Burger King (BKW.DL) recently announced the discontinuation of Satisfries, its "healthier" french fries, at most of its restaurants. Burger King allowed its franchisees to stop selling Satisfries, and only about 2,500 of the 7,400 locations in the U.S. and Canada decided to keep them on the menu.

Source: Company website.

Burger King claimed that Satisfries were healthier than regular fries, because they used a less porous type of batter that prevented more oil from being absorbed during frying. Unfortunately, Burger King failed to clearly promote that difference at its restaurants. The calories also didn't seem to measure up. A small order of Satisfries has 270 calories, compared to 230 calories for a small order of McDonald's (MCD 0.07%) fries -- but only because the latter weighed less. Satisfries were also more expensive, costing $1.89 for a small order, compared to $1.59 for Burger King's regular fries.

Some disappointed customers nicknamed Satisfries the "saddest fries." What can the strange saga of Burger King's Satisfries teach us about "healthy" menu items at fast food chains?

The business of 'healthy' fast food
A series of obesity-related lawsuits, topped off by Morgan Spurlock's 2004 documentary Super Size Me, have irreparably damaged the American perception of fast-food chains.

Capitalizing on that shift, quick-serve chains like Panera Bread and Chipotle Mexican Grill have quickly gained popularity as the healthier alternatives to McDonald's or Burger King. Chipotle, which prides itself on local, partly organic ingredients, reported a 17.3% year-over-year increase in comparable-restaurant sales last quarter.  

Source: Wikimedia Commons.

By comparison, McDonald's reported a 1.5% decrease in comparable sales in the U.S., while Burger King reported a 0.4% increase in the U.S. and Canada last quarter. That kind of anemic growth has forced the burger giants to offer healthier menu items in recent years.

McDonald's now sells various salads, wraps, and grilled chicken sandwiches. McDonald's also provides a "Favorites Under 400" guide for menu items under 400 calories. In certain markets, McDonald's allows customers to replace the french fries in a value meal with a salad, or opt for yolkless egg whites in their breakfast sandwiches. Burger King also sells a wide variety of salads and wraps, grilled chicken sandwiches, as well as a veggie burger. Both companies sell bottled water and juice alongside regular soft drinks.

But despite these changes in the menu, there's no hard evidence that these healthier initiatives are anything more than PR strategies. McDonald's most popular menu items are still french fries and the Big Mac, and Burger King's top seller has always been the Whopper.

Burger King also recently announced that it would bring back Chicken Fries, its popular fry-shaped fried chicken strips served in an oversized french fry container. Over the past few years, Burger King also introduced the Big King, a layered burger similar to the Big Mac, the French Fry Burger, and the infamous bacon sundae -- none of which suggest a long-term commitment to customer health.

L to R: Burger King's Chicken Fries, Big King, French Fry Burger, and Bacon Sundae. Source: Company website.

Don't try to reinvent a classic
Satisfries were doomed from the start for a simple reason -- it's a bad idea to reinvent a classic. Whereas salads, wraps, and fresh fruit complement regular fast-food items on the menu, Burger King tried to reinvent french fries, an iconic side dish of American fast food.

Back in 1985, Coca-Cola replaced its classic cola with a new flavor known as New Coke to counter the rise of Pepsi. New Coke was eventually discontinued because the company misjudged the emotional attachment customers had to the original flavor. PepsiCo apparently didn't learn the lesson of New Coke, and it launched Crystal Pepsi in 1992, a caffeine-free "clear alternative" to normal colas. The soda lasted for only a year before being discontinued in the U.S. and Canada.

The failure of Satisfries is Burger King's "New Coke" moment -- it misunderstood how much customers liked regular fries, failed to clear up misconceptions, then priced them higher than regular fries. If Burger King had truly been committed to Satisfries, it should have simply replaced its regular fries with Satisfries, then used a marketing blitz to repeatedly boast that it had healthier fries than McDonald's.

The 'Satisfrying' takeaway
Burger King's heart was in the right place, but it doomed Satisfries with bad marketing decisions. Returning customers didn't want them, and they failed to win over health-conscious consumers.

To truly compete against newcomers like Chipotle and Panera Bread, fast-food restaurants need to offer better dining experiences, as well as better food. That's why Burger King, McDonald's, and Wendy's are all remodeling their stores to look more like bistros. They must also resist the temptation to launch headline-grabbing, gut-busting items like bacon sundaes if they truly want to win over health-conscious customers who intentionally avoid their restaurants.