Why Going "Natural" Won't Help Wendy's

Last Updated Nov 16, 2010 2:02 AM EST

Burger chain Wendy's is introducing a new, more "natural" French fry recipe, as part of a "real food" campaign aimed at luring more foodies in the doors. Unfortunately, using 100% russets, leaving a little skin on the fries, and sprinkling them with sea salt isn't going to make a big difference to health-conscious customers -- especially when the result is more fattening than the original fry recipe.

Wendy's has been adding items that take the chain more upscale and offer more fresh food, such as its Apple Pecan Chicken salad. Not sure why this continues to be the direction, since this positioning has been backfiring on the company straight through the downturn. Too-high price points and less value-meal deals have cost the chain sales.

The problem Wendy's confronts is that it's lumped in with all the other major burger chains. It's going to be hard to sell America on the idea that Wendy's is a natural, healthy food place. It's just too far away from the concept of what the chain has been for decades.

There's nothing wrong with revamping the fry recipe -- it's a place where Wendy's could distinguish itself more, as the chain is mostly known for its fresh-beef burgers. It's the sales pitch that's off.

Healthier fries? Not going to fly. But -- tastier fries? Now that could be a winner.

Nutrition blogs are already lampooning the "natural" fries effort. For instance, Diets in Review slammed the fries as "no different" nutritionally than the original recipe. The slightly thinner, crisper fries actually have a higher sodium count -- 500 milligrams in a medium fry versus 350 milligrams previously -- and the calorie count rose by 10 to hit 420. The blog notes:

Natural is an easy spin word used to make consumers feel like the food they are eating is healthier, when, just like with Wendy's new natural-cut fries, it can actually be worse for you.
Wendy's marketing of fattening fries as natural and healthier comes at the same time as the introduction of the real-life Wendy Thomas -- daughter of chain founder Dave Thomas -- into the chain's advertising. As my BNET colleague Jim Edwards has noted, Ms. Thomas is a charming but plus-sized gal. All of which seems to send entirely the wrong message if the chain is set on selling itself as a nutritionally better alternative to its burger rivals.

Photo courtesy of Diets in Review
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  • Carol Tice

    Carol Tice is a longtime business reporter whose work has appeared in Entrepreneur, The Seattle Times, and Nation's Restaurant News, among others. Online sites she's written for include Allbusiness.com and Yahoo!Hotjobs. She blogs about the business of writing at Make a Living Writing.