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Good-for-You Food Can't Cut It at Fast Food Chains


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The Rolling Stones may have sung about not getting any satisfaction, but now Burger King (BKW) patrons can't get any Satisfry-action. The burger chain announced last week that it was discontinuing the relatively healthier french fries.

It was easy to see why the crinkle-cut fries were doomed. Satisfries may have had an interesting marketing angle -- they were promoted as having 40 percent less fat and 30 percent fewer calories than a comparably sized McDonald's (MCD) fries -- but charging 30 cents more for an order than Burger King's own regular shoestring spuds was a deal breaker. Despite the slightly healthier attributes, it was a value proposition that didn't resonate with Burger King's penny-pinching customers.

Burger King may have served up 100 million orders of Satisfries since they were introduced late last year, but it wasn't enough. Then again, seeing how other fast food giants have fared in rolling out ill-fated healthier fare, the only real surprise is that Burger King tried at all.

Seaweed Burgers and Shaking Salads

Outside of perhaps Subway -- which has set itself apart on its "eat fresh" mantra and healthier sandwiches, wraps and salads -- it's been hard for any major quick-service chain to establish itself as a place for nutrition table watchers.

The failures have been plenty. Let's start with Burger's King's biggest rival. McDonald's introduced the McLean Deluxe in 1991. True to the "lean" in its name, the McLean Deluxe was a reduced-fat burger, made with 91 percent lean beef and an edible red seaweed extract. Taste tests went well, and McDonald's received critical praise for offering a slightly healthier menu option for burger lovers. It didn't succeed. McDonald's nixed it five years later.

Another McDonald's attempt to woo health-conscious diners was the McShaker salad that was served in an enclosed plastic cup that diners would shake to mix up. It was another flop, but largely on logistics of the experience. The dressing didn't blend well in the shaking process, and it would be a mess if the plastic lid came undone in the process. Customers go to a restaurant to be served. They don't want to be involved in the prep process.

McDonald's eventually fared better with the traditional salads that it serves today, but even now it doesn't offer any fat-free dressings as standard options.

Slim Sales

The diet-minded flops haven't been limited to burger chains. Yum! Brands' (YUM) Taco Bell introduced its Border Lights menu in 1995, just as McDonald's was getting ready to pull the plug on the McLean Deluxe.

"Eight new, slimmed-down entrees to be introduced starting next week by Taco Bell are getting a qualified thumbs-up from nutritionists, even as business analysts debate whether the new menu will boost sales," the Los Angeles Times reported at the time.

Offering items that carry about half the fat of its regular offerings may have made strategic sense, but Taco Bell's youthful audience wasn't buying it. It also didn't help that -- just like Burger King with the Satisfries -- that Taco Bell was charging a premium for its Border Lights items. Like Burger King's low-fat fries, Border Lights were pulled within a year.

It can't be a coincidence. Other short-lived flops by these chains include Burger King's veggie burger and a cholesterol-free muffin at McDonald's.

Have It Your Caloric Way

Light items make great headlines and please nutritionists, but they don't boost sales. If anything it's been the decadence -- think McDonald's with its McRib, Taco Bell with its Doritos Locos Tacos and Hardee's with its Monster Thickburger -- that drive sales growth.

It's an unfortunate reality, but when you're a fast food chain it seems to make more business sense to ignore your customer's health than to pander to it.

Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Burger King Worldwide and McDonald's. Try any of our newsletter services free for 30 days.


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