Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Wendy's Burgers Radically Innovates Design... To Become Chipotle

Oh, how fondly I remember the first Wendy's Old Fashioned Hamburgers that opened in my hometown of Lynchburg, Va., in the mid- to late-1970s. It was nothing like McDonald's or Burger King, with tables cleverly imprinted with images from the vintage Sears catalog and a delectable salad bar. And the food tasted like... well... food. There's the beef, baby.

Of course, about the only place one can find a salad bar anymore is Ruby Tuesday (now top of my list when I return home), while through the decades, Wendy's has obviously changed with the times. And yet it still doggedly remains No. 3 in line among burger chains... which San Francisco-design firm Tesser is attempting to help the chain defeat.

A surprisingly fresh architectural prototype for Wendy's being tested in Dublin, Ohio, is less burger joint and much more Chipotle. The new design rethinks everything from menu items and check-out lines to seating and comfort.

First are such upgraded menu items as premium salads, natural-cut sea salt fries, Berry Frosty Parfaits, Redhead Roasters coffee, smoothies and baked cookies and muffins.

But more surprising is the look inside, utilizing "warm, natural colors and brick and wood materials," according to webbie QSR.com, along with 14-foot floor-to-ceiling windows, high-top bar-style seating, café-style booths and cushioned chairs surrounding a faux fireplace.

In addition is the intro of a "chute line," where guests line up along a wall instead crunching in front of cash registers. Tré Musco, president and chief creative officer of Tesser, admits, "Think of it as similar to Chipotle. People are lined up in a polite way, they're more relaxed and they're not in a big bunch fighting for a spot at the register."

Meanwhile, the Wendy's kitchen is partially exposed, so customers see baking and prep areas, as well as fresh produce; along with digital menu boards and touchless features in the bathroom, such as hand dryers and soap dispensers.

While it sounds boffo, if a dime of design is passed on in higher consumer costs, it's back to Big Mac for me. Sitting pretty is a nice add-on, but in this economy, it's still about the bottom dollar.