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The idea for Sonic Drive-In’s Signature Slingers started at Canyon Ranch.
Scott Uehlein, the Oklahoma City-based quick-service chain’s current vice president of product innovation and development, was chef at the health-oriented resort and spa when The Culinary Institute of America and The Mushroom Council started tinkering with an idea for a “blended burger,” which would replace some of the beef, high in saturated fat and with a heavy carbon footprint, with mushrooms, which are gentler on the planet and easier on the heart and waistline.
Beef and mushrooms are a classic combination on hamburgers, and the umami in mushrooms enhances the meaty flavor of beef, making for a naturally flavorful patty that’s better for both eaters and the Earth.
Uehlein, who was involved with the CIA’s Menus of Change initiative, which seeks to promote a diet that’s more healthful and better for the environment, thought the concept of a blended burger would be a good fit at a spa.
He was wrong.
“It was dead in the water,” he said. “I really had a hard time getting traction on my idea.”
But Uehlein didn’t drop it. Instead, he took the idea with him to Sonic, where he began working in December 2015.
One of the first phone calls he made was to Mushroom Council president and CEO Bart Minor.
“I said, ‘I know I’m at an indulgent brand, but I like the idea of layering up flavor, and if we can figure out how to do that, we can move forward,’” Uehlein said.
“He met my very, very skeptical team in January and we agreed to have an ideation session here in Oklahoma City in March,” he said.
At the end of the session, the Sonic team showed what it was working on to company executives. Todd Smith, who at the time was chief marketing officer and CEO, bit into a blended patty melt, “and I remember him looking up with a mouthful of food and saying, ‘Wow, that’s a good burger,’” Uehlein said.
Sonic did blind tastings of blended and standard burgers with about 10 people on the team, and none chose the standard burger, Uehlein said.
It took more than a year of product development before Sonic launched its first test of Slingers in select markets in August 2017. The chain ultimately launched the burger systemwide as a limited-time offer in March and April.
The burger was originally priced at $2.59 as a small but premium sandwich, with marketing evoking the idea of a steakhouse sandwich. But with the relaunch, Sonic changed the messaging, as well as the price. The burger, priced at $1.99, now carries the tagline “All of the flavor, none of the guilt,” and states that it is under 350 calories.
The change reflected how consumers “emerged and changed,” during the course of the test, Uehlein said.
Still, the Slinger doesn’t have the trappings of a light meal. The buttery brioche bun, similar to what Sonic uses for its chicken sandwiches, was retained. The burger also has real mayonnaise and full-fat American cheese, as well as pickles, onions, lettuce and tomato.
A Bacon Melt variation on the Slinger features the same patty and bun with melted American cheese, bacon and mayonnaise, at 420 calories and priced at $2.49.
“This is the real deal,” Uehlein said.
The bun stayed because customers loved it, he said.
“And in my mind, from a chef’s perspective, the sweet, buttery note just lends a premium nature to it,” he said.
It also balances the sourness of the pickles and mayonnaise, bitterness from the grill notes, salt “and just the umami bomb from the mushrooms,” Uehlein said, as well as the beef.
“None of the guilt,” could also imply that the burger is gentler on the environment, but Sonic has stayed away from that messaging because it’s hard to convey in the short snippets that consumers want.
“We went out with a message that we knew would resonate with our consumers,” he said.
Blended burger patty: A beef-mushroom blend results in a patty that’s lower in calories but arguably more flavorful than beef alone.
Buttery brioche bun: Sonic introduced this bun when the Slinger was marketed as a premium sandwich and customers loved it so much that the chain kept it.
Contact Bret Thorn at [email protected]
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