It is not easy being a fast food restaurant chain these days. New fast-casual restaurants such as Panera Bread and Chipotle offer diners more updated and healthful menu options in a setting much more appealing than the dreary and dingy plastic cafeteria environment typical of fast food chains. And as more consumers want to know where their food comes from and what those companies do with those profits, fast food restaurants as they stand are about as unsustainable as they come. Factory-farmed meat, mounds of polystyrene and plastic trash, and workers’ grievances are among the reasons why companies such as McDonald’s have seen their sales decline in recent years. Add the linking of fast food’s contributions to health problems including obesity, and the last few years have witnessed an industry under siege.
Now White Castle, both a cult classic and pop culture icon, is trying to buck this trend with the recent introduction of its Veggie Sliders.
The family-owned Ohio company, with close to 400 stores in 12 states, is aiming to keep its loyal customer base, or “Cravers,” motivated to visit its stores, while inspiring new customers to enter its doors. Claiming the new vegetarian sliders, made by Dr. Praeger's, were sold after a test run in New York and New Jersey, White Castle VP Jamie Richardson said: “We are committed to asking good questions, listening to our customers and keeping up with changing tastes by developing new menu items that keep our guests craving and give them more options to feed the whole family.”
White Castle’s competitors have also been doing a lot of talking, but customers are not only not listening, they are staying away. After shying away from its most recent slogan, “I’m lovin’ it,” in its advertising campaigns, McDonald’s is now taking a brasher and more upbeat tone. McDonald’s Chief Marketing Officer, Deborah Wahl, has been quoted as saying customers are surrounded by enough negativity, and McDonald’s wants them to celebrate its brand. That may be a fair enough assessment, but whether consumers are concerned about high fructose corn syrup, what is in a Chicken McNugget or how many calories are in a Happy Meal, they are choosing to eat elsewhere. A new campaign mocking healthful choices such as eating kale may tickle its most loyal customers, but for many it will likely only generate more eye-rolls instead of more visits to the nearest McD’s.
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Restaurants enjoying heady sales these days include Chipotle, which resonates with customers for several reasons, among them the fact that they can watch their meals being created in front of their eyes. But the burrito and taco purveyor has also won customer loyalty for sourcing locally when possible and ensuring animal welfare takes a priority throughout its supply chain. Chipotle, which has expanded rapidly over the past decade, will face growing pains, such as this week’s announcement it has removed pork from about 600 of its locations after discovering supplier violations of its animal-welfare policy. The general consensus within the media is that a stubborn commitment to “food with integrity” will harm the company in the long run.
But at a time when customers are basing their purchasing decisions on how people, and animals, are treated by companies, such a gutsy decision could actually build more brand loyalty for Chipotle in the long run. On the other hand, while McDonald’s has made some responsible decisions such as sourcing more sustainable fish and is phasing out polystyrene cups, it still takes a cut-throat approach towards seeking savings within its supply chain — going against current trends in which transparency has become the norm. Recent moves including a commitment to sourcing 100 percent sustainable beef are a step in the right direction, but otherwise have attracted McDonald’s little more than scorn.
It is easy for a company such as McDonald’s to keep a tin ear when it comes to consumers’ worries over health and quality. Other burger chains with an “old school” approach, such as Sonic and California’s family-owned darling, In-N-Out, are hugely successful. In-N-Out may not scream “sustainability” when entering its doors, but its simplified menu emphasizes fresh ingredients such as buns baked in-house, unfrozen meat, hand-cut lettuce and fries made from fresh potatoes sliced to order — all visible to customers while they wait in brightly lit surroundings that hearken back to the classic burger joints of the 1950s. While McDonald’s still gives the vibe of being a cog in a long, bland, corporate chain — even though more of its locations are being updated and even look edgy — customers feel a sense of inclusiveness at In-N-Out, whether they are ordering from the secret menu or customizing their order to score — gasp — a Triple-Triple!
That kind of inclusiveness is why White Castle could score a home run with its Veggie Sliders. While vegetarian cuisine long ago became mainstream, only five percent of adults report being “vegetarian,” and many of them fall off of the no-meat wagon after a few years. At the same time, restaurants have long struggled with the “veto vote,” the trend in which an entire party will pass on a dining establishment if someone in the group cannot or will not find anything on the menu. Some analysts argue that such a strategy results in trying to please everyone, while actually pleasing no one, and risking loyal customers. But it is not as if White Castle is serving tempeh and brown rice bowls — those veggie sliders look almost the same as the beef options that have been the company staple for decades.
True, some customers will be dismayed when they realize some of the veggie options actually have more calories than the beef sliders. But at a time when more customers are concerned with animal rights and finding healthful and sustainable options while out on the town — real or perceived — White Castle’s move is a positive step towards more responsible dining without entirely disrupting the company’s business model.