Fast Food for the Dude: Greasy, Fatty, Salty Is Red-Hot Formulaby
Hungry young men boost Taco Bell, Arby’s, Jack in the Box
‘I want the salty greasiness, basically. Go big or go home’
Consumers are maddeningly fickle, switching up tastes on a dime under influence from the latest health craze or rage on social media. But dude, if you want predictability, look to the hungry young men of America.
They’re golden for the fast-food joints that have zeroed in on them with fat-crammed menus and ads aimed at the bro sweet spot. Exhibit A: Christopher Dan, a 25-year-old law student in Phoenix who’s a fan of Taco Bell, where he’ll load up on a cheesy potato burrito, a steak Chalupa and a Doritos Locos Taco. And four or five regular tacos. His only rule: Keep it under $12. (He’s certainly not counting calories, which in this case add up to about 1,800.)
“I want the salty greasiness, basically,” Dan said. “It’s kind of like, go big or go home.”
There are enough carnivorous under-30 males like him to keep sales humming at not only Taco Bell but Jack in the Box Inc. and Arby’s too. In what’s been a yearlong slump for the industry, they’re outperforming the likes of McDonald’s Corp., which has been touting -- shudder -- healthful and fresh fare including not-frozen beef patties, kale salads and antibiotic-free chicken.
Guys who gravitate toward Arby’s 1,030-calorie Meat Mountain (corned beef, pepper bacon, roast beef, chicken tenders, pit-smoked ham, brisket, two kinds of cheese) or Jack’s 55-fat-gram Brunch Burger (beef patty, fried egg, cheddar, bacon, mayo) are always going to be there for the chains.
They’re unmoved by economic trends or super-greens fads. “They’re not going to start cooking or buying from specialty stores like Whole Foods,” said Bob Goldin, a partner at industry consultant Pentallect Inc. in Chicago. “They continue to be loyal to fast food.”
To be sure, women are into the oleaginous too. And all young people have been generally eating out more. Americans between 18 and 34 dined in restaurants on average 226 times last year, on average, compared with 220 in 2015, while the 35-and-over crowd cut back, according to data from NPD Group.
But it’s what Taco Bell calls the “core male user group” that is the rock. Dan, the Phoenix law student, is a card-carrying member. He said it’s the most outrageous fare that tempts him, like the Chalupa with a shell made not of corn or flour but, yes, fried chicken.
“Taco Bell invents new ways to get the same things into your body,” he said. “Their new innovations excite me more than Wendy’s.”
It’s all very deliberate. “We continue to challenge ourselves to find new inventive ways to immerse ourselves in what the consumer wants, or doesn’t even know they want,” said Marisa Thalberg, the company’s head of marketing. “We’re reading the tea leaves of culture.”
Taco Bell, owned by Yum! Brands Inc., also has been working to boost late-night business and appeal to partygoers with locations that offer beer and wine. The menu at its Las Vegas restaurant, which opened last year, includes drinks that can be customized with rum, vodka, tequila and whiskey. The Vegas Bell also sells bikinis.
‘Strong Male Affinity’
Jack in the Box is bro-centric too. It launched its triple-bacon burger to coincide with Super Bowl LI, and a TV commercial for new grilled French toast shows the orb-headed company mascot talking about his favorite sport: pro wrestling. The Brunchfast menu, featuring a bacon-and-egg chicken sandwich slathered in bacon mayonnaise, has helped boost sales, which gained 3.1 percent in the most recent quarter. Now the chain is advertising a 1,715-calorie Munchie Meal of two tacos and a cheeseburger topped with curly fries -- and it’s only $6 between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m.
At Arby’s, the long-running marketing campaign is called We Have the Meats, with ads voiced by the baritone of actor Ving Rhames. The company’s recent success -- same-store sales climbed 3.8 percent last year -- is due to a pitch that resonates with young guys, according to Chief Executive Officer Paul Brown, who said Arby’s tries to appeal to “niche, often overlooked audiences with strong male affinity: hunters, golfers and gamers.”
At all U.S. fast-food restaurants, same-store sales dropped 3.3 percent in February, for the third straight monthly decline, according to MillerPulse data. Arby’s sales by that measure rose 3.2 percent in the fourth quarter, while Taco Bell’s climbed 3 percent. They know their dudes.