Wendy’s Beats Burger King — By Rounding Its Hamburgers?

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Paul Vernon / AP

It’s been nearly three decades since Wendy’s started asking America “Where’s the beef?” As it turns out, the question it should have been asking all along was, “What shape is the beef?” The longstanding third-place hamburger chain is on pace to eclipse second-place rival Burger King — thanks in part to a subtle rounding of its signature square patties. Analysts say we will have eaten $175 billion worth of fast-food grub this year, up 3% from last year. According to the Wall Street Journal, Americans will spend a total of $53 million more at Wendy’s this year than we will at Burger King, even though Wendy’s didn’t expand its number of restaurants this year. (Top dog McDonald’s is much bigger than either of these two.)

After struggling in third place for years, Wendy’s underwent a change in ownership in 2008, after which it spent a year and a half overhauling its menu. The brand undertook extensive consumer tests on every element of its dishes, from potatoes to pickle slices (it opted for crinkle-sliced over plain). One breakthrough came when Wendy’s executives realized that customers perceived their burgers as overly processed because of their square shape. Although they’re actually fresh, their shape was giving them a bad rap among the more discerning diner Wendy’s was trying to court.

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But those square burgers are a highly visible, distinguishing feature that sets the chain apart from its competitors. Switching to an entirely round burger was out of the question. So Wendy’s test kitchen came up with what the company calls a “natural square,” a thicker patty with slightly uneven edges that give the burger a hand-shaped feel.

Other tweaks to the menu were also designed to woo more discriminating taste buds. French fries now come with the potato skin still on and dusted with sea salt. Less mainstream fast-food ingredients like pecans and asiago cheese have been added to the line-up.

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Customers have responded the way Wendy’s hoped they would, even though it also raised prices after unveiling its foodie-friendly changes. For the fiscal quarter that ended in early October, the Journal says Wendy’s revenue was $611.4 million while Burger King’s was $608 million. Even in a challenging economy, it seems American diners are willing to pay a little more for a better hamburger.