This may go down as the year fast food spun out of control.
Back in April of this year, KFC debuted a greasy new breadless sandwich featuring bacon and tons of cheese stuffed between two boneless fried chicken cutlets. Buns were no longer part of the sandwich equation. KFC called it the Double Down, but they might as well have named it The Revolution. Needless to say, the media ate up the story. The New York Times taste-tested the product, labeling it “a disgusting meal,” while Stephen Colbert referred to the sandwich as “deep-fried madness.”
“The Double Down set a whole new standard in the ridiculousness of these fast food creations,” says Robert Thompson, a professor at Syracuse University and expert on all things pop culture. “What the nuclear bomb was to warfare, the Double Down is to fast food. It’s almost like a parody.”
This interpretation may sound over the top, but consider the seemingly never-ending battle for media and consumer attention that fast food companies have waged in the months since KFC unveiled the new meal.
Weeks after the Double Down was released, IHOP turned out an extreme dish of pancakes stuffed with cheesecake, which The Miami New Times described as apocalyptic. This was followed in June by a cheeseburger from Friendly’s stuffed between two grilled cheese sandwiches.
The next month, Carl’s Jr. began testing a new footlong burger in a few stores throughout Orange County and Indianapolis. And, as if to emphasize the chain’s ability to turn out products that would put the fear of God in your arteries, Carl’s Jr. this week re-released a charbroiled burger topped with a Philly Cheesesteak sandwich. The meal originally appeared for a limited time in 2006.
Why are so many extremely decadent fast food products popping up this year? And what makes this year different than the others?
“The restaurant industry has had a very difficult time in the last year and a half, and these companies are in competition to get heard above the fray,” says Harry Balzer, Chief Industry Analyst and VP of NPD Group, a market research firm. “They are under great pressure to get their promotions noticed.”
Fast food chains in particular have suffered during the economic downturn. Every new financial quarter seems to bring bad news. Sales from kids’ meals dropped by 11% in 2008; fewer Americans bought fast food breakfasts last year since fewer were heading to work in the morning, and sales of fast food staples like french fries suffered a slow decline throughout much of the last decade.
In fact, according to the NPD Group, the number of consumers dining at fast food stores in June of this year had dropped 2%, compared to June 2009. This comes after the number already declined by 1% the year before that.