In any given year, Wendy’s sifts through hundreds of innovative ideas, according to Senior Culinary Specialist Chris Johnson. 

The pipeline, which can be overwhelming at times, is driven by the culinary team immersing itself in the trends around the industry, and experiencing menus served in all aspects of foodservice. After that, the objective is to bring a list of notes back to the kitchen and form a concept that works for the Wendy’s consumer. 

There’s clear-cut proof of how well that process works. In Q1, Wendy’s domestic same-store sales lifted 12.8 percent on a two-year basis, and much of it was fueled by innovation in the afternoon/evening dayparts, like the Jalapeño Popper Chicken Sandwich. Additionally, the refreshed Classic Chicken Sandwich is selling more than twice as the previous version and is driving a strong large sandwich sales mix and higher average check. It’s doing so well that Wendy’s share of the breaded chicken sandwich mix grew in March despite “significant competitive activity.” 

The latest innovation is the Bourbon Bacon Cheeseburger, introduced early in May to kick off National Hamburger Month. 

Wendy’s recently held a virtual Culinary Spotlight event to pick the brains of Johnson and John Li, vice president of culinary innovation. The duo gave a behind-the-scenes look at the Made to Crave lineup and offered thoughts on how the Bourbon Bacon Cheeseburger came to be. QSR attended the event and captured the highlights. 

How would you describe your culinary process? 

Chris Johnson: We’re always going to be in touch with the trends that are going on, not just in the [quick-service restaurant], but across the landscape in regards to foodservice. And then we’re going to take those trends and then we’re going to be so close, like hand-in-hand with our consumer. We do so much consumer research to make sure we understand what our consumers needs are, and then we take those trends and we evolve them into something that’s very approachable so that it delivers on the Wendy’s menu when it comes to flavor variety. 

John Li: I think what makes us different is we apply all the research techniques in today’s modern world, but we’ve never walked away from the important elements of philosophy that [founder] Dave [Thomas] set for us—for every hamburger and cheeseburger that we make, it’s fresh, never frozen beef on every single sandwich. It’s making sure that we deliver made-to-order so customers can get it however they want. It’s delivering at a high-level of quality that’s better than competition. Those are all things that were so important to him, and we’ve carried that through to today, but at the same time married it with making sure that we’re playing the best in terms of research techniques to understand what our customers want. The only thing I would add to that is, I think what also makes us different—a little bit of our magic sauce—I’ve always said that we develop food in an actual kitchen with culinary professionals that are passionate about food. We talk food, we breathe food, we bleed food. And none of it’s done in a boardroom. None of it’s done in a boring meeting room. It’s just not who we are, and I think that’s why I feel blessed that I can say that we’re different that way and that’s what makes Wendy’s, Wendy’s. 

How has Wendy’s stayed competitive in both the chicken and the hamburger space, not losing sight of the hamburgers while innovating the chicken?

John Li: Chicken’s certainly still an important part of delivering what we know customers want, and we’re lucky. We brought back Spicy Nuggets back in ’19. We have spicy chicken, which is still the gold standard in regards to how people describe what spicy chicken should be. We relaunched with the Classic Chicken Sandwich less than a couple of months ago. We built on that with Made to Crave, which is part of where Chris spent a lot of time with things like the Jalapeño Popper that we launched about a quarter ago, and it’s exceeded expectations. Those are the things that we do across chicken. So it’s not as if it’s second fiddle, but I will tell you that because it’s National Hamburger Month. But even if it wasn’t National Hamburger Month, our primary focus is typically hamburgers, and cheeseburgers first. It’s our bread and butter. But we don’t necessarily want to say we don’t put any emphasis or we don’t want to put any thought behind the chicken, but hamburgers, cheeseburgers first. 

Can you give us background on how the Made to Crave menu was developed? 

John Li: Back in 2019, we realized that we had an opportunity to give consumers an opportunity that wanted a little bit more flavor variety and wanted to have safe adventures in terms of flavors and hamburgers, cheeseburgers, and chicken sandwiches. So we developed Made to Crave. Since 2019, we’ve built momentum this past year despite the pandemic. We exceeded all forecasts in regards to the Pretzel Bacon Pub and the Jalapeño Popper, and we’re going to do the exact same thing with the new introduction. Made to Crave provides that opportunity for consumers to really get the food that we call leaning forward, which is foods that are designed to be on trend, but not so far forward that you’re above your skis and it’s not really what consumers want, and it becomes niche. But we know that the flavors that consumers really want to try, and we do it in a way that we guarantee will taste fantastic, and we’ll have appeal broadly. 

Chris Johnson: I think Made to Crave has done everything we’ve wanted it to do and it continues to grow and evolve with time. So it’s super exciting to see the path of this platform as the years go by. But I look at it in a sense that before Made to Crave, we were the go-to spot for the classic all-American hamburger and the overindulgent bacon lovers hamburger with the Baconator and the Dave’s Single. So now that we have ventured out and created the flavor variety for our consumer, I think just speaks volumes to how the brand is listening to our consumers’ needs, and then creating an experience for them. So much about delivering food from a culinary perspective isn’t about providing sustenance. It’s about providing an experience. And as you well know with our team, passion is from the top down in regards to delivering on that for our consumer. So Made to Crave is that platform for us to be able to deliver on that passion.

The Made to Crave menu rotates quite frequently. Could you explain the rationale for why that is? 

Chris Johnson: We’re not just doing a limited-time offer for four weeks, and you’ve got a little small window to be able to try it. We wanted to make sure that we’re focusing in on flavors that have some staying power and that can maintain their impact on the menu for a longer period of time. So really we’re diving deeper into the flavor profiles, the components, what the consumers needs/wants are, so that we can provide that flavor variety on a daily basis, and have it sustain itself over time so those who may not have visited Wendy’s in that four weeks have the opportunity to go and try it.

Could you tell us more about the build of the Bourbon Bacon Cheeseburger, as well as the inspiration behind it? 

Chris Johnson: Even though we’re always super in touch with our consumers, the way we stay on trend is immersing ourselves in the food industry from the entirety of it. So we’ll do a trend tour. And we were in Chicago not too long ago, and we were out on a trend tour and we went and got some drinks at the pub one night and there was a craft cocktail—smoky bourbon cocktail that came with a garnish of candied bacon. And we’re just thinking and enjoying it and how unique the experience was and how the flavors just blend together in this harmonious experience. Like how do we take that and deliver it into a cheeseburger for Made to Crave? You start with the foundation of our fresh never frozen beef and you couple that with our oven-roasted daily applewood smoked bacon—right there it’s a platform for success. And we got two slices of American cheese to add that creaminess and that perfect ratio of beef to cheese, the crispy onions on there for that flavor or texture variety, as well as a little touch of savoriness.

And then we work on that craft bourbon bacon sauce. Made with real bourbon, made with real bacon. People think, well what does bourbon taste like? And I think that’s really what drove the excitement around this concept is that most associate bourbon with like a harsh alcoholic burn and miss out on the depth of flavor that is actually there in bourbon. Chefs love bourbon. So we’re able to take this and combined the three b’s—beef, bourbon, and bacon—and this bourbon sauce encapsulates that salted caramel note and a little bit of smoke and then that peppery finish you get from a quality shot of bourbon. And then you take that in and enhance those flavors to the point that that sauce just encapsulates that entire burger and delivers an experience in every single bite. 

Are there any ideas that your team has had to leave on the cutting room floor, so to speak, where you were really passionate about a certain ingredient or flavor idea and it just couldn’t quite make it to menu? 

John Li: Chris is sick of me always coming into his office with ideas. I can’t help it. There are two that I’m going to bring up. One, you’re going to know right away that I spent a lot of time in Wisconsin. I love fried cheese curd, and if I could somehow find a way to get fried cheese curd on a burger, I would do it. And I keep telling Chris that the reality is, it’s super regionalized. It’s not the easiest thing to do. Secondly, the sacrifices you have to make to get a cheese curd that’s not going to deliver what you get if you’re in Wisconsin. It’s different when you get fresh cheese curd. There’s a reason why they call it squeaky cheese—you’ve got to get it fresh. The second idea which I bring to [John Li] a lot is, I would love to do a country fried steak in Made to Crave, smothered in gravy, french fries. That really floats my boat. This brings up my Southern side. It’s also regional. So we have to be careful that the ideas that we develop, it’s got to have appeal. It can’t be so niche, and that’s a part of how we design this food because it’s got to work for a majority of our customers, not just a few. 

Fast Food, Menu Innovations, Web Exclusives, Wendy's