By Tiffany Hsu
The New York Times
From Our NYT Files: Meat Wrapped in Meat. Doughnut Sandwiches. Want Some of Fast Food’s Big Ideas?
Restaurant chains in pursuit of innovative menu items that will lure in new customers or give loyal eaters a reason to spend a few extra dollars — like Chipotle, which recently unveiled plans to offer a Mexican chocolate shake — have used focus groups, scientific engineering, marketing campaigns, and generous helpings of sugar and salt to create that potential hit Some of the resulting concoctions have developed cult followings, becoming the quick-service version of the Cronut, starring in Instagram feeds. Others have flamed out pretty quickly. They come in neon hues, in sweet-and-savory mash-ups and in outlandish sizes. These fast-food Frankensteins are meant to provoke; many don’t taste particularly good. [Chipotle is about to begin offering five new food items that will challenge the chain’s reputation for efficiency.] But even notoriety draws attention, which can bring in curious customers. Following is a look at ideas both celebrated and derided from companies like McDonald’s, KFC, Taco Bell and more.
KFC’s Double Down
This stack of meat masquerading as a sandwich was a study in beige: deep-fried chicken fillets subbing in for bread, bacon replacing lettuce, melted cheese supplanting tomato. Although loaded with a prodigious quantity of protein, the Double Down actually had the same caloric content as a McDonald’s Big Mac. More than 10 million sold in the Double Down’s first month in 2010, but the product had been designed as a temporary promotion and was pulled a few months later. In 2015, when KFC briefly revived the Double Down in the Philippines, it added the obvious missing ingredient: a hot dog.
This sandwich had more comebacks than Robert Downey Jr., emerging occasionally in select regions after being introduced as a limited-edition item in 1981. Made with a boneless slab of pork, slathered in barbecue sauce and topped with pickles, the McRib attracted a passionate following that tracked its whereabouts and composed heartfelt songs in its name. The chain’s limited-edition Shamrock Shake and Szechuan sauce — quirky items that make cameo appearances on the menu once in a while — have generated similar devotion. But creations like the McDLT, a burger split into two Styrofoam compartments to separate the lettuce and tomato from the beef, eventually fell flat.
Taco Bell’s Doritos Locos Tacos
Other than the stunningly orange exterior modeled after Doritos chips, this taco was like any other available at the chain, packed with seasoned beef, lettuce and cheese. But the snack-food tie-in shell was enough to help Taco Bell sell 100 million Doritos Locos Tacos within 10 weeks of making them available in 2012. Since then, the chain has rolled out variations in spicy, Cool Ranch and nacho cheese flavors. Burger King later tried its own snack-food, fast-food fusion, caking morsels of macaroni and cheese in Cheetos-flavored breading.
Dunkin’ Donuts’ Glazed Donut Breakfast Sandwich
It must have seemed like a stunning brainstorm in the Dunkin’ labs, a striking combination of sweet and savory: a fried egg and bacon held together by a glazed doughnut sliced in half. Reviewers, though, were mostly unimpressed when it debuted in 2013, calling it “more kitsch than delish.” It quickly disappeared from menus.
Starbucks’s Pumpkin Spice Latte
The immense popularity of this autumn beverage, which inspired similarly flavored cookies, cereals and candies after it was created in a Seattle lab in 2003, so terrifies Starbucks baristas that they gather online before the drink’s return each year to voice their fear of the coming crowds. But the latte, which Starbucks calls the PSL, is far more sedate than the rainbow-hued unicorn-inspired Frappuccino the chain introduced in 2017.
Pizza Hut’s Hot Dog Bites Pizza
In its protest against culinary subtlety, Pizza Hut took a large pizza, surrounded it with a crown of 28 tiny hot dogs, sort of pigs-in-a-blanket style, and served it with mustard. This trypophobia-inducing stunt originated in Asia and, in 2015, arrived in the United States, where it was promptly deemed “a deathtrap,” “a freakshow combo” and “visually upsetting.” It no longer appears on the company’s online menu.
This long-requested cheese dip was heralded by the company as an all-natural mix of 23 ingredients without the industrial additives common in other versions. But when it was first offered last year, Chipotle’s health-conscious rendition of queso was derided as grainy and tasteless (in an echo of Burger King’s deeply unpopular lower-fat Satisfries french fries a few years earlier). The company quietly adjusted the recipe.