MIAMI — Burger King is trying to revive its ailing empire with a rival's recipe for success.
After years of lackluster sales of its Whoppers and fries, the struggling fast-food giant on Monday launched 10 food items in its biggest menu expansion since the chain was started in 1954.
But there are unmistakable similarities between Burger King's new lineup and the offerings its much-bigger rival has rolled out in recent years. The Golden Arches already rolled out specialty salads in 2003, snack wraps in 2006, premium coffee drinks in 2009, and fruit smoothies in 2010.
Burger King doesn't deny that its new chicken strips, caramel frappe coffees, Caesar salads and strawberry-banana smoothies sound pretty close to those on McDonald's popular menu. But executives say the company came up with them through its research.
"Consumers wanted more choices," said Steve Wiborg, president of Burger King's North America operations. "Not just healthy choices, but choices they could get at the competition."
The menu additions are part of Burger King's plan to abandon its nearly single-minded courtship of young men, who were once the lifeblood of the industry but were hard hit by the economic downturn. Competitors went after new customers with breakfast items and healthier fare, but Burger King let its menu get stale. As a result, Burger King for the first time was edged out by Wendy's last year as the nation's No. 2 burger chain.
To stem the decline, Burger King executives last year decided to modernize the 7,200-restaurant chain's aging stores, redesign worker uniforms with aprons so they stay clean and even serve the iconic Whopper in cardboard cartons instead of paper wrapping for the first time in more than 20 years. Food, however, is at the heart of their plan.
The revamp is nevertheless a gamble. Burger King's new food could be a flop, and of course, the chain is already late to the party.
"Being an innovator is critical in the fast-food industry," said Darren Tristano, an analyst for the food industry researcher Technomic.
But food isn't Burger King's only problem. Many of its restaurants are showing signs of aging. So the company decided it wanted to give them a more modern look that mixes leather armchairs, high stools and plastic chairs in warmer lighting. High partitions will create more privacy in some seating areas. The makeover costs an average of more than $275,000 per restaurant.
That presents another challenge: getting buy-in from franchisees, who own 90 percent of the chain's U.S. stores. So the company is offering those who sign up for the remodeling incentives, such as a 50 percent discount on the annual $50,000 franchise fee.
So far, more than 1,000 franchise locations are slated to be updated in the next year. Over the next three years, 2,500 will be remodeled.
To get the word out about the changes, Burger King is rolling out its biggest marketing campaign ever. TV ads will feature celebrities, including soccer player David Beckham, comedian Jay Leno and actor Salma Hayek. In one spot, R&B singer Mary J. Blige croons the ingredients of the snack wraps.