When Wendy’s launched breakfast nearly two-and-a-half years ago, the brand was confident in its offering compared to the competition, and results so far have played out that way, says John Li, vice president of culinary innovation.
To his point, CEO Todd Penegor told analysts in May that despite short-term headwinds, Wendy’s is on pace to meet the low end of its 2022 goals—growing breakfast mix 10-20 percent and reaching average weekly breakfast sales of $3,000 to $3,500. But the chain knew there was a hole in the menu, and that’s serving something sweet, portable, and handheld. As parents return to work and children head back to school, Wendy’s felt it was important to provide customers with a new item that delivered against those parameters.
Enter Homestyle French Toast Sticks—paired with a new dipping syrup—which will be available nationally starting August 15. The innovation comes a la carte in four or six pieces, and a six-piece combo along with seasoned potatoes and a drink. It’s the first sweet menu addition to the breakfast daypart since it debuted in March 2020.
“Our Homestyle French Toast Sticks strike a perfect note of nostalgia and bring even more morning flavor to our menu—this time with something sweet,” CMO Carl Loredo said in a statement. “From day one, we launched our breakfast offering to save fans from the boring and bland morning options that exist at some of our competitors, and we’ve done just that. Wendy’s all-new Homestyle French Toast Sticks give our fans a better breakfast worthy of their first meal of the day.”
QSR recently caught up with Li to learn about the brainstorming process and how Homestyle French Toast Sticks align with Wendy’s culinary mission.
What led you to choosing Homestyle French Toast Sticks?
For the last year we’ve been working really hard on developing something that could actually fill that hole. And we had a couple options, and we really honed in on French toast as a platform. And the reason being is that there’s only certain foods at breakfast time that consumers love, but that are really difficult to actually put together, but also carry a lot of emotional benefits. So we start this program of focusing on nostalgia, and we could have done waffles, but you know, unfortunately waffles, there’s so many that are out there and they’re really bad. And it harkens back to mom or dad pulling out waffles out of the freezer, and there’s always freezer burn. It really wasn’t all that special. Pancakes, which honestly are just like dry mix and you mix water and then you throw it in a pan. It also lacked a little bit of that extra love that’s needed. French toast was interesting. So with our research, we discovered French toast is one of those things that was super special. So if mom or dad got up in the morning to make that, it took a lot of time and effort and it meant a lot. So we said, you know what? We’re going to try to develop something that delivers against that same magic of nostalgia.
What’s the key to differentiating your French Toast Sticks from others?
It took us a year. We went through 18 different iterations to get it right because we set some parameters with my team and with our partners to say, we have to make the French toast just like your mom, grandma, your dad, whoever it is that made it in your household, it has to taste just like it. So we start with Texas toast. It goes through an actual egg and dairy and vanilla sugar mix. It’s a royale, it’s a custard. We make sure that sits in this royale for the right amount of time. It’s got to absorb and then actually go through a griddle process because you actually want to get all the caramelization around the French toast to get that caramelization color, and more importantly, the flavor. Then when we get it into a restaurant, it’s just a quick flash fry to get it crispy on the outside, and you maintain the custard interior. That’s what we wanted to land on. It took us this long because we didn’t want to launch until we got it right. And so now for the last week or so we’ve been making sure we get this trained in our restaurants.
How does it fit into back-of-house? Easy to bring into the fold?
We have three goals in mind when we and my team start to develop recipes. One, which we talked about, the consumer has to be super excited about it. So it has to deliver against the promise of fast food done right. So that that’s the first filter. The second one is, we got to make sure that it’s affordable. So financially, it’s got to work within the budget of our consumers. And then the third, which ties into what you just mentioned, is operationally, we need to make sure that Deepak [Ajmani], our COO, knows that we can deliver the same best-in-class experience every single time in thousands of stores across the U.S. That, as you can imagine, is really hard. It’s not easy. That takes time to develop the right recipe, it takes time and effort to work with Deepak and his restaurant operations team to make sure that we’ve got the right procedures in place.
What made August the right timing for this release?
It fell into two different camps. One is we wanted to get the product right and go through all the proper testing, which we just talked about, and serendipitously it ended up landing in this time period where it does make sense. Right before kids go back to school is probably the most opportunistic time for us to make sure that we’re offering a solution for those busy parents. Me being one of them when my kids were younger, it was frantic trying to get them into our Honda Odyssey and get them out the door and you were lucky if you actually remembered getting breakfast. And if you did remember breakfast, it was usually a Ziploc bag filled with cereal or yogurt tube, which squirted all over our car, which made it hard to resell. But that’s the image that I have in my head of remembering what it was like. We needed and had the opportunity to be able to deliver something that got to the nostalgia. Why just show love for your loved ones on the weekends? It should be every day of the week, and if we can make it super easy for them during the week and then drop off kids to school so they can start their day off on a good note, all the better.
What’s likely to be the cadence of innovation for breakfast going forward?
There is no set formula, and there never has been in regards to how we think about innovation. It’s completely driven on what the consumer environment looks like, and it helps guide our thinking all the way. So in regards to breakfast, you think about what consumers want and need, behaviorally, people know what they want for breakfast. There’s a routine that sets in. So we’ve created a new routine because people have now realized, oh my gosh, this food from Wendy’s for breakfast is better. They’re going to start—and they have started—coming to Wendy’s versus other places, whether it’s home or a competitor. But along the way, there will be opportunities for us to either add new news every now and then because everyone loves a little bit of new news, and not just breakfast. And also more importantly, making sure that we’re still staying in tune with actually what they want and need. We’re not big fans at Wendy’s of developing new news just for the sake of new news to please ourselves. It has to boil down to what the consumer has been clamoring for and asking for—that’s a part of our fast food done right mantra. You lean too far forward above your skis and then you crash. That’s not who we are. We’re developing food that we know our fans are going to love. That means we’re going to be careful about it.