Friday, May 18, 2007

Flooding the market with memories

Watching the chains churn out their new menu items for spring and summer, you quickly reach two conclusions: CKE Restaurants’ R&D team should be checked for steroids, and nostalgia is in.

Hardee’s, CKE’s southeastern chain, is where the two trends intertwine. Earlier this week, the burger specialist added a patty melt, a sandwich I first encountered when my folks took me to Howard Johnson’s. Hardee’s version is a bit different from the sandwich that shared the HoJo menu with specialties like Welsh Rarebit and the two-hotdog Daily Double. True to the prevailing current in fast-food, it’s more upscale than your father’s patty melt (the patty is Angus). Yet it also manages to fit the sector’s other key dynamic of heft (it’s the latest in Hardee’s Thickburger line). All for $2.99.

The patty melt follows the limited introduction just a few weeks ago of the Big Shef, the signature sandwich of Burger Chef, a chain that was ultimately absorbed into Hardee’s. For all extents and purposes, it’s not been on the scene for 20 years. Yet Hardee’s brought it back to play off fond memories.

It’s hardly alone in taking that tack. Wendy’s is expected to introduce what amount to ice cream floats—soft-serve ice cream mixed with cola or root beer. Jack in the Box added a grilled-cheese sandwich. Bennigan’s recently promoted fajitas, a staple of casual dining since the 1980s.One of the latest additions to the menu of Shari’s, the Northwestern family chain, was kielbasa, the Eastern European comfort food. Burger King is embracing iced coffee.

Perhaps those chains are reaching back for updates on classics in part out of sheer necessity. Chain R&D teams seemingly need to come up with so many more menu additions or limited-time offers these days. Not a day seems to go by without some system fly-casting a potential new customer lure into the market.

The volume leaders in that respect have to be Jack in the Box, which seems to introduce new products the way an independent spotlights specials, and Hardee’s. On the same day the introduction of the Big Shef was introduced, Hardee’s also aired plans to start serving turkey at breakfast as part of yet another nostalgic item, a club sandwich. And that intro came merely a few months after the launch of a spicy Buffalo-style chicken sandwich at both Hardee’s and its CKE sister, Carl’s Jr. Which, in turn, came just weeks after Hardee’s resurrected its Monster mega-burger.

Maybe there’s not much else to do in Hardee’s hometown of St. Louis except develop new menu items.

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