Are Bizarro Novelty Items the Future of the Fast Food Industry?

A blog about business and economics.
May 15 2014 2:12 PM

Yum! Brands Has Staked Its Future on Bizarre Fast-Food Novelties

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Could this cheesy chicken patty sandwich be the future of KFC?

Photo by kslee via Flickr.

Why settle for bread when you can have chicken? That was KFC's thinking when it brought back its notorious Double Down “sandwich”—bacon, Monterey Jack cheese, and secret sauce wedged between two fried chicken patties—for a limited time. Inspired? Disgusting? You can be the judge until May 25, but the novelty of it certainly has people talking.

In an effort to drive traffic to its stores, Yum! Brands, the parent corporation behind KFC, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell, appears to have lighted on a new strategy for 2014: the bizarro fast-food novelty item. KFC has the Double Down. Taco Bell rolled out the waffle taco, a syrup-drenched fold of meat and eggs. And Pizza Hut, in select locations, is promoting the beef-stuffed, 2,880-calorie, heart-attack-in-a-slice monstrosity known as the cheeseburger pizza. Congratulations, Michael Phelps, you can finally hit those 10,000 calories in three meals or less.

While menu items like the Double Down might generate some purchases from adventurous consumers, odds are they’ve been created mainly to drum up interest in the chains. “There may be one person who wants to go there and try it, and other people who are interested in seeing it, but order normal food,” says Darren Tristano, executive vice president of food and restaurant consulting firm Technomic. “These are items which are designed to create buzz through both social media and customers.”

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The waffle taco has quickly become Taco Bell’s most talked-about menu item, and interest in the chain as tracked by Google Trends hit an all-time high when the breakfast menu debuted in March. One customer’s Instagram photo of the waffle taco went viral with more than 4 million views, said Ashley Sioson, a spokeswoman for Taco Bell. The company had no comment on its specific strategy regarding novelty foods, stating simply that “innovation is at the core of everything we do.”

If Yum! Brands is the leading purveyor of novelty foods, other companies have at least dabbled in them. Triple O’s, a Canada-based burger chain, has featured a peanut butter, bacon, and jalapeño burger, and Denny’s played around with a greasy mozzarella-stick stuffed sandwich. McDonald’s has the McRib and a top-secret item called the Mc1035 that’s only available around—you guessed it—10:35 a.m.

With the waffle taco, Double Down, and cheeseburger-stuffed crust pizza already in play, what move can Yum make next? Expanding off-menu is always an option, as it did in 2012 with the Eau de Pizza Hut perfume. But to get some true innovation at the core of everything it does, we suggest that Yum turn to Slate’s bizarro fast-fast generator. Honey-glazed mac and cheese pizza, anyone?

Alison Griswold is a Slate staff writer covering business and economics.