Two weeks after Wendy’s bumped Burger King out of the No. 2 spot among hamburger chains, the King has unveiled a new menu, new marketing and a new look. But is it too late?
As I wrote about on TIME Business last week, fast food restaurants have been feeling pressure over the past several years from the rise of fast-casual establishments like Panera Bread, Chipotle and Five Guys, which offer quick service but higher quality menu items relative to your traditional burger joint. Those restaurants have been wildly popular over the past few years, growing in both sales and number of units. And fast-food chains have taken notice.
McDonald’s jump-started fast-food’s transformation in 2003 when it started offering more premium items and healthier choices, which is why we now have the choice of Angus burgers and premium salads in addition to the more traditional $1 McDouble and a Big Mac.
After seeing McDonald’s success in refreshing its menu, other fast-food chains began implementing similar changes, including Wendy’s, which began its own transformation a few years ago. Now it sells chicken sandwiches topped with asiago cheese and is even testing it’s own high-end “Black Label” burgers.
Now, Burger King has finally announced its own reinvention. On Monday, Burger King unveiled a top-to-bottom revamp of its menu, marketing strategy and its physical locations.
First, the menu: Patrons will now be able to order higher-end salads, snack wraps, fruit smoothies and mocha and caramel frappes. Even the Whopper itself is getting an update: It will now have one thick slice of cheese rather than two thin ones.
After ditching its rather menacing King mascot last year, the chain will return to using celebrities again in its TV spots, including soccer star David Beckham and late-night talk show host Jay Leno.
The establishments themselves will also get an update. Joining in the trend toward more Starbucks-style hangouts, BK will now have softer, couch-like chairs. Plus, the menu boards will switch to digital screens. Burger King says it will spend about $750 million over the next year to update close to 1,000 of its more than 7,000 stores in the U.S.
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The big question is this: Has the King waited too long? Did it get too comfortable as its rivals saw a chance to stage a coup?
Probably not. Even though sales have been flat over the last five years, Burger King still had $8.4 billion in sales in 2011, only slightly less than Wendy’s. Burger King still outnumbers Wendy’s by several hundred in terms of number of restaurants. And the Whopper continues to be one of the most recognizable brands in fast food.
Some analysts are saying that Burger King may be taking on too much at once. But considering everyone else in the industry is moving in the same direction, it’s almost as if the King didn’t have a choice.