Nice try, Burger King Worldwide (UNKNOWN:BKW.DL). It was a good attempt, but the home of the Whopper is essentially giving up on its lower-fat, lower-calorie French fries called Satisfries, except in a minority of locations.
While I've been a big supporter of the company's moves over the past year, this one seemed silly, and Burger King should have seen the failure of its diet fries coming, had it learned any lessons from archrival McDonald's (NYSE:MCD). The replacement product, the Chicken Fries, seems like a wiser idea.
The King is where it's at
It seems as if ever since the anti-McDonald's documentary Super Size Me came out, McDonald's has made one misstep after another in a bid to shy away from a junk-food image.
The executives did away with the super-size option, stopped promoting the signature Big Mac, pushed salads and apple slices, and left us feeling guilty for wanting to indulge in a greasy burger and fries once in a while.
That strategy doesn't seem to work. McDonald's domestic same-store sales growth has gone from anemic to negative. When will McDonald's wake up and smell its own sugar-saturated coffee? We go to McDonald's and Burger King for fast junk food. We know it isn't healthy, and most of us don't care.
Burger King seized the opportunity successfully in some areas while dropping the ball on the diet French fries. While McDonald's left its guard down on its Big Mac, Burger King moved in with its very similar Big King sandwich.
Same-store sales growth for McDonald's in the U.S. went from 0.7% in the third quarter last year to -1.4%, -1.7%, and -1.5% in the past three most recent quarters. For Burger King it was almost the opposite.
Burger King saw domestic same-store sales growth in the third quarter of -0.3%, and from there things turned positive. The past three quarters show domestic same-store sales growth of 0.1%, 0.2%, and 0.4%. True, this growth is nothing to write home about, but it certainly beats the declines McDonald's experienced during the same time.
Go big or go home
Burger King credited the turnaround to the growth and success of its Big King sandwich, among other things, and there is certainly nothing that says "diet" about that sandwich.
Burger King increased the size of the beef in the Big King to 25% bigger than the Big Mac and flaunted this fact in its advertising, with the tag line "Size matters." Consumers are lovin' it -- fat, calories, and all.
Maybe Burger King would have posted domestic growth numbers that really were worth writing home about if only it hadn't launched those out-of-place diet Satisfries to go with the extra big zillion-calorie Big King that people love.
Burger King does say it sold the Satisfries to 100 million people, but it doesn't disclose how many of those were people just giving them a try, like me, and never ordering them again. Apparently the feedback or repeat orders weren't impressive enough to keep Satisfries on the menu.
You can probably bet that more than 100 million tried McDonald's failed Mighty Wings, too, or even its failed McPizza from back in the day. The challenge is getting them to like new items and return for them again.
Another problem with diet fries is they still aren't exactly health food anyway. Regular Burger King Fries have 340 calories and 15 grams of fat. Satisfries have 270 calories and 11 grams of fat. That's not a big enough difference for consumers to sacrifice taste.
I'll add that, for the most part, most people don't even enter a McDonald's or a Burger King in the first place if they're worried about their diets. A tiny drop in calories and fat isn't going to be a game-changer. What was Burger King thinking?
Going chicken and going full flavor
At the same time Burger King is pulling its Satisfries at most locations, its Chicken Fries are back with a vengeance.
Burger King says they are "back by popular demand." That ought to help. Nobody demanded the Satisfries, and apparently few people want them back, either.
According to Burger King, on Twitter alone the company had seen at times a tweet every 40 seconds demanding the company bring back Chicken Fries. And trust me -- it's not for their low-calorie, low-fat nature.
Burger King says, "Since Chicken Fries were taken off the BURGER KING menu in 2012, the ongoing guest outcries reached a point where they could no longer be ignored." Chicken Fries are really just thin chicken strips that look like potato French fries.
But they're cool, they're yummy, and they're fun to dip. They may not be as equally healthful as a heaping bowl of Brussels sprouts, but they apparently sell like hotcakes. Speaking of which, there's a reason we say that something sells "like hotcakes" instead of "like spinach and cauliflower." Junk food sells.
Foolish bottom line
If I were a betting woman, I would say you'll see a more pronounced improvement in domestic same-store sales for Burger King with this move away from Satisfries and back to chicken fries.
The company got rid of one item that isn't popular and replaced it with another item that seemed to be quite popular even before it returned to the menu. Maybe both McDonald's and Burger King will learn from their diet junk food mistakes and finally see the improving sales trends again that they so desperately desire.