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Published January 05 2012

Morast: New fast food fries not so hot

People take their french fries very seriously.

I know this from experience; having officiated a heated debate involving power point and material witnesses about which of the major fast food joints had the better fries.

The winner was McDonald’s. The losers were everyone who had to suffer through that four hour discourse on minutia.

But the point remains; people are passionate about their french fries.

That’s why I’ve been hearing a lot about Burger King’s “new” fries that were rolled onto the franchise’s menus last month; and, to a lesser degree, Wendy’s “new” fries that were introduced last fall.

Some people love these new options, claiming they’re a substantial improvement over the previous options.

Others say, “meh,” and follow it with the oft-repeated mantra of “still not as good as McDonald’s.”

Curious, I tried both “new” offerings yesterday. Honestly, they just tasted like fries to me. Nothing special. Nothing outstanding; just that nice, familiar feeling of warm, slightly crispy fried potatoes.

Perhaps my palate isn’t refined enough to find the flavor distinctions. But rather than trying to pin-point what’s “new” about these fast food fries, I was more curious why two of the nation’s leading fast food chains decided to change their french fries at, roughly, the same time.

The simple answer: Americans like new things.

That’s what Harry Balzer says. He’s the chief industry analyst of the NPD group, a market research group out of Port Washington, N.Y.

Balzer says one of the driving forces of our diets is trying new things that are familiar to us.

And fries are very familiar to us. Balzer says they’re the number one or two food ordered at American restaurants.

It’s actually notable that they’re not number one, as fries have long topped the list without question.

The reason for the slight decline?

“They’ve lost their appeal,” Balzer says before clarifying. “It’s really the side dish that is losing its appeal.”

Why?

“I would speculate it’s about economics,” he says. “What’s important to you is the main dish.”

Stats back up his point. The sales of french fries have dropped over the last year – not much, mind you, only 1 percent, according to the NPD group.

That doesn’t mean our interest in fries is waning. In fact, during a roughly 12-minute conversation with Balzer he emphasized several times that American really, really like french fries.

But he paired that sentiment with the reality that in order to maintain or grow their market share, French fries are going to have to diversify.

That’s why we’re getting “new” fries at familiar restaurants. There could be more to come.

Balzer points to the potato chip as a potential model for the french fry diversification product; pointing out how the chip went from simply being a “chip” to being born in baked, fried and various other varieties splashed with unusual – but delightful – flavors.

He sees a future where restaurants have several french fry options; from baked fries to sweet potato fries to fries created by new technologies.

“We may see flavorings, seasonings that capture our interest – maybe not long term, but short term,” Balzer says.

Before we get to a future where Burger King is offering us baked sweet potato fries with dill seasoning, we should examine the present.

And while the new fries at Burger King and Wendy’s are good, they’re still not eclipsing what you find at McDonald’s.

Yet.


Readers can reach Forum Features Editor Robert Morast at (701) 241-5518

or rmorast@forumcomm.com