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 this month 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 McDonald’s 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. McDonald’s solidified its hold on No. 1.
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 Inc. But in recent years, he said Burger King has been more of a follower.
Eddie Yoon, a principal at consulting firm The Cambridge Group, said companies like Burger King that come out with similar products as their rivals can be successful only if they offer lower prices or superior taste. But if it’s merely a “me too” strategy, he said Burger King’s venture could fall flat.
“You can have football teams, and just because they’re both running the same offense it doesn’t mean it will work the same,” said Yoon.
The fast-food industry has undergone a shift in recent years. Just five years ago, the top three fast-food companies were all burger chains. But concerns over obesity have paved the way for competitors like Subway, now the second-biggest chain, and Starbucks, which climbed up the rankings to the No. 3 spot. Smaller players such as Five Guys, which sells made-to-order burgers, are gaining ground too.