Burger King Adds Mom-Friendly Food as Whopper Lovers Lose Jobs

It’s enough to make a Burger King fan choke on his Whopper.

Strawberry smoothies, Asian chicken salads and oatmeal are coming to Burger King Holdings Inc. The Miami-based chain is broadening its offerings to attract more women and families as its core customers -- Whopper-munching 16- to 34-year-old males -- endure the highest unemployment of any cohort.

The makeover at the second-largest U.S. burger chain risks going too far too fast, according to Joel Cohen, president of the Cohen Restaurant Marketing Group in Raleigh, North Carolina.

“It’s a dramatic switch, so you’re in danger of losing loyal customers who loved the original brand,” he said. When McDonald’s Corp. (MCD) embraced a more upscale cafe vibe, it was “gradual and not as intrusive as the Burger King change.”

Burger King has been revamping its strategy since 3G Capital Inc., a New York-based private equity firm, bought the chain for about $3.93 billion in October. Revenue declined 4.3 percent to $596 million and net income fell 13 percent to $42.8 million for the three months ended June 30.

“We’re known as the best place for burgers; we’re going to continue that,” Steve Wiborg, executive vice president and president of Burger King North America, said in a telephone interview. “But we also need to broaden our target.”

The jobless rate among men aged 20 to 24 was 15.7 percent in July, according to the U.S. Labor Department, while the rate for men aged 25 to 34 was 10.2 percent -- both above the national average.

McDonald’s-Style Fare

Burger King rolled out oatmeal nationwide this week. Smoothies and salads are now being tested in 100 stores. The new menu items follow by less than a year the debut of McDonald’s fruit and maple oatmeal and mango-pineapple smoothies. Last year, Burger King introduced McDonald’s-style breakfast fare, including pancake and sausage platters and flavored coffees.

“We’ve neglected mom, children and families,” said David Ostrowe, who owns 10 Burger Kings in Oklahoma. The healthier items will help bring back “some of the families that we’ve lost to competitors,” he said.

Burger King is retiring its creepy mascot, the King, and moving away from the raunchy humor that typified its commercials in recent years. The chain also parted ways with the ad agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky and hired McGarryBowen, which has created ads for Kraft Foods Inc. (KFT) and Walt Disney Co.

The first new TV ad features the new California Whopper and makes a fetish of fresh ingredients: juicy tomatoes, sizzling bacon, guacamole in a stone mortar. The sandwich weighs in at 820 calories with 56 grams of fat, compared with 670 calories and 40 grams of fat for a regular Whopper.

Cult-Like Following

Burger King earned a cult-like following among so-called dude-bros with the Subservient Chicken, who obeys commands submitted over the Web, and a re-imagined King, who was nothing like the kid-friendly cartoon in 1960s commercials.

In one spot a 20-something dude woke up in bed with the silent, Renaissance-esque monarch, who offered him a meaty breakfast sandwich. One of Crispin Porter’s last campaigns exhorted Facebook users to “defriend” 10 people to score a free Whopper -- more than 200,000 friends were ditched before Facebook shut down the program.

While the flame-broiled burgers and irreverent ads appealed to young guys, the new smoothies and salads may be a harder sell. “I’m not into that stuff,” said Richard Ramirez, a 28- year-old printing plant supervisor munching a Whopper last month at a Burger King in Chicago.

Industrial Look

And Burger King’s new industrial look, dreamed up before 3G Capital bought the company, may not mesh with the new menu, according to Dominic Flis, who owns 16 Burger King stores in Arkansas. “They were disconnected from the get-go,” he said.

The so-called 20/20 remodel features corrugated metal, brick, wood and concrete and was originally envisioned as a kind of temple to flame-broiled cooking. Many franchisees have since balked at the $500,000 to $600,000-per-restaurant price tag, and Burger King has found cheaper alternatives -- remodels are now about $275,000 -- that play down the chain’s flame-broiled heritage, says Wiborg.

Flis isn’t remodeling any of his restaurants because the new design won’t resonate with his customers, he says. Still, sales at his stores fell 9 percent through June. By contrast, industrywide revenue will rise about 2 percent this year, according to market researcher IBISWorld Inc.

Flis says he hopes salads and smoothies will bring in “the same people that go to McDonald’s.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Leslie Patton in Chicago at lpatton5@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Robin Ajello at rajello@bloomberg.net

Bloomberg reserves the right to edit or remove comments but is under no obligation to do so, or to explain individual moderation decisions.

Please enable JavaScript to view the comments powered by Disqus.