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Friday, February 4, 2011

ups and downs of the burger business

The clumsily named company Wendy's/Arby's [sic] that, surprisingly enough, owns both restaurant brands is under stress. Sales are down at both chains. The company says it may have to sell Arby's so that it can focus on resurrecting Wendy's.

At one time, Wendy's held the high ground in the fast-food burger market. I remember the first time I ate at a Wendy's, about when I received my undergraduate degree at Georgia Tech. A Wendy's had recently opened on Peachtree Street, with such popularity that a queue extended far out the doors.

Founder Dave Thomas kept Wendy's on track, but he died in 2002. Since that time, Backyard Burgers and Five Guys have displaced Wendy's at the high end of the fast-food burger market. McDonalds built on its strengths at breakfast to become a major seller of coffee and, after years of introducing new products like the Arch Deluxe that flopped, has successfully innovated with its menu. Red Robin has won market share in the sit-down segment of the burger market. Meanwhile Wendy's along with Burger King and Carl's appear to lack direction and -- pardon the pun -- sizzle.

Arby's has repeatedly attempted to enhance its menu, but it's difficult to think of anything that the brand stands for other than the original roast beef sandwiches. Ironically, among all fast food menus, the original Arby's sandwich -- when not slathered with condiments -- is a relatively low-calorie, low-fat item (although it is high in sodium).

Both Wendy's and Arby's have also taken a beating from Subway, Quiznos, and even Brueggers Bagels.

It's fun to watch the ebb and flow of consumer businesses. And for those whose employers provide no cafeteria, whose schedule provides little free time at lunch, and whose hectic lifestyles make it difficult to prepare a lunch before leaving home in the morning, the fast food business is actually important. Besides, it employs a lot of people who wouldn't have jobs otherwise.

My personal favorite these days is Chik-fil-A... but like the 1960 movie, Never on Sunday. Try the #7 grilled chicken with a fruit cup on the side and a diet lemonade. I think it's the best low-calorie fast food lunch on the planet.