The Fresh Wars in fast food: How the five-letter word came to dominate ads for Arby’s, Taco Bell, Domino’s, and more.

Every Fast-Food Restaurant Claims Its Food Is Fresh. What Is Fresh?

Every Fast-Food Restaurant Claims Its Food Is Fresh. What Is Fresh?

What to eat. What not to eat.
Feb. 11 2013 5:15 AM

The Fresh Wars

How the five-letter word became a fast-food mantra.

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"I do think it's a powerful word," says Rob Reilly. As the chief creative officer for the Miami-based ad agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky, Reilly has helped oversee the fresh-ening of the Arby's and Domino's brands over the last three years.* In both chains’ campaigns, the fresh concept has roots in what Reilly calls an "undeniable truth."

Domino's more 'fresh' pizza.
Domino's more 'fresh' pizza.

Courtesy of Dominos

For Domino's, this “undeniable truth” meant a very public soul-searching—drawing from a deep well of misgivings sourced straight from their consumers, who, urged on via Domino's own social-media outlets, gave the chain high marks for value and convenience while using epithets like "cardboard" to describe its pizza’s taste. The company invited Henry Alex Rubin, the co-director of the Oscar-nominated documentary Murderball, to its Ann Arbor, Mich., headquarters to film Domino's CEO J. Patrick Doyle and other real employees walking us through a retooling of their inferior pizza. Later, as the campaign proceeded with Domino's new "Oh Yes We Did" tagline, another TV spot featured a focus group sequestered in a room whose walls fall away to expose a farm from which Domino's sources tomatoes for its sauce. "This is all grown right here in California," the farmer explains.

The reboot of Domino's as a self-effacing, transparent, and wholesome pizza monolith with an interest in ingredient quality was an unmitigated triumph. It proved irresistible to consumers and investors alike, stoking a 13.4 percent increase in same-store sales between 2009 and 2011 and a five-fold stock-price increase by the end of 2012.


More importantly, it triggered industry awareness of being fresh without necessarily being fresh. Today, the competition looks to Domino's carefully stage-managed farm-to-kitchen showcase of dough, cheese, and produce (I mean, the conventional marketing wisdom literally breaks down in the middle of a tomato field) as fresh benchmarks: Sbarro, the national chain still regaining its footing a year after emerging from Chapter 11, has introduced its own new pizza recipe (to wit, "all-natural ingredients, including dough made from scratch daily, vine-ripened, whole-peeled tomatoes and freshly shredded whole-milk mozzarella") and, also like Domino's, plans remodeled locations emphasizing "open-flame ovens and a made-to-order pasta station." In Canada, McDonald's has undertaken "Our Food, Your Questions," a Domino's-style transparency campaign offering answers to customers' hard ("How do you process your chicken?") and not-so-hard ("Is there an anti-vomit in the McDonald [sic] food?") queries.

All of these initiatives convey the reassuring message of having nothing to hide—the radical, post-Fast Food Nation idea that knowing your meal's provenance matters and that a restaurant should not only share this provenance but stake its entire public persona on it. Such openness, however slick or calculated, is at the heart of fresh.

In spring 2012, the Arby's braintrust, led by new chief marketing officer Russ Klein, came to approach Crispin Porter + Bogusky about an even more bracing fresh gambit: a direct offensive against Subway. Though Klein liked the Domino's campaign and the "undeniable truth" concept evangelized by Reilly, Arby's didn’t have the time, budget, or inclination to embark on a wholesale, Domino's-style reinvention. Instead, Klein and Reilly had a puzzle to solve: Subway implores customers to "Eat Fresh," skillfully implying that its competitors are not fresh. But what if Arby's is actually the fresh one, and Subway is just a poseur?

The answer meant going hyper-specific—choosing one aspect of the product in which Arby's excelled, and relentlessly hammering the importance of that aspect as fresh-er than the competition. "They say, 'Eat Fresh,' " Reilly notes. "They talk a lot about bread [being] freshly prepared, and the vegetables are fresh. For us, the Arby's story—the taste story—came from the fact that we believed the meat was the most important part of the sandwich."

That belief fueled Arby's ongoing efforts to "slice up the truth about freshness," a scorched-earth crusade that flips popular conceptions of provenance and openness on their heads. The chain has sought to burnish its fresh credentials by spotlighting the cracks in Subway's own—and sending the message that even though Subway sandwiches are made to order in front of your eyes, Subway still has plenty to hide. If contemporary consumers wanted transparency, then Arby's would heap it on them: The centerpiece of the campaign features Bo Dietl, the ex-cop-turned-private detective/media personality, on a gonzo, documentary-style quest (directed by Borat filmmaker Larry Charles) to find out where Subway slices its sandwich meats. The commercial chronicling Dietl's journey climaxes at the driveway of West Liberty Foods, a processing plant in West Liberty, Iowa. "After all that," Dietl says in the in the spot, "this is where Subway slices the meat. That's a long walk for a turkey sandwich."

There, as Dietl later recounted to me on a conference call with Klein and other Arby's brass, he interviewed workers and "jumped on trucks that were leaving there," all in pursuit of some deeper truth about freshness. "I was asking what they had there," Dietl continued. "And I said, 'Would you eat at Subway?' They said, 'Hell, no.' And it was just these little things that came up in the investigation when we were filming it.”

It’s hard to ignore a few other truths, though: That Dietl is a mercenary, and that his spirited investigative exposé is just a commercial—one whose implication that West Liberty Foods is not fresh prompted the threat of an Iowa-wide Arby's boycott (and an eventual Arby's apology). Moreover, Arby's has its own centralized facilities that process and freeze Arby's meat, which is then shipped to—and eventually cooked and sliced in—its restaurants around the country. It's a supply-chain necessity that doesn’t exactly scream fresh–but according to Klein, it’s not a salient point. "For us," he said, "it really simplifies down around the fact that we slice fresh. They don't. You choose."


Like Arby’s, Taco Bell had a clear opponent in the Fresh Wars. But where Arby’s challenged its rival’s fresh credentials, Taco Bell imitated them.

A generation after it was known as the Fresh Food Place, Taco Bell’s reputation for freshness was long gone. Drive-thrus, late-night hours, and such punctuation-challenged initiatives as a "Why Pay More!" menu had traded the fresh imperative for one of value and volume. It was a perfectly viable model in the '80s, and one that leaders around the industry refined to a science. That was before an increasingly congested fast-food market, diminishing profit margins, and growing levels of consumer sophistication dented bottom lines throughout the industry.

"I think what we're seeing is that consumers in general are moving away from what we call 'food as fuel,' " says Ellie Doty, a senior marketing manager with Taco Bell. Now, she says, “food is experience."