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Restaurant chains get serious about fries

McDonald’s, Wendy’s and Bob Evans focus on marketing French fries

The question heard at restaurants for decades — “You want fries with that?” — may conjure up an image of an overlooked side dish consumers end up ordering by default, but chains from McDonald’s and Wendy’s to Bob Evans are not taking French fries or other sides for granted.

McDonald’s is making a bigger deal of its French fries by removing the question mark from the age-old question heard at its cash registers.

Through the end of the year, McDonald’s is running its “You Want McDonald’s Fries With That” promotion on a special microsite, To enter the contest for a $25,000 grand prize, players need to share in 60 or fewer characters what they want to accompany their order of fries, as well as why they deserve to win, using 400 characters or fewer.

Customers also may enter a weekly drawing for a $50 Arch Card at the microsite, and 40 winners will be selected between now and Feb. 12, 2012.

Georgina Roy, McDonald’s director of customer engagement and alliances, said in a statement that the brand wanted to promote how its fries “make the best occasions even better.”

“McDonald’s ‘You Want McDonald’s Fries With That’ promotion celebrates how great moments in our lives are made better with a side of McDonald’s fries,” she said. “We’re excited to see our customers’ creative contest entries and look forward to awarding people with prizes for their participation.”

The chain of more than 14,000 restaurants in the United States also launched a new ad to tout its side dish as the “best fries on the planet.”

Watch the ad

Dennis Lombardi, executive vice president of WD Partners, said McDonald’s marketing of its fries as the best is more about protecting the chain’s status as the seller of the most French fry orders in quick service.

“When you start to promote a product line like fries, in many cases it’s to ensure you keep market share or build share,” Lombardi said. “McDonald’s fries are iconic and one of their signature products. It usually isn’t necessary to advertise them, but reinforcing them every once in a while makes sense.”

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The “Naturals”

McDonald’s promotion comes a year after Wendy’s reformulated its French fries and put a big marketing campaign behind them. On Nov. 22, 2010, the 6,500-plus-unit chain rolled out Natural-Cut Fries with Sea Salt, part of a steady stream of upgraded products that also included premium salads, Dave’s Hot ‘N Juicy Cheeseburger and the “W” cheeseburger.

By the time of Wendy’s Investor Day event in late January 2011, sales of French fries had risen 16 percent in the two months since their launch, officials said. The chain reportedly spent nearly 80 percent of its advertising budget for the month of December 2010 to promote the fries.

An increase like that in French-fry sales is significant, Lombardi said, not just to the company’s bottom line but also as a sign that Wendy’s large advertising expenditure produced the trial it needed.

Dublin, Ohio-based Wendy’s returned to national ads for its fries in April 2011, running a commercial touting Natural-Cut Fries’ taste test win over McDonald’s. In an independent study, 56 percent of respondents said they preferred Wendy’s fries to McDonald’s.

“McDonald’s fries had been considered the gold standard in QSR,” then-chief executive Roland Smith said during Wendy’s first-quarter earnings call, “so we believe this is a huge win that will pay dividends over the next several years.”

Smith also cited the new fries as a contributor to Wendy’s same-store sales swinging positive in April to a 0.5-percent uptick in North America, including a 1.1-percent gain in the United States.

The brand’s new positioning direction, identified as “A cut above,” is “trying to recapture their historical strength of quality positioning,” Lombardi said, adding that Natural-Cut Fries are a big part of that.

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Adding it all up

Similarly, Bob Evans Farms Inc. chief executive Steve Davis recently credited half-price sides, including French fries, for slightly boosting the average check in the first part of its third quarter at the company’s namesake family-dining chain in the Oct. 28-ended second quarter. He added that sales of 99-cent sides as add-ons to the $6 Farmhouse Deals offering helped keep food costs flat despite high commodity inflation.

“Almost half our guests ordering Farmhouse Deals get a 99-cent side dish,” he said during Bob Evans’ second-quarter earnings call. “Our average check has increased to over $9 for six of the past eight weeks.”

Farmhouse Deals offers 10 entrees and 12 99-cent sides, including fries, hash browns, home fries, applesauce and fresh fruit.

“Having attractive price points, no matter what you’re selling or what your segment is, builds and maintains traffic,” Lombardi said. “Once a consumer is ordering, the ability to add a low-price option is attractive to the consumer, who gets to tailor her meal with some small indulgence, and the operator, who better maintains that penny margin.”

He added that increasing sales of side dishes as add-ons give restaurants one more opportunity to sell something and create a positive lasting impression.

Lombardi disclosed that WD Partners has done some consulting for Bob Evans in the past year. Columbus, Ohio-based Bob Evans operates 564 restaurants in 18 states.

Contact Mark Brandau at [email protected].
Follow him on Twitter: @Mark_from_NRN

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