Why 'stunt foods' continue to persist in fast-food restaurants

The Double Down, Doritos Locos Tacos, the Whopperito -- all of these crazy culinary concoctions are part of a bigger ploy to get you through the door.

It all started at KFC. Back in 2009 the company launched its infamous Double Down sandwich, made with bacon, cheese, and Colonel Sauce, using two fried chicken breasts in place of bread. It was a smashing success, drawing curious diners who wanted to say they’d tried it. This was followed by Buffalo Wild Wings’ Zesty Citrus Wings (made with Mountain Dew), Taco Bell’s Doritos Locos Tacos, Burger King’s Whopperito, and Pizza Hut’s grilled cheese- and hot dog-stuffed pizza crusts, to name a few.

Welcome to the strange world of stunt foods, a trend within the fast-food industry that embraces splashy ingredient combinations to invent ‘foods’ that are simultaneously fascinating and horrifying. Regardless of how you feel about them, it appears these weird and wacky concoctions are here to stay.

An article in the Washington Post explains why fast-food restaurants love these outrageous creations so much. They get people through the door. While the stunt foods are not the actual money-makers and are usually only available for short periods of time, customers end up buying other regular items on the menu. This has helped to offset the recent fast-food recession and reclaim some market share from rapidly growing fast-casual restaurants, such as Chipotles and Cava Grill.

What makes the perfect ‘stunt’ food?

Barb Stuckey, a food industry expert at ‘concept creation’ firm Mattson, describes her recipe for success: "I think you do have to have culinary logic; you have to have a foot in the familiar; and you have to have novelty. And it's hard to get the intersection of those three things.” But when you do, it can mean big business, as Taco Bell discovered with its Doritos Locos Tacos that sold 100 million units in the first 10 weeks and surpassed the $1 billion sales mark the following year.

Why are people so curious about crazy culinary concoctions?

In the words of Brian Wansink, author of “Slim by Design” and director of Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab, the vast majority of us “don’t have a lot of exciting things that happen” on a daily basis; hence the thrill of trying something new, something that’s perceived as daring and can be showcased on social media as evidence of our adventurousness:

“Those social media-friendly images are aspirational. They aren’t usually representative of our diet, a cultural disconnect.”

People just want to know what these foods taste like. The Washington Post article attributes this innate curiosity to human nature, more so than to food culture, but I question that assumption. Considering that stunt foods seem to be a mostly American phenomenon (i.e. You don’t hear of Italians lining up for hot dog-stuffed pizza crusts), I think that culture does have a lot to do with it.

For now, the more people talk about stunt foods, the more incentive there is for companies to produce them; but it will be interesting to see over the long run, whether the growing awareness about nutrition, the environmental impact of meat, and health issues will help customers to call out these foods for what they are – mere publicity stunts and marketing gimmicks, not to mention rather disgusting spectacles of excess whose resources could be put to much better use in other ways.

Tags: Diet | United States

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