Chef John Li, the vice president of culinary innovation for Wendy’s, has been around food his entire life and he admits it has always been a central focus in his home.
“Culturally, Chinese people love food.” Li said. “All the key moments of my childhood revolved around food — prepping food, talking about food, growing food in our garden, and of course, eating food. Growing up, my parents wanted my sisters and me to go the doctor or engineer route in school, so I really surprised them when I said I wanted to be a chef — but it felt natural to me.”
HIs parents were Chinese immigrants, and both escaped World War II and the cultural revolution, which had a huge impact on his home life.
“When you were an immigrant coming into the U.S., the opportunities were limited,” Li said. “But they both worked incredibly hard, and my mom’s entire side of the family worked in the restaurant business — so I guess you can say it’s in my DNA.”
Li brought that sensibility and work ethic to his career, bolstered with a commitment to support and kindness. He is extraordinarily proud of the culture he has been able to foster at Wendy’s. “For my team, I make sure we provide a safe space for feedback — the only way to make things better is to listen to what our colleagues have to say, whether about the workday or a new recipe - we’re always all ears! I also know it’s difficult to think creatively when feeling overwhelmed, so I encourage my team to take time off to relax and reset. This way, they can bring their best self to the kitchen.”
That commitment to a balance of hard work and rest is part of what has made him so successful at Wendy’s as his team continues to create exciting new products for the 50-plus-year old company. “With menu innovation, we use a combination of research to understand future food trends, as well as our team’s curiosity about what’s happening in the food industry. We keep a close eye on the trendsetting markets (Miami, NYC, Chicago, Austin, etc.), the latest in fine-dining experiences and lean on our partners when we’re looking to innovate on forward leaning ingredients. It often takes about a year for a menu item to go from conception to consumption — so we’re constantly taste-testing and ideating to provide customers with an experience that’s great versus simply good. Because my team doesn’t accept mediocrity — it’s just not an option.”
Li’s team does not accept mediocrity, but that commitment to quality doesn’t operate in a vacuum. Li knows how important it is to provide leadership and support. “At Wendy’s, I have a group of several people that I mentor — we call it a ‘mentor square.’ I share my own professional experiences and thoughts on how they each can grow their own careers. I try to be as honest as possible, while highlighting the unique set of skills, and immense value they bring to our company.”
The combination of mentorship and constant research into what the market needs has inspired his team to some recent successes. In 2019, it came to their attention that there were a lot of loyal Wendy’s consumers who wanted more variety. The response to that information was the development of their Made to Crave menu. “We wanted to bring forward craveable, mind blowing, unforgettable flavors you wouldn’t expect from a fast-food restaurant. We use this as a culinary playground — looking at what is trending and what our fans want more of and then exploring new and exciting ways to bring that to life at Wendy’s. We innovate every day to make sure nothing on Wendy’s menu line-up ever falls into the “sea of mediocrity” that I often see in other places.”
Li’s team stays focused on the five pillars of Wendy’s philosophy of “Fast Food Done Right”: real, fresh, craveable, forward-leaning and affordable. So, the challenge as Li sees it is to bring new menu items to their consumers that meet the strict culinary expectations he has set for his team. “It can’t always be done in a few days or a couple months — it often takes a year or more to perfect new creations. So, you know when you see something new on our menu, it deserves to be there.”
Something he always comes back to is his belief that culinary decisions cannot be made from the seats of the boardroom. “I’ve found that the greatest dishes and menu items come when you check any fear at the door in order to take risks, push the envelope and innovate in new spaces.”
A new project that he is especially proud of involved diving deep into a menu stalwart and not being afraid to make changes and improvements. “For new creations, like our new Hot & Crispy fries, we want to make sure we’re delivering for consumers where competitors are letting them down. I’m a big fry guy, so when I first came to Wendy’s nearly three years ago, project number one for me was diving into Fries. Over the past few years, we’ve put all our culinary craftsmanship to work to perfect our fries — channeling the same energy we bring into a complex sandwich build into the potato. The response has been overwhelming. In a national taste test, consumers preferred Wendy’s New Hot & Crispy Fries over McDonald’s French Fries nearly 2:1. Our fries also come with a Hot & Crispy Guarantee, which simply states, we guarantee your fries will be hot and crispy, or we will replace them, no questions asked. We’re that confident in our fries — the days of cold and soggy fries from industry competitors are over.”
Li is constantly thinking about the latest in food trends and how his team can introduce them onto the Wendy’s menu. His inspiration doesn’t just arrive in the form of food. “I get inspiration everywhere, and I mean everywhere — from a fine dining experience to a new perfume, to music and even at the supermarket! I’ll check out what’s in other shoppers’ grocery carts to glean insights into current trends. When you are as plugged in and passionate about food as I am — you see inspiration everywhere — and I use it to help inspire my food and how I approach team leadership.”
Li believes that it is essential to gather this information if they are going to lead in the industry. “I think consumers are getting more knowledgeable on food and trends in the industry — meaning they expect more when they order in our restaurants or pull through the drive-thru.
We are constantly looking to provide consumers with the best experience possible. That’s why we are constantly working to reinvent comfort food, while paying homage to classics and incorporating ingredients that align with the ever-evolving tastes of the public. Staying in tune with these trends is why Wendy’s menu stands apart from the competition.”
Now more than ever, Li is committed to making his workplace a place where his team feels seen and appreciated. “I think we all need to recognize the weight that the past year and a half has had on people. I like to say, while we all may be in the same storm, we are all riding it out on different ships — so everyone’s experience is uniquely theirs. With the uncertainty of everything around us, it’s important for your teams to feel valued at their place of work and enjoy their time on the clock. The restaurant industry is conducive for people to express their passions, and we need to make sure there’s room for them to do so.”
Li believes his success comes directly out of his personal passion for food, and his driving curiosity about what makes people excited about dining experiences.
“Chefs must be curious. I view curiosity as one of the most important traits of success in the culinary kitchen. When I’m hiring for my team, I always look to see if someone has that innate curiosity for food. If they’re not looking to do things that have never been done before, then this industry isn’t right for them. We need people that won’t stop until they get it right. You’re going to have to make a lot of mistakes before you perfect a dish, so perseverance and dedication are critical ingredients for this job.”