Sunday, November 18, 2012

Burger King: Sleeping Giant (Plus Gingerbread Oreos)

Wisconsin White Cheddar Whopper Sandwich

There has been a burger renaissance over the last few years, at least in the northeast. Shake Shack, Schnipper's Quality Kitchen, Five Napkin Burger, and others have returned attention to the simple pleasures of a really good burger as an accessible and quick meal. The imprimatur of Danny Meyer has also rehabbed the image of the burger, making it seem like a protein-rich, healthy-ish choice. But these new wave sort-of-fast-food joints with their sleek retro-hip environments may have a sleeping giant of a competitor: Burger King.

Before I continue, a full-disclosure moment: Burger King franchisees in the tri-state area have philanthropy built into their culture. At least four times a year, they do some kind of fundraising campaign in their stores. I happen to run Hope & Heroes Children's Cancer Fund, which is one of the charities they support. However, nothing I'm saying here is driven by any other motive than to report on a recent limited edition food experience.

OK, back to the sleeping giant theory. While I don't frequent fast food or chain restaurants all that often, because of my work with Burger King franchisees I usually end up visiting a few of their restaurants each year. I have often thought that their burgers were quite good and a real cut above McDonald's. This is especially true of their limited edition premium items, like the Steakhouse Burger they had a few years ago. As I recall, they charged $7.95 for it, which is real money in a fast food context - but then, it was a real burger. Made with flavorful Black Angus beef and fully featured with crispy onions and a dollop of A1 sauce, among other toppings, it was a delicious and satisfying treat.

Anyone who reads the business section knows that Burger King Corporation has had its struggles in the last decade. Heavy competetive pressure from the McDonald's behemoth (over 12,800 restaurants in the U.S. vs. about 7,250 Burger Kings) has certainly been a factor, as has some less than successful products and ad campaigns. Earlier this year, as I was eating in a BK, it suddenly occurred to me, what if they went head to head with Shake Shake and the like, instead of trying to invade the margins of McDonald's global dominance? Do people who eat at Schnipper's et al know that extremely tasty burgers are available at their local Burger King? Or has fast food been so demonized by the likes of Michael Pollan, Super Size Me and Fast Food Nation, that any place with bright colors and toys for kids is just out of the question for the thoughtful diner?

All these thoughts went through my head yet again when I stopped on the road and tried Burger King's new Wisconsin White Cheddar Whopper Sandwich, one of three variations on the classic they're putting out to celebrate its 50th anniversary. After I unwrapped it, I was immediately impressed by the bright colors and fresh appearance of the lettuce, tomato and red onion. I suppose the burger patty is the same as the average whopper, which means it has that flame-broiled flavor. It's also not too thick, giving a nice balance to the flavors and textures of the vegetables, pickles, bacon, and cheese as you bite through. We'll have to take it on faith that the cheddar really is from Wisconsin, however it was thickly sliced and had the taste of real cheddar, which is good enough for me. The bun was substantial and well-toasted and held up throughout the meal, not dissolving into nothingness by the time the burger was half eaten.

My first impression did not diminish: this is a good burger, especially due to the crunchy freshness of the lettuce and onion, and far better than many might expect. Without doing a side by side comparison I can't be totally sure, but I think it would stack up well against Shake Shack's offerings, even besting them, albeit with higher caloric cost (although the Whopper Jr. Is quite comparable). Schnipper's handily beats out Danny Meyer's chain and would likely win out over this one as well. It may not be as heavenly as that Steakhouse burger, but if you're in the mood for a hamburger and the line at your local new wave spot is long, find the nearest BK and grab one of these before they're gone. A bite or two and you'll forget the cartoon colors and toys. Don't forget to order some of those recently reformulated fries as well - they are truly fabulous.

Gingerbread Flavor Creme Oreos

After the debacle of the Candy Corn Oreos, which were reviled by most everyone who bothered to track them down at Target, Nabisco has rebounded with a winner. While these are not in any way revelatory, it's a simple, well-executed idea that flows from their other products. Essentially, they took their standard white Oreo cookie and filled it with a new creme that has a warm and homey flavor. I've really been enjoying them with only one minor complaint: the texture of the thick filling is such that the cookies don't really stick to it. This just means you have to be careful to grab a whole cookie sandwich from the package - so much for mindless snacking!

Availability: Both products should be around through the end of the year.