TAMPA — You know they mean business when a pickle chemist is called in.
Not since it began in 1969 has Wendy's revisited its basic burger building blocks. Last week, the 6,600-restaurant chain unveiled the new Dave's Hot 'N Juicy burger lineup (named, of course, in honor of founder Dave Thomas, who died in 2002). Tampa Bay area Wendy's locations have rolled out the new burgers, hoping the results of this "Project Gold Hamburger" push will put Wendy's back in the game.
According to research firm Technomic, last year McDonald's cornered 49.5 percent of the fast-food burger market, squeezing Wendy's down to 12.8 percent and Burger King to 17 percent, marked losses for both burger giants. Add to this a rash of new "gourmet burger" joints, and Wendy's faced fierce competition from all sides.
Shortly after Wendy's was purchased by hedge fund magnate Nelson Peltz in 2009, company executives set about re-examining its burgers. They polled 10,000 consumers about likes and dislikes; they scrutinized buns, fat content and condiments from onions to lettuce. To see if all of that research paid off, we headed out at lunch recently to see how this particular extreme makeover fared, dropping by a Wendy's on Henderson Boulevard in Tampa for the double cheese combo.
Let's start with the new buns. They're buttered and toasted. True enough, but a soft texture precludes the intended crispiness. In fact, the round, unseeded, medium brown bun seemed somewhat rumpled, like an inexpertly made bed (a new half-box has been developed to protect the burger — this outlet must not have received them yet). Its flavor, however, had a buttery richness, which complemented thicker patties of beef. Press material indicates that the beef is all North American in provenance, never frozen, but that the fat content has not been tinkered with. Still, the thicker patties made for a lusher, "meatier" flavor.
Still, these patties are Wendy's traditional square shape (but not as precisely cut as previously, more natural looking). My geometry grades were never too impressive, but I call your attention to this: Buns are round; tomatoes, round; pickles, round; red onion, round; lettuce and molten cheese, er, irregular decagons or something. Thus, the points on a Wendy's hamburger are nude. Not a bad thing, necessarily, but the burger's other flavors tend to be piled up toward the middle.
Red onion (sweet, still crunchy) is an improvement over the old white. The tomatoes are supposedly thicker than heretofore. I couldn't read a newspaper through mine, but close; this change must be measured in microns. The iceberg lettuce, which is said to be "hand leafed" (a cryptic phrase, that) was ample, juicy and crunchy, and two slices of American cheese made for a satisfying amount of orange goo. No mustard, a careful amount of ketchup and good-tasting mayo, along with a couple of crinkle-cut pickle rounds (that's where the pickle chemist's scrutiny came in) round out the burger, which clocks in at a hefty 810 calories.
In total: a big improvement over my last Wendy's outing.
Of course, price needs to be considered. Wendy's franchisees set the prices individually. My double cheese combo, which contained a half-pound of meat, was $6.19 (including medium drink and medium fries, which, in a change late last year, are hand-cut and sprinkled with sea salt, very nice).
The closest McDonald's sells its double quarter pounder with cheese, medium drink, medium fries for $6.29.
The debut of Dave's Hot 'N Juicy? I bet McDonald's is not lovin' it.
Laura Reiley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293.