Fast Food Tries to Recapture Consumers

And to bring the message across to the consumer, the chain has launched new advertising campaigns featuring stars such as L.A. Laker Shaquille O'Neal and B.B. King.

"We're not completely turned around yet, but we've made significant progress," says Rob Doughty, Burger King's vice president of corporate communications.

Fast Food Getting Faster

Wendy's has also been making improvements, focusing on the all-important increasing speed of service and offering more healthy food options. The chain's new Garden Sensations salads launched in February feature items like Mandarin oranges, grape tomatoes, mixed varieties of lettuce and condiments like low-fat salad dressing and Chinese rice noodles on the side.

And even though Wendy's has garnered the top spot in industry drive-through studies two years in a row (this time with an average service time of 141.73 seconds), it is still going for even faster service speeds.

"Our goal is to serve a customer in roughly 120 seconds or so by the time they place the order until they get it through the window," says Wendy's spokesman Bob Bertini.

Even increasingly popular chains like Subway are not resting on their laurels. Subway recently introduced new gourmet breads and sandwiches like a sweet onion chicken teriyaki sub to its line-up.

Low-Fat Flubs

Fast-food purveyors must walk a delicate balancing act to lure new customers and make their menus more exciting, say industry watchers. By offering new items to win over more health-conscious eaters, they must also make sure to cater to their core audience of fast food aficionados.

A classic example was McDonald's introduction of its McLean burger in 1990, which had two-thirds less fat than its regular burger. The company later dropped the item in 1996 after deciding that customers didn't go to fast-food outlets for low-fat foods.

Too many product introductions with not enough marketing or franchisee support can also cause confusion among consumers, say analysts. They note that product introductions are often an expensive prospect because chains might need to put in new equipment to serve the items.

"Adding a menu item to meet the customers' demand of diversity is not a small issue," says Faiola. "When you're in a McDonalds and you've got a 90-second target, the system has got to be perfect."

And others add that while quality food served quickly in a comfortable clean environment may sound like common sense, it is the execution of the plan that separates the winners from the losers.

"You can grow both sales and profits more reliably just be introducing quality food making sure that the environment is nice enough to sit down and relax. That's what Wendy's has done," says Milling, adding, "These are sort of very basic concepts that are actually pretty difficult to execute."

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