BOSTON (TheStreet) --Before George Costanza, Jason Alexander played a meaty role in fast-food development.
In the mid-'80s, a much hairier Alexander awkwardly sang and danced his way through ads for a
product that became as integral to that decade's consumer lexicon as Cabbage Patch Kids, the cola wars and supply-side economics: The McDLT. A computer keyboard-sized Styrofoam container housed half a bun, lettuce and tomato on one side and a burger-laden bun half in the other in an attempt to keep "the hot side hot and the cool side cool."
Carl's Jr. created a burger in honor of Independence Day that had a hot dog on top.
The McDLT died with polystyrene packaging in the 1990s, but it gave fast-food creators a case of the late-night munchies that spawned
Taco Bell Crunchwrap Supreme. The McDLT's reincarnation as the put-together Big N' Tasty in 2001 was an homage to the test-kitchen titans that came before, but created a relic of fast-food's developmental isolationism.
"There's no pride of ownership in our kitchen," says chef Dan Coudreaut, McDonald's director of culinary innovation. "If there's a good idea, it doesn't matter where it comes from."
McDonald's template for food development is supposed to start in Coudreaut's kitchen, where the former Four Seasons sous chef concocted the Premium Chicken Sandwich line, the chicken Snack Wrap and the chain's current crop of salads. However, ideas for the Egg McMuffin, Sweet Tea and the Angus Burger line released this month -- the first burger added to the menu since the McDLT/Big N' Tasty -- came from McDonald's franchisees.
also dips back into its history for inspiration -- reviving the late-'80s
mini burgers as Burger Shots -- its development process would make Gordon Ramsay proud. The King summons chefs from the best suppliers to Burger King's Miami headquarters for "Alpha Chef" sessions where the group works on projects like the spiced-up Angry Whopper line. For a company that prizes "burgers with personality" like the Steakhouse XT (a seven-ounce burger topped with steak sauce and fried onions) and Stacker (aptly named piles of two to four Whopper Jr. patties topped with bacon and sauce), the Alpha Chef sessions help Burger King say what its creepily comedic silent mascot can't.
"We always say that our tone of voice is that of the cool uncle," says Leo Leon, Burger King's senior director of product marketing. "The cool uncle isn't going to tell it to you the way your mom and dad will -- he'll say it in a cooler way."
If Burger King is the cool uncle, the folks at
are the indulgent, outcast stepbrother who considers his Megan Fox poster fine art. The parent company of
has kept fast-food shock-and-awe alive after both chains became what its executives called "jacks of all trades and masters of none." Mired in mediocrity nearly a decade ago, the company abandoned all forays into chicken, salad and coffee to focus on its strength: burgers.
CKE launched its Carl's Jr. Six Dollar Burger and Hardee's Thickburger premium angus sandwiches half a decade ago. Burger King's Steakhouse and McDonald's Angus burgers are just catching up. Focusing on "hungry guys" ages 18 to 34, CKE's creative staff rolled out behemoths like its two-thirds pound, 1,420-calorie Hardee's Monster Thickburger and tinkered with toppings like Portobello mushrooms, teriyaki and pineapple.
"I have a rule for never bringing any food into the brainstorming session," says Bruce Frazer, CKE's vice president of research and development. "You want to catch them when they are hungry."
Those pangs often result in CKE's more substantial burger fixings -- like other meats. After seeing one made in Salt Lake City, CKE's team produced a pastrami burger topped with a pastrami sandwich's complete contents. That led Jay Leno to bemoan meat's status as "a condiment for other meat," but inspired CKE to use his words as the basis for "meat-on-meat" offerings like the Philly cheese steak, French dip and prime rib burgers.
While not quite mainstream offerings, those sandwiches have been spared the fate of the McRib, which Coutreau says McDonald's likes to keep as a seasonal item to build anticipation.
"When I first started at McDonald's, a friend of mine from Texas threatened me that it better never come off the menu," he says. "There's a lot of passion around the McRib, man."
Sometimes cutting a sandwich is just a matter of keeping costs down or making an item as appetizing to as many people as possible. In the case of CKE's Fourth of July Burger -- a one-third-pound burger topped with a hot dog, potato chips and myriad condiments -- it's a combination of both.
"I'm still anxious to find a way to sell a hot dog on a burger because it's such a natural," says Brad Haley, executive vice president of marketing for CKE. "There are some burger joints that have successfully sold that kind of a burger, but there are some places that sell peanut butter on a burger and I don't think that would go over well. I think we'll crack that code someday."
-- Reported by Jason Notte in Boston.
Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet.com. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, The Boston Herald, The Boston Phoenix, Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent.