5 healthy fast-food failures

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MADRID, SPAIN - MARCH 07: Singer Mario Vaquerizo presents Burger King's 'Satisfries' at a Burger King store on March 7, 2014 in Madrid, Spain. (Photo by Eduardo Parra/Getty Images)

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Fast-food restaurants’ healthier offerings don’t do much for Americans’ bottoms or the chains’ bottom lines. After all, experts say, customers generally don’t show up for the supersized salads. Burger King hoped to change that with its new “Satisfries,” but announced on Wednesday that its menu will be a little lighter from now on: Satisfries are getting the chop.

Introduced last September, Burger King’s Satisfries were an attempt to appeal to people who were worried about calories, and Burger King claimed they had 30% fewer calories and 40% less fat than McDonald’s (MCD)  french fries. But history shows such efforts—even when relatively successful—do more to improve the brand’s image than its revenues, analysts say. And sometimes, healthy menu items are left on the shelf.

When Burger King (BKW) returned to the public market in June 2012—introduced one of the biggest menu revamps since the company began in 1954. Its “fresh offers” include strawberry and banana smoothies, Caesar salads and crispy chicken strips.

As for smoothies, though the blended yogurt drinks tend to have higher margins, they are unlikely to ever beat sales of fries, says R.J. Hottovy, an analyst with Morningstar. “Guilty pleasures still carry more weight for consumers,” he says. “But the industry is in a secular decline so it’s looking for new ways to drive traffic.”

Indeed, studies show even the prominent display of nutritional information has had mixed results in changing customer behavior. One 2008 study in the “American Journal of Public Health” said Subway patrons who saw calorie information purchased 52 fewer calories than other patrons. However, another 2011 survey in the “British Medical Journal” said only one-in-six New Yorkers counted calories before making a purchase. One explanation: even the healthy options are not always so healthy, according to Steffie Woolhandler, professor of public health at the City University of New York. “Frozen yogurt products have as many calories as ice-cream,” she says. Burger King’s menu, for instance, includes a mocha frappé with caramel sauce (600 calories for a 20-ounce cup).

That said, adding salads and other healthy choices does help fast-food chains appeal to families—if only to get them in the door, experts say. A McDonald’s spokeswoman says the restaurant aims to provide options for all tastes, “whether you want oatmeal or a Big Mac.” But Hottovy says it’s tough to change the consumer’s perception of a fast-food restaurant even with a wider selection on the menu. That’s why KFC’s “Double Down”—two pieces of bacon and cheese smothered by two giant hunks of breaded chicken—was a hit online and in the restaurants, Hottovy says.

The chains’ attempts at healthy fare often don’t do as well. Here are four of the biggest nutritious fast-food flops:

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Dairy Queen’s Breeze

The 1990s had high-waisted jeans, “Friends” and Dairy Queen’s Breeze. The latter is probably not as famous as the rest—with good reason. The Breeze was a low-fat “cholesterol-free” frozen yogurt vanilla drink, says Dairy Queen spokesman Dean Peters. It was marketed as a healthier spinoff of the Blizzard, a “soft-serve” whipped dessert with 5% butter fat. (Technically, Peters says a dessert needs to have 10% butter fat to be deemed real ice-cream.) Alas, the Breeze was blown out of the soft-serve machine by the Blizzard. “The Blizzard was way, way bigger,” Peters say. “It’s still our No. 1 signature product.” In its first couple of years, the Blizzard sold over 100 million. “The demand wasn’t there so it was phased out,” he says. Figures for the Breeze, which was discontinued at the end of the 1990s, weren't available. Dairy Queen has since abandoned all drinks with frozen yogurt.

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Wendy’s Tomato Surprise

In 1985, the girl with the Nancy Reagan red pigtails launched a vegetarian treat aimed at health-conscious customers: a tomato with cottage cheese and pineapple. There was no bread and it was served on a small plastic plate. Customers just said no. “It didn’t fare well and we had to take it off,” says company spokesman Denny Lynch. The name didn’t stick either and remains locked away in the archives. But these tomato and cottage cheese treats got a big push: at that time, Wendy’s (WEN) spent around $10 million marketing its Wendy’s Lite Menu. In fairness, Wendy’s has prided itself on serving beef that was never frozen and fresh salads, says Morningstar analyst Jocelyn McKay. “Wendy’s burgers do have a more upscale taste,” she says. “But during the downturn that higher quality came at a higher price.” Currently, Wendy’s offers Garden Side Salads (210 calories) and Caesar Side Salads (250 calories) in lieu of fries.

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Burger King’s Sliders

In the 1980s, Burger King’s sliders came, went, came back, and slipped through the flame-broiled grill of posterity once again—before making one final appearance in 2009. The chain’s attempts at popularizing mini-burger sliders never became part of the main menu. In 1987, the fast-food chain launched a series of sliders called Burger Bundles (costing 99 cents) and Burger Buddies—different name, same idea—later in the 1980s and Burger Shots in 2009 ($1.39 for a two-pack and $4.09 for a six-pack). The TV advert for Burger Bundles which lives on through YouTube, “Try ‘em on for size!” But Americans tried them and decided that bigger was better. Burger King currently offers man-sized burgers only. The biggest remains the Triple Whopper Sandwich. It carries a whopping 1,140 calories. Burger King did not respond to requests for comment.

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McDonald’s McLean Deluxe

Supershrink me. That’s what McDonald’s (MCD)  tried to do to its burger patties in 1991. They looked the same size, but the McLean Deluxe burgers contained only 9% fat and beef only made up 90% of the patty. Lenny Lesser, a family physician and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Clinical Scholar at UCLA, says people go to fast-food restaurants partly because they know exactly what they’re getting. With the McLean Deluxe, water and seaweed extracts made up the other 10% of the patty’s contents. McDonald’s dropped the burger in 1996. A spokeswoman for McDonald’s declined to speculate on the reasons why it was withdrawn, and said sales figures for the McLean weren't available. Ronald McDonald had more recent success with Chicken McBites. Despite their bite-sized name, however, they have 310 calories for 3 ounces versus 280 calories for the 3.4oz Chicken McNuggets.

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McDonald’s Hula Burger

If it sounds like something people eat on honeymoon in Hawaii, that is probably because the Hula Burger—a slab of pineapple and cheese sandwiched between two buns—only became a regular part of McDonald’s menus in Hawaii, according to a spokeswoman for the restaurant chain. In the early 1960s, Lou Groen, an owner of a chain of several McDonald’s franchises, had a wager with the company’s then-chief Ray Kroc to see who could come up with a meat-free Friday favorite; many Catholic customers in those days did not eat meat on Fridays. Kroc developed the Hula Burger and Groen created the Filet-O-Fish, a sandwich with fish, cheese and tartar source. The Filet-O-Fish is still a staple on McDonald’s menus everywhere, while the Hula Burger essentially danced its way into oblivion.





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