketing aggressively and expanding their franchises into the tens of thousands worldwide, Wendy's seemed to be coasting for a while, content to maintain its existing stores, a folksy image, and a familiar menu. Only after a marked decline in its stock price did it decide to sell itself to Triarc, the owner of Arby's, which then established what's now known as the Wendy's/Arby's Group; since that point, financial analysts have been trying to figure out which side of the combined company has real growth potential. Last week, the company publicly announced that it will be testing combined Wendy's and Arby's restaurants in an effort to cut expenses.
After our visit to Wendy's this past week, the reason was fairly obvious: Zagat acclaim aside, Wendy's feels like it hasn't changed for the better in years. Sure, there's a new menu item - Boneless Wings - which are being offered in Sweet & Spicy Asian, Bold Buffalo, and Honey BBQ versions. As wing fans, we excitedly ordered the Bold Buffalo version, only to discover that they were little more than seven breaded, overcooked chicken nuggets in a highly vinegared, semi-spicy sauce; neither of us liked the sauce or the quality of the chicken. Had that been the only reason we'd stopped at the restaurant, or the sole item we'd ordered, we'd have driven away disappointed and unwilling to return again.
But as familiar as we were with the Wendy's menu, we decided to order a bunch of items again just to see how they're tasting these days. We were most pleased with Wendy's Spicy Chicken Sandwich, a typical deep-fried chicken breast on a bun with pieces of tomato and lettuce, which was tender inside, crispy and a little spicy outside, and generally pretty good. Virtually every fast food chain serves some variation on this sandwich these days, and though we wouldn't call Wendy's anything special, we wouldn't turn it away, either.
The burgers, on the other hand, continue to underwhelm. Wendy's chief positive differentiators are the size and square shapes of its meat patties, which are marketed in Single (1/4 lb.), Double (1/2 lb.) and Triple (3/4 lb.) versions, alongside a less than 1/8 lb. Jr. version, the numbers all representing the burgers' pre-cooked weights. They're as unappealing visually as the burgers at McDonald's and Burger King, but whereas BK's meat has a nice, char-grilled flavor, Wendy's patties are almost as bland as the buns, with the pickles, tomatoes, lettuce, onions and sauces collectively adding little to their taste. Neither of us would order the burgers here again.
We felt the same about the French Fries. In years past, they were cut to be physically larger, but now they're roughly the same size as ones recently ordered from competitors, only more plainly flavored, unevenly cooked, and sparing inside the carton. They were at best shrug-worthy relative to the McDonald's and Burger King versions, which inspire more positive opinions; Arby's has hugely better options in its seasoned Curly Fries.
But Wendy's has always had one item we've loved: the Frosty. Described by the chain as a "dairy dessert," it's obvious that the Frosty is now considered to be a growth driver for the company, as what started as a post-meal treat of super-soft chocolate ice cream served in a cup has migrated over the last few years into an entire family of products. The "Original Frosty" is shown here in a yellow cup, an almost ice cream, almost shake that needs to be eaten with a spoon, not a straw. It's available now in chocolate and vanilla flavors, the latter more like the absence of chocolate than the presence of vanilla. Then there are Frosty Shakes, a Frosty Float mixing the ice cream and a beverage, and a Twisted Frosty made with candy bits and Frosty ice cream.
On this visit, we ordered two types of Frosty - the original chocolate ice cream version, and one of the newer shakes. The standard Frosty was a little less chocolatey than we recalled, yet still pretty good; we ate the entire thing with the included spoon and, apart from having to stop the car to share it, didn't mind a bit. By comparison, the Chocolate Fudge Frosty Shake was something pretty close to awful, much like drinking runny pudding through a straw. Topped with gooey whipped cream and a cherry, it didn't look good, didn't taste good, and struck us as a botched attempt to give people what they've wanted for years - a drinkable Frosty. Wendy's could keep experimenting with the Frosty Shake formula, or it could give up and just use Arby's milkshakes, which taste better.
So what could possibly explain Wendy's appeal? We'd chalk part of it up to differences in taste and menu preferences, and franchise to franchise variations, particularly in service and facilities. Years ago, Wendy's sought to distinguish itself from its bigger competitors by opening a salad bar and serving baked potatoes, which appealed to older customers - parents rather than kids - and won the company a lot of business. Everyone's offering similarly packaged salads now, but Wendy's still has its baked potatoes, which appeal to certain people. On the service and facilities side, we were intrigued by a recent reader comment: he likes the burgers at Burger King but has had such problems with slow service at the location he visits that he goes to Wendy's instead. We haven't found service at Burger King locations to be a problem at all, but there seems to be something to his complaint: the Zagat results showed Wendy's at the top of the list on facilities, plus number two behind Subway for service. Clearly, Wendy's doing something right. But at our closest locations, so is Burger King.
As noted in our separate coverage of Arby's, we wouldn't shed a tear if Wendy's locations were converted into Arby's, but we'd also be glad to see the two chains combine into a single fast food restaurant with a single menu: Wendy's would gain Arby's great fries and milkshakes, as well as a superior chicken tender rival to what Burger King and McDonald's are offering, while Arby's would gain real burger options and good chicken sandwiches. Moreover, Western New Yorkers would gain a fast food option with enough diversity and quality to really compete with the surging West Coast chains. Technical issues and franchisee resistance might well delay or prevent such an event, but in our view, it's worth doing - moreso than the combined Pizza Hut, KFC and Taco Bell restaurants that have been underway in various forms for years. Readers, what do you think?