Burger King Stinks; That's Bad for Investors

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- I have several memories of Burger King (BKW).

When I was in high school, my friend Bobby Stanek managed the Burger King on Niagara Falls Boulevard.

I think he still works for the company. Here's hoping he just became an IPO millionaire. Because of our "hook-up," my motley crew and I visited this BK location quite frequently. Stanek ran the place, so we never worried about getting busted as we stole free "pop" refills or flung ketchup packets all over the dining room.

More recently, when I lived in San Francisco, I marveled at a relentless Burger King protest that took place in the city's Inner Sunset District.

There was a Burger King on 9th Avenue. And it stunk up the surrounding area like you wouldn't believe. The guy who lived in the apartment the fast food outlet anchored, hung various protest signs (i.e., "Boycott... Smelly Burger King") in his window. They were there for years.

This thing ended well (depending on your perspective) several years ago. The protester's still there; Burger King is all gone.


As an investor, I feel like I can learn something from these personal Burger King experiences. The place really does stink.

Drop me anywhere in the world and, within the radius of a city block, I can lead you to the Burger King blindfolded, Bose noise-cancelling headphones on, gagged with an Apple. All I need is my nose.

In the same way that the smell of cigarettes would linger in your hair and clothes after you left a bar in the '90s, that Burger King stench attached to me like a valet's B.O. every time I left Stanek's restaurant.

These flashbacks to my teenage years probably explain why I was so obsessed with the San Francisco Burger King protest. Burger King still stinks.

You'll be hard-pressed to find a bar you can smoke in throughout much of America. Political philosophy aside, that's a good thing. For bartenders, for barbacks, for me and for you, even if you refuse to acknowledge it. We've evolved as a society.

Once we expected -- in fact, we never thought twice about -- smoking in bars. Just like buying a woman dinner and a drink, smelling like an ashtray after a night out was part of the price of admission. Things change because people change, habits change and perspectives change.

But Burger King has not changed.

Of course, you can point to menu items such as oatmeal, apple slices, salads, wraps, sweet potato fries and "real fruit" smoothies, but these are little more than incredibly late and feeble reactions to McDonald's ( MCD) dominance. McDonald's not only changed its menu, it changed its image.

And that's the amazing thing. McDonald's really never had to do anything.


It's been wildly successful for years. It could have stuck with the status quo.

Management realized, however, that you cannot stand still. The company did not answer to its critics as much as it answered to the evolution of society. Sure, two-thirds of the nation is overweight or obese, but there's still a pretty strong clamoring for nutritional change in the air.

That's a major reason why Chipotle Mexican Grill ( CMG) and Panera Bread ( PNRA) do so well.

While McDonald's never required anything close to a turnaround, Burger King needs a Domino's ( DPZ)-style transformation. The newly public company should do what Domino's did. It needs to say, "We stink. Literally. And we're going to change."

At its core, Burger King has done anything but change. It's still the fast food place where you go slumming only when there's nothing else available at the last rest stop for 100 miles. Gas station food prepared in a microwave looks, sounds and smells more appealing.

The "healthy" choices on BK's menu are not just too little, too late reactions to superior competition, they are window dressing. Smoke and mirrors. Unimaginative responses to being owned. You still know Burger King for disgusting monstrosities such as burgers with not one, not two, but three (something that sort of resembles) beef patties.

Burger King might wake up and join the era of smoke-free taverns and cigar bars. Until then, I intend to steer clear of the stock. At some point, I might even buy put options. The time to go long can only come on the implementation of real and wholesale change. For Burger King's sake, I hope it does happen, and that investors smell it coming.

At the time of publication, the author held no positions in any of the stocks mentioned in this article.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.

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