Wendy's new pretzel burger seeks prestige

The fast-food chain looks to its new bun for help drawing bigger spenders.

By Jason Notte Jan 9, 2013 3:53PM

Wendy's Co. sign outside of a restaurant in Daly City, Calif. (David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images)Nothing says "classy joint" quite like sandwiching a bacon cheeseburger in the middle of a pretzel.

Angling for the kind of refinement customers can typically only find at their local Panera Bread or Red Robin, Wendy's (WEN) outlets in Miami have begun offering a Pretzel Bacon Cheeseburger for a limited time. ESPN's Darren Rovell tweeted out a photo of the big burger and, aside from the hearty hot-crossed bun above and below it, the burger doesn't look altogether different from its Bacon Deluxe or Baconator sandwiches.

That is, of course, the entire point. The fast-food industry of late has been awash in standard offerings sandwiched in the gimmick of the moment, with recent examples including Yum Brands' (YUM) chicken-as-bread Double Down sandwich from KFC, Taco Bell's Doritos-shell tacos and Pizza Hut Singapore's Double Sensation pizza within a pizza. The only difference in Wendy's case is that the chain sees a pretzel bun not as a fast-food frivolity, but a step away from its drive-thru roots.

Wendy's really wants to improve the eating public's perception of its food quality, especially as climbing meat costs force it to raise prices and independent competitors like Five Guys, In-N-Out Burger and Whattaburger squeeze its burger market share. Wendy's recently drifted away from its 99-cent menu in favor of a “Right Size, Right Price” value menu with items topping out at $2.

Combined with modernized outlets designed to look more like Panera Bread or Cosi than a burger shack, Wendy's new pretzel bun is attempting to woo eaters who may not be so put off by low-end price hikes. Wendy's honchos hinted at a pretzel bun as early as this summer and noted that Wendy's own bakery could help it provide "five star quality breads at three-star pricing."

While the chain also intends to add flatbreads for its chicken sandwiches, it believes the pretzel roll is key to winning the hearts and minds of the fast-food averse. Shelly Thobe, head of Wendy's hamburger division, told the Associated Press that breads like the pretzel roll not only distinguish Wendy's from fast-food competitors, but make it appealing to customers who "eat with their eyes" and have long spurned the squashed, cottony hamburger bun.

But is a pretzel bun really Wendy's key to the big-money, high-prestige fast-casual diner's club? Yes, but perhaps not as Wendy's has in mind. Red Robin pulled out the pretzel buns for its Oktoberfest offerings last fall, but used them for an Oktoberfest burger that was paired with a milkshake infused with Samuel Adams (SAM) Octoberfest beer. Zagat reported that California fast-casual mini-chain Slater's 50/50 sandwiched an "Armageddon Burger" of meatloaf made with 50% bacon and 50% ground beef and stacked with prosciutto inside a pretzel bun in advance of the supposed Mayan apocalypse on Dec. 21.

Also, high-end burgers haven't worked out so well for Wendy's heavy-hitting competitors. McDonald's (MCD) has experimented with premium angus burgers, gourmet coffee and smoothies, but turned back to the McRib and value menu after slumping October sales indicated customers wanted cheap and familiar options. Burger King (BKW), meanwhile, pursued the 18- to 34-year-old male demographic with giant, beefy burgers before giving up earlier this year and adding premium chicken sandwiches and smoothies for everyone else.

Changing Wendy's bun is a slightly lesser risk, but in both fast food and fast casual, the pretzel bun isn't a status symbol. It's a novelty. As long as customers pay sit-down prices for the pretzel-clad burger in their to-go bag, though, Wendy's can twist it any way it wants.

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Jan 10, 2013 4:25PM

I must have read a different article.  How did a article on buns lead to rants about politics?

Jan 9, 2013 4:19PM
let see this is not rocket science look at all the millionaire senators and congressman .who do not have to get obama care hmmmm if its good for the rest of us why not them....they serve 1 1/2 terms the get free health care and retirement ...how nice of those millionaires to set that up for them selfs....
Jan 10, 2013 6:51PM
"..it believes the pretzel roll is key to winning the hearts and minds of the fast-food averse."

Honey, you could line your buns (hamburger) with gold and I wouldn't eat your nasty food.  Last time I was in a Wendy's (30 years ago?) it smelled like the old-folks' diner in the the old Woolworth's store at the mall when I was a kid.  BO and something else I still can not identify.

My charcoal grill, fresh burger from the local butcher, and an ESB to wash it down. 10X the taste, about half the cost.
Jan 9, 2013 5:31PM
LMAO - hows all that FREE Obama stuff looking NOW?  Free education, Free Healthcare, Free food for all the losers in society may just cost you your job and the ENTIRE Working class will pay for them.
Jan 9, 2013 5:44PM

Obama Care is a detriment to society. If the public wants the Deadly Insurance, Insurance Companies and not employers should be forced to provide individual Death Insurance to individuals who pay the insurance company directly for the death insurance.

Jan 9, 2013 4:05PM
I will boycott Wendy's just like I am Poppa Johns Pizza. Any business that will not provide health benefits to it's full time employees deserves to go under.
Jan 10, 2013 4:09PM
Wendy's is and always will be a nasty s*ithole with horrible customer service and mediocre food. Speaking of customer service, I dont think it exists anymore...Anywhere!
Jan 9, 2013 6:21PM
I love Wendys but we will stop going there if they don't care about the people that work for them. Maybe people should wonder if the people that they keep will come to work sick. I want to eat in a healthy environment.
It is just greed.

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