In the era of Instagram where foodies insist on sharing what they're eating on social media, it's no surprise that restaurants will play to that crowd. At one end of the spectrum, we get eateries ensuring their food is presented to look its best when served, while at the other extreme we get fast food chains creating "stunt foods" merely to generate buzz.
Remember Dewitos, the Doritos-flavored Mountain Dew, for all those times you wanted to drink a bag of chips instead of eat them? Yeah, horror shows like that are often the result when food companies try to mash up ingredients or flavors in a bid to create a sensation, but fail miserably.
There are successes, too, of course, like KFC's Double Down or Friendly's Grilled Cheese BurgerMelt. Below are seven of the biggest fast food stunt foods of 2017 that both delighted and shocked us for their audacity.
1. Unicorn Frappuccino
Probably the biggest stunt food of 2017 was Starbucks' (NASDAQ:SBUX) rainbow-colored Unicorn Frappuccino, a swirl of pink and blue blended into a creamy concoction that changed color the more the drink was stirred, generated some 1.3 billion impressions across social media during its five-day limited run, according to Brandwatch.
It was a remarkable achievement for Starbucks because the coffeehouse isn't typically known for creating beverages that have the power to move customers to share them. It also caused them to try their hand again at the feat with the Midnight Mint Chocolate Frappuccino, which "starts with scoops of extra-dark cocoa blended with coffee, milk and ice, infused with cooling mint sugar crystals and cut with a layer of whipped cream." The result was dubbed the anti-Unicorn by BuzzFeed, and it generated mixed reviews, if you wanted to be charitable.
2. Charcoal foods
Just like it doesn't seem there are any truly blue foods in nature, finding something truly black (at least blacker than a Midnight Mint Chocolate Frappuccino) is equally difficult. Which is why adding charcoal to food suddenly became a thing after one ice cream shop in Los Angeles started creating cones and ice cream infused with activated charcoal. Then we started getting pizza, waffles, burgers, bread, and more dusted with the stuff too.
Except as Self magazine noted, it's an incredibly unhealthy thing to ingest because it binds with vitamins, minerals, and nutrients in your body and strips them out. It may look cool on social media, not so much on your insides.
3. Naked Chicken Chalupa
Although Taco Bell's Naked Chicken Chalupa is probably not "good" for you in the way the superfood kale is, it's also likely not as harmful as eating activated charcoal. But like its KFC sister chain's Double Down, the Naked Chicken Chalupa uses chicken as the ingredient that literally holds the rest of the sandwich together. The typical chalupa flatbread is replaced with a foldable fried chicken "shell" that is then packed with shredded lettuce, diced tomatoes, cheddar cheese, and a creamy avocado ranch sauce.
The sandwich was made specifically with Instagram in mind and the Yum! Brands (NYSE:YUM) chain held launch parties where the the chalupa was given away to customers with the hopes they would share them on social media. It apparently worked as it ended up selling over 25 million Naked Chicken Chalupas. Taco Bell's Instagram account has some 1.1 million followers.
It's clear that Taco Bell has this stunt food, well, stunt, down pat. And that Instagram account with all those followers is being transformed into something of a digital art gallery for food. So it's not much of a surprise that the Mexican food chain finds itself on the list again with its Chocoladilla, a chocolate quesadilla dessert mashup that stuffs KitKat melted bars inside a tortilla that it introduced in limited fashion just before Halloween.
However, there really wasn't anything so novel about the Chocoladilla, other than combining these two items into one, and it was easily something you could replicate at home immediately after going trick-or-treating (or running to the local candy store). Still, it represents Taco Bell's using micro-influencers on social media that have loyal and engaged followings, even though the overall numbers may be small.
However, as Inc. magazine noticed, "ladilla" means "crab louse" in Spanish, so Taco Bell was encouraging customers to buy chocolate crab lice, hardly a mouthwatering term.
5. Grand Mac & Mac Jr.
Maybe not so much a food stunt like the others, but rather more a brand extension, when McDonald's (NYSE:MCD) sought to capitalize on the enduring popularity of its Big Mac sandwich and boost sales, it was easy to see it would be a monumental challenge to come up with something that could sell 550 million a year like the original. Instead, it made a Solomon-like decision and created two more Mac sandwiches, the Grand Mac, which is like a double Big Mac, and the Mac Jr., which is more like a Big Mac slider.
The new trio of choices gives customers a choice depending on how hungry they are for the burger chain's second most popular menu item (french fries are first). It's a food trend that other chains might want to replicate if they want lasting sales growth, rather than hit-or-miss changes based on a gimmick.
6. Szechuan sauce
Speaking of gimmicks though, McDonald's isn't above trying to gain some momentum for itself by piggybacking on the sudden social media interest earlier this year in its Szechuan Sauce.
First introduced in 1998 as a tie-in with the Disney (NYSE:DIS) animated movie Mulan, a film about a legendary Chinese female warrior, the burger joint's Szechuan teriyaki dipping sauce for McDonald's McNuggets regained fame in 2017 when the animated TV show Rick & Morty featured a sequence about title character Rick's search for the elusive sauce.
Quickly realizing it had something here, McDonald's made limited amounts of the Szechuan sauce available, but completely missed how popular it really was. It immediately sold out leaving many fans sauce-less. So many, in fact, that McDonald's admitted it was "not cool" what happened, and promised to bring it back this winter.
7. Burger King Flaming Hot Mac & Cheetos
How do you beat the success of your original mozzarella cheese stick-like sensation, Mac & Cheetos? By making them "flamin' hot."
Burger King released what it called a "unique portable snack of creamy mac n' cheese coated and dusted with the flavor of Cheetos crunchy Flamin' Hot cheese snacks." Consumer demand was apparently such that after the original cheese sticks were released, Burger King made a version to sell in grocery stores. And now the new flamin' hot variety will be in restaurants and on store shelves too.
Apparently not to be left out of the stunt food craze, Walmart (NYSE:WMT) got into the act with its Crotilla, a "flaky flatbread fusion of croissant and tortilla made with butter."
Inspired by the so-called cronut, the doughnut-croissant hybrid that burst on the scene back in 2013, Walmart says the Crotilla is "destined to be the hottest mashup since tweens started asking for Labradoodles."
Maybe, but while it's seemingly versatile enough to make some kind of taco, sandwiches, or even as the crust for a pizza, social media comments seemed perplexed about what exactly you were supposed to do with it. As one Twitter wag wrote, "According to these people, April 25th is 'National I Drove Over My Croissant With My Car Day.'"
Sometimes, just because you can mashup foods to follow a fad, doesn't mean you should.