Wendy’s culinary research shows that Gen Z is obsessed with chicken, according to John Li, VP of culinary innovation. And this is a global movement.

Given the growing passion for the protein, Li feels it was about time Wendy’s did something about it.

“We already own bacon and we own fresh never frozen beef. So I don’t need to worry about that, but we have an opportunity [with chicken] and we’ve left it hanging there for too long, I think,” Li says.

To fill that innovative void, the fast-food giant is debuting Saucy Nuggs, which tosses the chain’s classic chicken nuggets in seven unique flavors—Honey BBQ, Garlic Parm, Buffalo, Spicy Honey BBQ, Spicy Garlic Parm, Spicy Buffalo, and Spicy Ghost Pepper. The product is available starting Monday via the website and app and then in-store on June 10. The nuggets are available in sizes of four, six, 10, or 20. The items are served with a side of Ranch or Blue Cheese dipping sauce.

Here are descriptions of each flavor:

  • Honey BBQ: Full of smokiness and sweetness, with a subtle hint of honey.
  • Garlic Parm: A classic flavor balanced with garlic and parmesan without overwhelming the tastebuds.
  • Buffalo: Buttery undertones with a subtle touch of vinegar.
  • Spicy Honey BBQ: A balance of sweet and spicy for customers looking to level up their Honey BBQ experience.
  • Spicy Garlic Parm: A fiery twist on a classic, with sweetness and the sharpness of four types of roasted garlic.
  • Spicy Buffalo: An intense kick balanced by a subtle tang of vinegar.
  • Spicy Ghost Pepper: An intensely spicy experience with a lingering depth. 

“I think for us to pull the trigger and finally do something that [guests] have been asking for—yes, granted, it’s taken me about a year and a half to two years, probably longer than what I would have wanted, but that’s just the way our process works,” Li says. “We tend not to rush things. We don’t just do things for a flash in the pan. We take our time to really make sure that we’re doing justice to the fans, but also obviously our partners.”

According to Li, the decision to introduce Saucy Nuggs stems directly from the demands of Wendy’s loyal fanbase, who have expressed a desire for more flavorful options. “Our fans have made it clear—they want us to capitalize on our reputation as the best in the nugget game,” Li explains. “Why not offer more flavors?”

Li and his team took this challenge to heart, embracing a philosophy of “fast food done right.” They focused on curating a variety of sauces to complement their already popular nuggets, ensuring that the new product could be launched with confidence and pride. “The nuggets are great as they are; the magic is in the sauces,” Li notes.

The industry veteran calls out two key trends when it comes to Saucy Nuggs: a craving for nostalgia and a desire for adventurous flavors. “Nostalgia is powerful, especially in today’s environment. Something as simple as a nugget can evoke strong emotions,” he says. At the same time, Wendy’s aims to cater to “flavor enthusiasts,” those who seek bold and adventurous taste experiences.

Developing a new sauce at Wendy’s is a meticulous process that takes nearly six months, sometimes up to a year, depending on the ingredients, Li says. He adds that unlike independent operators who rely on standard options from distributors, Wendy’s can customize its offerings to suit its fans’ tastes. “We leverage our scale and expertise to fine-tune products based on what we know our fans like and want,” Li says. The process is intricate and involves pre-contracting ingredients months in advance.

Throughout the development phase, Wendy’s engages with customers continuously through panels conducted both inside and outside its facility. Its dedicated consumer insights group focuses on this research, which allows Wendy’s to expedite prototype development and ensure products connect with customers. Li says it’s important to avoid the “golden palette” syndrome, where decisions are based solely on his preferences.

“While I can guide the process, the consumer data is what drives our decisions,” he said. “My job is to listen to our customers, and that’s what I get paid to do.”

He says a common pitfall among large companies is diluting products to appeal to the broader public, something he refused to do with the Saucy Nuggs rollout. “I’d rather sacrifice general mass sales to make our target consumers genuinely happy,” Li says. He acknowledges past mistakes where attempts to cater to everyone led to unsatisfactory results. An example of this focused approach is Wendy’s Ghost Pepper Ranch launch. Li admits that the product is intensely spicy, even for him, despite his background in spicy food. However, during testing with spice fans, the feedback was consistent that it wasn’t hot enough. This led the chain to intensify the heat, even adding ghost pepper crunchies, which were not part of the initial plan.

Despite internal debates about broadening the product’s appeal for higher sales, Li believes that staying true to the brand is crucial.

“If we call them fans, the food we create must meet their expectations,” he says. “Otherwise, we risk sounding like a detached corporate entity, which is exactly what we don’t want to be.”

Burgers, Food, Marketing & Promotions, Menu Innovations, Story, Web Exclusives, Wendy's