Why More Extreme Foods Are Creeping Onto Menus

comp_badfood17__01__630x420For Americans who haven’t been to a state fair recently or who are unacquainted with Paula Deen’s style of Southern comfort food, this may come as a surprise: Some people make sandwiches with doughnuts. Now a doughnut sandwich is available for a lucky (or brave) few at none other than Dunkin’ Donuts (DNKN). The chain is testing a Glazed Donut Breakfast Sandwich—there’s a pepper fried egg and cherrywood-smoked bacon inside—in about a dozen stores in the Boston area.

“We’ve seen our customers buy doughnuts in the summertime to bring to the family cookout and put burgers on them,” says Dunkin’ executive chef Stan Frankenthaler, who runs the chain’s test kitchen. “We make sandwiches for ourselves on doughnuts.” Trying out the salty-sweet treat with customers seemed natural. Reactions to the doughnut sandwich, Frankenthaler says, have ranged from, “Oh my God, why?” to “Oh my God, why not?”

The Glazed Donut Breakfast Sandwich is one of many curious new items offered by restaurant chains, often for a limited time, to attract that adventure-seeking, fast-food-eating creature known as the young American male. Food-industry researcher Technomic reports that 34 percent of young men eat fast food several times a week; only 23 percent of young women do. So many restaurant menus are crafted with the Y chromosome in mind. Taco Bell’s Doritos Locos Tacos? Dude food. Crazy Cheesy Crust Pizza at Pizza Hut? Dude food. The Bacon Cheddar Stuffed Burger at Burger King (BKW)? Ditto. And who do you think is chugging Johnny Rockets’ Big Apple Shake? (That’s the one with an entire slice of apple pie blended into a milkshake.) “The younger generation is looking for fun things to try, interesting things to talk about,” says Technomic Executive Vice President Darren Tristano.Marketers have no shortage of ideas to test. It’s hard to rule anything out.”

Wait—aren’t Americans supposed to be eating healthier foods? Yes, and no. “At home, consumers are more careful about what they eat,” says Bonnie Riggs, a restaurant industry analyst at research firm NPD Group. “At restaurants, they are more indulgent.” In a recent survey, Riggs says, only 8 percent of consumers said they look for healthy options when they go out to eat. “And that’s not necessarily what they do,” she says. “That’s what they say they are looking for.”

Most fast-food chains have added a dish or two that could conceivably qualify as healthy and several that definitely wouldn’t. In March, Burger King began offering burgers stuffed with bacon and cheddar and topped with onion rings, as well as tater tots filled with bacon and onions. It also started selling turkey and veggie burgers. The bacon cheeseburger has 650 calories and 39 grams of fat; the veggie burger, served with mayonnaise, has 410 calories and 16 grams.

Among the most successful in the more-is-more category of food is the Doritos Locos Tacos, which Yum! Brands’ (YUM) Taco Bell introduced a year ago. It has sold 375 million servings of the tacos, which feature the familiar flavors of the popular tortilla chip brand. “If those were around when I was in college, I would have eaten them all the time,” says Sam Oches, the 26-year-old editor of the trade magazine QSR (which stands for quick service restaurants). “They are for a very specific demographic.” The tacos are made with regular Taco Bell fillings and a specially created Doritos shell. Taco Bell started with a Nacho Cheese Taco; in March it brought out a Cool Ranch version. Now PepsiCo (PEP), which owns Doritos, is selling a Doritos Locos Taco-flavored chip for a short time this spring. Dude!

Pizza Hut, another Yum! Brands unit, has found a way to deliver even more cheese to customers. The chain’s new pizza has 16 open-face pockets along the crust brimming with its Italian five-cheese blend. Before its introduction, the pizza was internally known as the Stuffed Italiano, which didn’t sound extreme, just strange. By early April, when it was launched for a limited time, it had become the Crazy Cheesy Crust Pizza. “You’ve got to somehow stimulate the imagination of the consumer if they are going to be at all interested in a product,” says Bruce Perkin, Pizza Hut’s chief research and development officer. Doug Terfehr, a spokesman for the chain, adds, “Young males like to try new things, and this product does a lot of what they like.” A slice has 340 calories; one-third of them come from fat.

For now, Pizza Hut is waiting to see how well the pies sell before deciding whether to make other fillings. One possibility: bacon, a staple of extreme eating that has even made it into desserts such as the Bacon Sundae offered by Burger King last summer. Beyond that, “never say never. We’re constantly looking at form, function, flavor, and ingredients,” Perkin says. “Nothing’s off the table when we’re experimenting and playing.”

It’s not only fast-food chains that are going to extremes. The Cheesecake Factory’s (CAKE) Bistro Shrimp Pasta has an astonishing 3,120 calories and 89 grams of saturated fat. IHOP’s Country Fried Steak & Eggs—served with deep-fried hash brown potatoes and two buttermilk pancakes—has 1,760 calories. The Center for Science in the Public Interest, which calculated these “nutritional” values, notes that this is like eating five McDonald’s (MCD) Egg McMuffins sprinkled with 10 packets of sugar.

Most of the dishes aimed at the Man v. Food-watching, Guy Fieri-following crowd are available for a limited time. That’s the best way to generate interest. “If the McRib was available year-round, no one would care,” says Oches at QSR. There is an added benefit to the limited-time offer: Restaurants are not required to disclose the calorie counts of those items, says NPD’s Riggs.

Although chef Frankenthaler says Dunkin’ Donuts is “very pleased with the way things are going” with its doughnut sandwich, there are no plans yet for a nationwide launch. “It’s fun, playful, but I would not think Dunkin’ Donuts is going to make a huge push toward more sandwiches with glazed doughnuts,” Oches says. As a newly health-conscious Deen joked on National Public Radio earlier this year, for some dishes, “it’s only one serving per lifetime.”

The bottom line: America’s $161 billion fast-food industry has embraced rich, fatty, gooey extreme foods to grab diners’ attention.

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