John Li, Wendy’s vice president of culinary innovation, poses a simple question—what’s the first thing customers do when they leave the drive-thru?

It’s an easy answer, Li says. Customers reach into the bag and grab some French fries; it’s almost always the first impression when eating a fast-food meal. That’s why for the first time in 11 years, Wendy’s is updating French fries—its No. 1 selling product—with a new hot and crispy edition. 

After several months of work, Li says the culinary team has created a fry that is a nearly 2:1 preference versus Wendy’s primary competitor, McDonald’s. The updated product will be rolled out nationwide and in Canada as soon as mid-September and will then expand globally. 

The French fries are an example of “fast food done right,” a mentality the chain has worked on for the past two and a half years, according to Li. 

“It’s basically one of those things where there are good fries out there, but there are not great fries out there and we collectively got together and we told ourselves 2.5 years ago that good is definitely not good enough,” the executive says. “So we’re going to put in a full-court press and figure out what’s the best way to have our customers’ backs. If fries are the most-ordered menu item, we’re going to create the best possible fry.”

In addition to the new fries, Wendy’s is also launching the Big Bacon Cheddar Cheeseburger, the third addition to the Made to Crave lineup this year.

Wendy’s recently held a virtual Culinary Spotlight event showcasing the new French fries and burger. Li, along with Emily Kessler, senior specialist of culinary and innovation, and Jay Drumm, senior specialist of culinary and product development, gave a behind-the-scenes look at the innovation, and explained how they arrived on the menu. QSR attended the event and captured the highlights. 

Can you share a little bit about how your team has been approaching reinventing the fry and to land this new hot and crispy game-changer? 

John Li: You got to get the right potato. Once you get the right potato, you got to make sure you’re applying the right process and we have a signature proprietary process that allows us to get the fry. You got to do it in a way that our customers want it. So there’s a whole bunch of forms. We’ve done a lot of research, there’s a whole bunch of shapes, and there’s a lot of different routes we could have taken to create new news. And the problem is, to stay true to our heritage and roots and what Dave Thomas expected in terms of the perfect French fry. And then based on the research of what consumers really want, which is a fry that is hot and crispy, we actually landed on what we have today. 

So it looks like your standard French fry; it is not your standard French fry. And the reality is sometimes they got it right the first time out in regards to shape. There’s specifics around how we cut our fry. It was done right the first time around. So we didn’t have to do much to fix that. But applying a proprietary process and really being careful about the partners that we choose and having the right raw materials coming in from a potato perspective gets us to where we’re at today. And then obviously we have our ops partnership too. They do a fantastic job. We are trained properly. We’ve got certified people working those fryers, and they care and are as passionate as we are about making sure that the guest experience is awesome every time they bite into a French fry.

Can you share what specifically is making these fries a cut above the competition? 

Emily Kessler: One side is built as a thicker side and it’s built for heat retention while the other side is thinner and that’s really to enhance crispiness because we know our customers want hot and crispy fries every time. And then we add just a whisper of coating to really enhance that crispiness so that customers are getting that crispiness while they’re eating their sandwich because as you know, fries and burgers go great together and we want to make sure the fries are crispy throughout that experience.

With the acceleration of COVID and acceleration of drive-thru and delivery, how does this new fry stand up and answer to the challenges of the cold and soggy fry and that moisture? 

Emily Kessler: We all know COVID changed the game when it comes to how our customers are getting their food. So that really accelerated the need to develop and make sure our fries are withstanding that delivery experience so that customer who maybe is getting that delivery or drive-thru experience gets the same fry texture crispiness that they see in their dining room visit. 

John Li: Because I’m a ketchup eater, I’d like to take our pouch and I like to squeeze on a little squiggly drizzle on each fry. Soggy fries don’t make for a very good eating experience when you try to do that. Using fries that [Kessler] created are perfect for that. So if you include in the delivery expectation of 20 minutes, typically 20-30 minutes, they’re still crispy, which is mind-boggling.

Can you just expand a little bit on the difference between the current fry and the hot, crispy fry?

John Li: The primary difference is a proprietary process that Emily has come up with with some of our really key partners in this category. That is the primary difference. We’ve always had amazing [specification] on the right potato. That has not changed. The change is in regards to the actual battering process that we use and finding the right level batter, which sounds like it’s easy. Try doing millions and millions of pounds of French fries. There’s a lot of science involved and a lot of engineering involved, so we had to get it just right. And also you work with them to get the right type of batter system because every ingredient you use has a different impact on the eating quality and cooking quality of that French fry. So this is truly the combination of our own science on a product that seems so simple when you compare it to something that looks more complex. It’s actually probably the most complex project that I’ve worked on in my entire career.

You had a phrase around the coating that was great that included the word “whisper” and that you didn’t want to have it be a barrier to the potato. Can you just share a little bit about the philosophy there?

John Li: The reason why the whisper came out was because there are a lot of other competitors and options that we could’ve looked at that had heavier battering. But the beauty of our research was that it told us something very clearly that consumers really know their French fries. I love the French fry for the fact that it’s the natural sort of potato texture that they want with that very light contrast in texture. Crisp on the outside, fluffy baked potato in the middle is how we always talk about it in our kitchens. You cannot do that if you start applying a whole bunch of batter, which may make it more crispy, but you end up changing the actual overall eating experience of the French fry. I know this gets deep into French fry, but this is what we do. We talk about French fries like this: If you bite into a heavily battered product, I guarantee that they start to get gummy and they lose that baked potato fluffy texture in the center. Our research tells us most consumers, that is not good. So that’s why we took the road that we did, which is harder, but we feel it’s the right route to take.

Can you share details on that cheesy goodness. That’s going to be joining the Made to Crave menu next week?

Jay Drumm: I’m excited to debut this sandwich. This is the third installment of the Made to Crave sandwich lineup [this year] and that is the Big Bacon Cheddar. Wendy’s is the No. 1 bacon cheeseburger destination, and so with this sandwich, we thought that we should just turn it on its head, crank it up to 11 essentially. The sandwich is inspired by the Southern influence and elevated Southern food. Things like pimento cheese, where we’re seeing from fine dining to food trucks, and really wanted to pair that with something sweet and savory. We have a warm bacon sauce that gets put on top of the cheeseburger. A one-of-a-kind cheddar bun. There’s cheese that’s basically a waterfall of cheese on top of the bun. It’s pretty incredible. Paired with our fresh never frozen beef, American cheese, and applewood smoked bacon. There’s nothing else like it out there.

Menu Innovations, Web Exclusives, Wendy's