Friday, April 04, 2008

A different sort of Big Mac attack

Fast food is getting less respect these days than Kevin Federline’s acting abilities, even from quick-service chains themselves. Marketing campaign after marketing campaign is disparaging the fare as the sort of mass-produced plastic you won’t have to choke down at ______ (insert the name of whatever family, casual or fast-food chain is airing the ads, be it McDonald’s, Denny’s, Taco Bell, Bonanza/Ponderosa or KFC). Invariably, the spots proceed to point out that you don’t have to pay more, in time or money, for “real” food.

Much of the mud is being flung at fast-food breakfasts, which have been selling like, well, hotcakes. Denny’s current campaign blasts them explicitly as fake, unlike the true platters you’d find at the home of the Grand Slam.

McDonald’s touts its McSkillet Burrito as “a sit-down-style weekend breakfast you can eat on the go.” Translation: The real food you’d buy after church at a Denny’s, available every day via a drive-thru.

Panera Bread is bragging that its new breakfast sandwich line is a morning option “made by bakers, not microwaves.” In Tuesday’s announcement of the rollout, CEO Ron Shaich crows that “we’ve developed a hand-crafted, made-to-order grilled breakfast sandwich that literally breaks the mold.”

Chains of all stripes are equally adamant about differentiating their lunch and dinner fare from fast food. The campaign that broke Monday for Bonanza and Ponderosa touts the sister chains’ buffet specifically as an alternative to burgers and that lot. Give it a try, the promotion stresses, “because great tasting meals aren’t served in a wrapper.” It slams quick-service value meals in particular, asserting that they’re "not much of a value or a meal.” Curiously, however, the effort subtly promotes visits to a quick-service chain. The budget steak brands are inviting patrons to submit a bag or receipt from a fast-food place to get a break on the price of the buffet. Eat at a burger or fried chicken joint one day, the promotion suggests, and you can have unlimited fresh fare the next day for $5 at lunch or $8 at dinner. “This is an incredible alternative to getting lunch or dinner in a bag at a drive-thru window,” says Sheryl Randolph, senior director of marketing for the pair.

Here again, even the major fast-food brands are scrambling to showcase products you wouldn’t associate with fast food. Taco Bell describes its Fiesta Platters as “a complete real meal solution,” “the favorite dishes of a sit down Mexican meal in a convenient and portable plate.” Promotional materials also stressed the price: a mere $4.99, or probably less than you’d spend in a full-service place.

Sister concept KFC is sounding a similar tune for its new Kentucky Grilled Chicken. President Gregg Dedrick proudly cites research indications that consumers view the fast feeder's new non-fried option as a "step above fast food."

All of the initiatives echo what Carl’s Jr. did several years ago with its Six Dollar Burger, a sandwich touted as being as good as the burger you’d spend $6 to get in a casual-dining restaurant, available at just over half that price from the West Coast stalwart. You’d think it’d be the most zealous proponent of the movement. Yet the CKE Restaurant holding is one of the few quick-service burger brands not to adapt the café-caliber coffee that consumers can now find at almost every other player of size. Nor is Carl’s racing to develop the Jamba Juice-caliber smoothies you’ll soon be able to buy at fast-food places ranging from a Taco Bell to a Dairy Queen.

If Carl’s is once again astutely gauging which way the pendulum will swing, the key question could be how long fast food remains the standard against which all chains, even the brands most readily affiliated with that style of fare, are favorably gauging what they serve.

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