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How the menu minds at Jack-in-the-Box figure out what you'll eat

Thought for food

Bob Peterson (now husband to Mayor Maureen O’Connor) opened his first Jack-in-the-Box restaurant at Sixty-third Street and El Cajon Boulevard in 1951.
Bob Peterson (now husband to Mayor Maureen O’Connor) opened his first Jack-in-the-Box restaurant at Sixty-third Street and El Cajon Boulevard in 1951.

I am sitting in a tiny, airless cubicle, staring at a chicken sandwich. Someone just handed it to me through a sliding door, and I’ve removed the colored foil paper in which the warm food was wrapped. This is a sandwich poised on the diving board of destiny. Very soon Jack-in-the-Box restaurants may begin selling hundreds of thousands of replicas of it throughout the western United States. And today the ingenious men and women who invent new fast-food products here at the San Diego headquarters for the chain have one question uppermost in their minds: Should it be prepared with a honey-mustard sauce? Or will more people like it made with the traditional mayo-onion spread?

More than a third of all adults patronize fast-food restaurants ten times every three-month period.

In this two-day period, the food inventors hope to serve both varieties of the sandwich to almost a hundred hungry tasters, each secluded in a cubicle just like mine. None will know that the sauce is the element under scrutiny; I do only because Jack-in-the-Box’s friendly PR manager has incautiously confided in me.

“There are so many things against you in new product development."

Except for me, all the tasters are Jack-in-the-Box employees, and they’ve all been carefully screened to determine that none of them harbors any standing prejudice against whole-wheat buns or tomatoes or lettuce or Swiss cheese or chicken — the essential components of the new offering. Each will fill out two questionnaires querying them on everything from the overall appearance of the sandwich to the amount of chicken it contains to the degrees of sweetness and saltiness of the sauce. Their answers will then be fed into a computer, massaged, weighed, analyzed, and maybe, just maybe, used to make a decision.

Jack-in-the-Box still claims only 2.5 percent of the market shared by the top fourteen fast-food hamburger restaurants (compared to 51.1 percent held by McDonald’s).

Such are the minutiae that occupy the moguls of fast food. The American public may think this is a simple business: You rustle up a few million burgers, fry them in plenty of fat, wrap them to go, and tote up the megabucks in profits. But the people who develop new products for Jack-in-the-Box paint a different picture of their enterprise. They claim the San Diego company, in particular, is fighting to change the face of fast food, constantly struggling to concoct culinary novelties. But they can’t do that the way Wolfgang Puck waltzes into a kitchen and whips up a new, exotic pizza. Any tempting morsels dreamed up by Jack-in-the-Box have to be capable of being prepared by an army of indifferent teen-agers in five minutes or less in kitchens that were designed for grilling hamburgers. So the local fast-food makers wrestle daily with a laborious process that is part art, part science, and part Las Vegas-style speculation.

"You’ll always sell French fries. Because these are staple products. It’s like rice in China.”

“There are so many things against you in new product development. Just looking at the odds against it, it’s mind-boggling,” says Mo Iqbal, the overall product development manager at Foodmaker, Jack-in-the-Box’s parent company. He’s a man extraordinarily well schooled in the intricacies of fast food. Although he’s only thirty-nine years old, Iqbal has worked at Foodmaker for seventeen years, starting when he manned the graveyard shift at a Jack-in-the-Box restaurant in Los Angeles while studying electrical engineering at USC. Eventually he became shift leader, assistant manager, restaurant manager, district manager, area manager, and then he moved to the Kearny Mesa headquarters and into management jobs that have ranged from operations to training to the current marketing post. Iqbal points out that fast food has evolved dramatically during its short lifespan. Back during the Fifties and Sixties, “the way to be successful in this industry was just to open up new restaurants.” The only operational challenges were to “produce a basic commodity product: the hamburger, plus fries and drinks and shakes.”

“An awful lot of work went into the pasta salad. We had to specially develop our own pasta. It was precooked and marinated. Then shrimp and other seafood went into it.... The company quietly dropped it this past June."

Though Ray Kroc was the most successful man to apply technology to the hamburger and mass-produce it, others actually preceded him. Among them was Bob Peterson (now husband to Mayor Maureen O’Connor) who opened his first Jack-in-the-Box restaurant at Sixty-third Street and El Cajon Boulevard in 1951. (Kroc’s first McDonald’s opened in Des Plaines, Illinois, in 1955.) Peterson had expanded his chain to include 350 units by the time he cashed out of the business in 1968, selling his interest to Ralston-Purina. The corporate food giant continued to open new units at a furious pace throughout the 1970s, boasting some 1040 restaurants by the end of that decade. But by 1979, McDonald’s counted an awesome 5747 units within its international family, and second-place Burger King commanded 2439 outlets.

Today industry figures show that there are fewer than 700 people for every fast-food outlet in the country. Granted, the appetite for fast food is extraordinary. Iqbal says that according to Foodmaker’s research, more than ninety percent of all American adults eat fast food at least once per year. Moreover, more than a third of all adults patronize fast-food restaurants ten times every three-month period. As far back as the late Seventies, however, Foodmaker had begun to feel the pinch of all that competition, and the company finally opted for a drastic change of course. Instead of battling head-to-head against McDonald’s for the bland-burger business, largely fueled by parents eating out with their small children (a battle in which Jack-in-the-Box’s only claim to distinction was the gimmicky drive-through clown), top management decided that Jack-in-the-Box should try to carve out a niche for itself as a more “adult” fast-food chain, one offering a much more varied and constantly changing menu.


Several concrete changes quickly followed. First Foodmaker sold or closed all the Jack-in-the-Boxes in the Midwest and East, leaving the chain to consolidate its holdings in the fourteen Western states, including Hawaii. Company executives today claim that being regional gives them much greater flexibility, since they don’t have to be all things to all consumers; they add that Westerners tend to be much less stodgy and more open to new tastes. Along with the consolidation, the product development team also went into high gear. In 1980 they came up with their much-vaunted Chicken Supreme sandwich, which was introduced with an attention-getting television commercial in which the famous "Jack” clown logo was destroyed, as a slogan brayed that the food had become "better at the box.” Since then, the stream of new products has been steady with close to twenty-five new items introduced in the last six years. Today the company management seems sanguine, even ebullient, about the way the new strategy has worked.

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Jack-in-the-Box still claims only 2.5 percent of the market shared by the top fourteen fast-food hamburger restaurants (compared to 51.1 percent held by McDonald’s and 17.2 percent by second-place Burger King, according to figures just released by Nation's Restaurant News.) In 1985 company president Jack Goodall and others acquired the chain from Ralston-Purina in a leveraged buyout, and took it public in early 1987. The stock performance since then has been only mediocre, but Goodall has blamed that on other publicly owned fast-food chains (namely, Wendy’s and Church’s) that have lost money and, in Goodall’s view, dragged fast-food stocks down. In contrast with those unhappy chains, Jack-in-the-Box officials say they’re breaking all their previous sales records. For the fiscal year that ended last September, the company reported a fifty-percent increase in earnings and an eleven-percent increase in sales system-wide. Sales for the first six months of this year have increased at a rate three to four times the industry average, the officials assert jubilantly. And the key to it all has been product innovation, they repeat.

The company managers are so smitten by this notion that they sometimes get a little carried away offering examples of it. Public relations manager Durwin Long likes to point out, for example, that Jack-in-the-Box was the first fast-food restaurant to offer packaged salads. "That was back in 1982. People think McDonald’s was the first one to do that. But they just introduced theirs last year. We were five years ahead of them.” Although Long's last statement is correct, a check with Wendy’s headquarters back in Ohio reveals that Wendy’s came out with its first carry-out salad in 1980.

If Jack-in-the-Box wasn’t the nation’s first fast-food salad maker, however, company officials have lots of other examples to boast about. Mo Iqbal likes to say that even back in the dormant Seventies, Jack-in-the-Box boasted a few unconventional items. "Unlike other fast feeders, we had tacos on our menu,” he states with pride. "At one point, we sold fried chicken and shrimp. We were the first ones to come out with a Breakfast Jack sandwich. McDonald’s Egg McMuffin was a copy of our Breakfast Jack, and they came out with that product almost a year and a half after we did. But with their mass marketing and the media dollars, it appeared to everybody that they were the first to come out with it.”

Iqbal says Jack-in-the-Box was "among the first few” companies to come out with a quarter-pound burger (the Jumbo Jack). Once again, McDonald’s followed with its Quarter-pounder. And Iqbal says he finds it particularly ironic that almost ten years after Jack-in-the-Box brought out its first chicken sandwich (the Chicken Supreme), McDonald’s is only now finally test-marketing its own chicken sandwich (in San Francisco). "And in my opinion, after nine years of work, their product still does not even come close to our Chicken Supreme. We were the first one to offer a whole-wheat bun in fast food. We were the first one to offer more than American cheese,” Iqbal says.

These breakthroughs, as trivial as they might at first appear, address a fundamental human need, Iqbal argues. "In my opinion, there’s a biological need for variety in human beings. Nature has created that need so that we eat a variety of foods and fulfill the nutrition requirements that we all have. No matter how good the food is, even lobster and filet mignon you cannot eat every day.” Food is like fashion, Iqbal say. “There are trends in it; there are fads in it. People always have worn something, from fig leaves to sophisticated silk. The form it takes is different. Sometimes it’s long collars; sometimes it’s shorter collars. As long as humans have this need of variety, we’re gonna find there will be very different kinds of clothes, and the same thing applies to food, too.”

Of course, fast-food restaurants can’t only slavishly follow trends, Iqbal concedes. "There will always be a core menu, where you have some fundamental staple products.” The Jumbo Jack has been around for more than sixteen years, he points out. "We will always sell French fries. You may sell better French fries down the road, but you’ll always sell French fries. Because these are staple products. It’s like rice in China.”

Around this core, however, you have other products that come and go on the tides of trendiness. “If you remember, a few years ago, croissants were a very big thing. Everybody was talking about them. Nowadays people talk about bagels; people talk about fajitas. So we’re out there with fajitas.” he says.

Iqbal sees three fundamental ones, “and they appear to be conflicting, but they’re not,” he says intensely. First, "You see a trend toward more aromatic, more spicy food. When you look at people’s palates, they’re changing. They’re becoming more sophisticated. The spice consumption in this country has gone up quite a bit. Somewhere I’ve read statistics that say it’s gone up to the extent of thirty to forty percent in the last seven or eight years.” Second, Iqbal says, "You also see a trend toward fundamental food, the basic honest food. Foods prepared without heavy sauces or richness, grilled instead. People want that.” Finally, “You’re also seeing a trend toward nutrition. People want to have their cake and eat it too.”

Foodmaker managers really grow animated when they start talking about food trends, it, too, I suppose And we’re doing a reasonably good job in capitalizing on all three trends.”

If it sounds slightly ridiculous to say that people want simple, honest food and in the next breath say they want spicy, novel food, Iqbal points out that no one trend is monolithic. And human beings are inconsistent. “On Mondays we’re a little different creatures than we are on a Saturday or Sunday. On Monday after we’ve had our good weekend and have indulged, we want to go on a diet. And we eat our salads and become a good boy or girl.”

So you can look at Jack-in-the-Box’s current menu and see apparently contradictory products coexisting peacefully. The Ultimate Cheeseburger, two quarter-pound burgers topped with three different types of cheese on a sesame bun, is an obvious play for Simple, Honest Food fans (who ’ incidentally have no qualms about indulging in a high-fat binge). The new Chicken Fajita Pita, strips of spicy chicken breast meat stuffed into a pita pocket, is a trans-trendy product, combining Spicy with Nutritional appeal (since it contains fewer than 350 calories, with fewer than thirty percent of them composed of fat). The “finger foods” (egg rolls, chicken strips, and shrimp) line introduced by Foodmaker last fall caters to the widely discussed “grazing” phenomenon, while the new chicken sandwich still being tested (a whole boneless chicken breast grilled and served on a whole-wheat bun with lettuce, tomato, and the problematic sauce) will give Simple, Honest Food lovers a low-fat alternative.

Ben Dunkley is the master chef who oversaw the engineering of these recent gastronomic curiosities. A five-year veteran of Foodmaker, Dunkley is a tall lean man who looks as if he eats a lot more granola and raw vegetables than fast food. The son of a UC/Davis professor who taught food science for forty years, “I was kind of steeped in food all my life,” Dunkley says. He obtained a food-science degree from Davis, and worked for the Good Earth (natural foods) restaurant chain for three and a half years before making the move to fast food. More than a hint idealism colors Dunkley’s tone when he discusses his work at Foodmaker. He claims he sees his own work as an effort to “do the best I can to bring better food to a huge audience of people. There are a lot of young people here, a lot of forward thinkers who are interested in making a difference in the fast-food business.”

But isn’t fast food junk food? Dunkley retorts, “People have to take responsibility for what they eat.” He likes to summon the analogy of the grocery store. Dunkley says that around the turn of the century, the average market contained around 1200 items, compared with today’s choice of more than 10,000 items in a typical supermarket. The modem grocery store consumers ‘‘can go in and select a terrible diet, or they can select a stellar diet,” Dunkley says.

He concedes that if a person tried to live exclusively on certain items at his local Jack-in-the-Box, his nutrition would be pretty dismal. Dunkley doesn’t argue with the standard criticism leveled at traditional fast-food fare: that it contains a disproportionate amount of fat and protein and little in the way of vitamins and minerals. A Jumbo Jack, for example, contains more than a quarter of the calories recommended for daily consumption by the average woman and more than forty-three percent of the recommended fat — yet it only provides fourteen percent of the U.S. Recommended Daily Allowance of calcium and seventeen percent of the iron.

If the only thing fast-food restaurants sold were the likes of Jumbo Jacks, “if that was all the market supported,” even then Dunkley says he couldn’t really blame the fast feeders. But Dunkley asserts that Jack-in-the-Box instead offers a broad enough range of products that many nutritionally conscientious people can walk into one of the restaurants and select a reasonably wholesome meal. “If you order an orange juice and a low-fat milk and a side salad and one of our special sandwiches — or even a cheeseburger — you’re getting fine nutrition,” Dunkley contends.

His demeanor suggests that this is a thorny topic. Dunkley says in all the research conducted by Foodmaker, “We constantly have to try to sort out what people are saying and what they actually do.” He says nine out of ten times, consumers will claim to have nutritional concerns that then are contradicted by their behavior when they’re given actual food choices. This is further complicated by the fact that people often shed their normal dietary inhibitions when they’re eating in a restaurant. They figure they’re indulging themselves, Dunkley says; they can sin while dining out and repent back in their own kitchen.

So how do you figure out what people really want to eat? At Jack-in-the-Box, the process begins with a core group of managers sitting down two or three times a year and generating ideas for new items they think fast-food customers might want. These brainstorming sessions typically yield seventy-five to a hundred ideas ranging all over the culinary map. Turkey burgers! Swordfish sandwiches! Cajun finger food! But the product development managers next begin to cross items off the list. Product development vice president Paul Haack says Jack-in-the-Box has thought about selling soup, for example. “But the big limitation with soup is portability. A lot of our sales are still from the drive-through traffic, but soup is not really that easy to eat when you’re driving down the street.”

Mo Iqbal says another major limitation is the speed with which the food can be prepared. Iqbal appears to have given a lot of attention to this question: Just how fast must fast food be? He says a lot of research seems to indicate that “there’s a threshold people have on speed of service” They’re prepared to wait for a certain amount of time and during that range they will perceive their wait to be briefer or longer but still tolerable. “If you serve in two minutes, it will appear to them very, very fast. And then at three minutes, they start seeing it a little bit slower. At four minutes it’s acceptable to them, but they start perceiving it as being slightly slower than other fast-food restaurants. Once you go beyond that certain time frame — if you go to five minutes, for example, or six or seven — it appears to be forever. So the trick for us is to stay within that threshold. If you go beyond five minutes, you really are asking for trouble. Our food may take a bit longer than other places, though some of our products you can get rather fast — something that is on a special, for example. Generally we can get the velocity on that and move it fast. The specialty products that are delicate and light most of the time will take a little longer” Most customers will thus accept some extra wait in exchange for a product they can’t get elsewhere, but Iqbal says nonetheless, “All of our things are designed such that we do not have anything that will take too long to cook. If something takes six minutes to cook, there’s just no way you can do it”

When the products of the brainstorming have been whittled down to twenty-five to thirty most likely possibilities, the product development team writes a brief but appealing description for each of these candidates, summarizing what they think the food's biggest attraction is. Fajitas, for example, might be described as “spicy meat cut into strips,” or as “a combination of two items you’ll really love,” according to Haack.

Next Foodmaker assembles panels of “focus groups," typical fast-food patrons who are interviewed in depth about their reactions to the potential new foods. Haack says he’s found it’s crucial for the development team members to sit behind a one-way mirror and watch these conversations in order to read the panel members’ reactions correctly.

“You need to view the level of enthusiasm,” Haack says. “Sometimes someone will say [grudgingly], ‘Yeah, I’d eat that.’ Whereas sometimes when they say they would eat something, you can almost see their mouth watering.” Usually viewing the panels enables the team to pick two or three ideas that seem most promising, and only then do Dunkley and his staff go to work on “recipe-ing the product,” that is, transforming it from a vague idea into something that real people can literally sink their teeth into.

Dunkley says the complexity of this task can vary dramatically. “If the ingredients are pretty common, it doesn’t really take too long to get the rough prototype put together. It could be just a couple of afternoons in the lab.” But some products present a real technological challenge, and Dunkley says fajitas are a good example.

It’s not that fajitas are particularly hard to prepare. Dunkley says in a regular restaurant kitchen, equipped with a standard broiler, you simply put a marinated flank or skirt steak (for beef fajitas) or a chicken breast (for chicken fajitas) on the broiler, then when the meat is cooked, you transfer it to a surface where you can cut it into strips. “But we don’t have the facility or the time to hand-strip the meat,” Dunkley says. When Jack-in-the-Box first considered selling fajitas about three years ago, this problem caused the food development team to shelve the idea. But Dunkley says after another year or so, popular interest in fajitas had grown so much that the team decided to try to solve the technological problems. "We knew right away we needed to have prestripped marinated beef.” But that introduced another problem, he says: How could they guarantee that all the pieces would be uniformly cooked on the Jack-in-the-Box grills?

Dunkley says after long consultation with potential suppliers, the company finally found some who could cut the beef into strips, marinate it, then form the pieces back into a patty that could be frozen. Today the young chefs manning Jack-in-the-Boxes need only place the frozen beef or chicken patty on the grill and cook it, then transfer it to a dish where it can be stirred — and thus broken into strips again. "It’s not a perfect product,” Dunkley says wistfully. “But it works.”

Once Dunkley and his crew have a recipe in hand, they can begin to submit it to exhaustive levels of testing. One form of this is done by what Dunkley calls “sensory panels.” He explains that the company has assembled a pool of forty or so people out in the community — dieticians, food scientists, and others versed in the specialized vocabulary of food. “We need to have people who understand how to express their senses in words,” Dunkley says. Several times a month, he convenes a dozen or so of these people to taste various concoctions. They chew; they savor. They muse on what they’re tasting, then they write up comments that can sound every bit as esoteric as those of professional winetasters. Is the "mouthfeel” of a new burger light? Foamy? Lumpy? Soggy? Brittle? Astringent’ Do they detect smoky, rancid, floral, yeasty, or menthol notes in the aroma’ What about a new sandwich’s “adhesiveness to the palate,” i.e., the force required to remove a product completely from the palate using the tongue, after complete compression of the sample between the tongue and palate (in the words of a special food-taster’s dictionary that Dunkley keeps on hand for the panelists). Never are these sensory panelists asked to say whether they personally like something. Dunkley says instead their role is to help the food developers better understand the qualities of their inventions in the making, to lay a sort of groundwork from which the product can be further refined.

Further focus groups do get a crack at directly evaluating new efforts. And in the later stages, Dunkley occasionally turns to in-house consumer panels like the one in which his team recently checked out reactions to the two different sauces on the new chicken breast sandwich. “It’s an iterative and an evolving process,” Dunkley says. And one that can sometimes focus astonishing attention on picayune details. For example, Dunkley disclosed that the recent chicken sandwich sauce test had revealed a statistically significant favorite, but the next step would be to convene another hundred or so tasters to help Dunkley determine the precise quantity of sauce that should be used on the final product.

Dunkley says one of the final steps is to try out a new product at one of the “test restaurants," which Foodmaker has scattered throughout San Diego County. These are normal restaurants distinguished only by the fact that at any given time, you can find several new items that are being given a trial run. If you walk into the Jack-in-the-Box downtown on Pacific Highway, across from the County Administration Building, you can find the new “Chicken Fillet” sandwich, for example, as well as “Turkey BLT” and forty-four-ounce soft drinks. (Other test restaurants are located in Tierrasanta, on Clairemont Mesa Boulevard, in Rancho Bernardo, National City, and in the Fletcher Hills section of El Cajon.) Anyone who buys one of these prototype items runs a small risk of being ambushed at the door by a Jack-in-the-Box employee armed with a list of questions: How was the temperature of the thing you ate? How was the cheese? How would you evaluate the product overall? How likely would you be to buy it again?


The final step the product I developers say, is to introduce a new product to one entire “market,” that is, to place it on the menu of all the stores in a metropolitan area, usually accompanied with a slick television and radio advertising campaign there. “Then we try to determine if we’ve generated any incremental business,” says Haack. “What we want is to bring in more people through the door.” Even with all the exhaustive testing, actually testing a product in the field occasionally surprises everyone.

Mo Iqbal cites the time Foodmaker tested a line of “deli croissants.” This was a wonderful line, he says warmly. “Very high-quality food. We used nice flaky croissants that we were getting freshly baked on a daily basis, and on top of that, we added some very high-quality roast beef, very high-quality turkey. In my opinion, you couldn’t have bought a better turkey or roast beef or ham on the market. Then we added natural cheese, thick slices of Swiss and Monterey Jack. Wonderful product. Tested very good. And it did very well in our research too, both in the focus group and in the quantitative research, and we were Just moving along very well. We went to test market, we created some advertising for it, and it was a bomb. The test market just didn’t work; we didn’t sell enough of it. And we started asking ourselves why. We went to consumers. We asked those people who bought the product why their repurchase intent was so low. And we discovered they were expecting a hot product, and this product was cold. They said they liked the idea of having a nice, warm croissant with wonderful steaming roast beef, melted cheese, and all that. That’s number one. And number two, they also said the croissant just was falling apart. It wasn’t conducive to eating on the go, like in a car. With those two problems, they said they were not going to buy it. And we looked at solving those problems and did some work, and we couldn’t solve them in a reasonable manner, given the inherent limitation of croissants and the inherent limitation of beef. If you heat the beef, and it’s high-quality beef, it’s not the same any more.”

Iqbal says sometimes a product can be tinkered with, even at the last minute, and a good example is the Chicken Fajita Pita. Only after it had been tried out in the test restaurants did the Jack-in-the-Box managers decide that consumers simply were too dissatisfied with the quality of the chicken strips, which at that point were a mixture of dark and light meat. Although the competitive pressure was on — the Jacks team knew that Taco Bell also was racing to develop a chicken fajita product — Dunkley and his people managed to produce a new version of the chicken filling that consisted entirely of white breast meat. “We put that in at the market test, and lo and behold, thank God, the product did very well,” says Paul Haack. “The meat went from being the weak point to being the strong point of the product.”

In fact, within three months of its introduction, at least seven cents out of every dollar spent in Jack-in-the-Boxes was being captured by Chicken Fajita Pitas. That’s a very respectable success, the company’s new product developers say. But even successful products cause their own special worries, such as whether the new products are stealing customers from old favorites. Iqbal says one of the company’s big worries about the new Chicken Fillet sandwich, for example, has been whether it would sabotage the venerable Chicken Supreme. (Whereas the Chicken Supreme contains a geometric square of compressed chicken meat, the new sandwich offers a whole piece of chicken tenderloin, each uniquely shaped.)

"Ideally, we would want no cannibalization or minimal cannibalization,” Iqbal says. “But that will never happen, and the more similar the product is, the more chance of cannibalization.” In the case of the two chicken sandwiches, however, Iqbal says the market tests (in both Sacramento and Seattle) have shown “there are two different audiences altogether. Grilled chicken filet appeals to light users of fast food, who use fast food occasionally. By attracting them, we’re bringing in new business altogether. And we found we really didn’t cannibalize a whole lot of Chicken Supreme. It did go down slightly, but not a whole lot”

Such is the delicate art of “menu management.” Iqbal says that in this process, one has to counterbalance the complex job of adding new products with the sometimes painful job of deleting old ones. He mentions the “pasta and seafood salad” that was added to the Jack-in-the-Box menu four years ago. “An awful lot of work went into it,” Iqbal says affectionately. “We had to specially develop our own pasta. It was precooked and marinated. Then shrimp and other seafood went into it.” And it sold well for a while, he says, but then slowly, “no matter what we did — it was the identical product — it came to a point where we were not selling as much.” So the company quietly dropped it this past June, replacing it with a new “Mexican chicken salad.”

To help customers make sense of this sometimes confusing juggling act, Iqbal says Foodmaker just spent $3 million designing new “menu boards.” More clearly organized, these are being installed right now in all of the chain’s 930 restaurants. And the product development managers say they’ve got no shortage of new goodies to be showcased on the new menu boards in the coming months and years. A new trans-trendy item, the “taquito” (Spicy and Finger Food) should appear next month, and Dunkley says his team is working on two “new, exciting” hamburgers. Iqbal says he thinks the whole area of dessert “is an opportunity” (currently Jack-in-the-Box offers only cheesecake, apple turnovers, and milkshakes). “We have recently done some research on that, and we’re going to be using that information to develop some dessert products. As a matter of fact, we’ve got an awful lot in the works now, from very exotic things to something as simple as ice-cream.”

For all the enthusiastic talk, however, Iqbal says he has no hope that even the most enticing comestibles could create a legion of fast-food patrons who were truly loyal to Jack-in-the-Box food. Very few brand-loyal customers exist, Iqbal says, though he remembers one person who used to come to the restaurant where he started out. “Every morning at 6:00 a.m. this person would ask for two cheeseburgers, fries, and a chocolate shake. The same person, day after day, week after week, month after month. Every single day. For years!"

But such people are great rarities, Iqbal says. “Mostly this is not a brand-loyal business,” he says, sounding resigned. “The same person may visit Jack-in-the-Box and Wendy’s and McDonald’s and Carl’s Junior and just float around. We find that people tell us, ‘I come to you for your wholewheat bun on your chicken sandwich. And then at times, I like my Big Mac. And I like flame-broiled burgers, so I go to Burger King, too.’”

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Bob Peterson (now husband to Mayor Maureen O’Connor) opened his first Jack-in-the-Box restaurant at Sixty-third Street and El Cajon Boulevard in 1951.
Bob Peterson (now husband to Mayor Maureen O’Connor) opened his first Jack-in-the-Box restaurant at Sixty-third Street and El Cajon Boulevard in 1951.

I am sitting in a tiny, airless cubicle, staring at a chicken sandwich. Someone just handed it to me through a sliding door, and I’ve removed the colored foil paper in which the warm food was wrapped. This is a sandwich poised on the diving board of destiny. Very soon Jack-in-the-Box restaurants may begin selling hundreds of thousands of replicas of it throughout the western United States. And today the ingenious men and women who invent new fast-food products here at the San Diego headquarters for the chain have one question uppermost in their minds: Should it be prepared with a honey-mustard sauce? Or will more people like it made with the traditional mayo-onion spread?

More than a third of all adults patronize fast-food restaurants ten times every three-month period.

In this two-day period, the food inventors hope to serve both varieties of the sandwich to almost a hundred hungry tasters, each secluded in a cubicle just like mine. None will know that the sauce is the element under scrutiny; I do only because Jack-in-the-Box’s friendly PR manager has incautiously confided in me.

“There are so many things against you in new product development."

Except for me, all the tasters are Jack-in-the-Box employees, and they’ve all been carefully screened to determine that none of them harbors any standing prejudice against whole-wheat buns or tomatoes or lettuce or Swiss cheese or chicken — the essential components of the new offering. Each will fill out two questionnaires querying them on everything from the overall appearance of the sandwich to the amount of chicken it contains to the degrees of sweetness and saltiness of the sauce. Their answers will then be fed into a computer, massaged, weighed, analyzed, and maybe, just maybe, used to make a decision.

Jack-in-the-Box still claims only 2.5 percent of the market shared by the top fourteen fast-food hamburger restaurants (compared to 51.1 percent held by McDonald’s).

Such are the minutiae that occupy the moguls of fast food. The American public may think this is a simple business: You rustle up a few million burgers, fry them in plenty of fat, wrap them to go, and tote up the megabucks in profits. But the people who develop new products for Jack-in-the-Box paint a different picture of their enterprise. They claim the San Diego company, in particular, is fighting to change the face of fast food, constantly struggling to concoct culinary novelties. But they can’t do that the way Wolfgang Puck waltzes into a kitchen and whips up a new, exotic pizza. Any tempting morsels dreamed up by Jack-in-the-Box have to be capable of being prepared by an army of indifferent teen-agers in five minutes or less in kitchens that were designed for grilling hamburgers. So the local fast-food makers wrestle daily with a laborious process that is part art, part science, and part Las Vegas-style speculation.

"You’ll always sell French fries. Because these are staple products. It’s like rice in China.”

“There are so many things against you in new product development. Just looking at the odds against it, it’s mind-boggling,” says Mo Iqbal, the overall product development manager at Foodmaker, Jack-in-the-Box’s parent company. He’s a man extraordinarily well schooled in the intricacies of fast food. Although he’s only thirty-nine years old, Iqbal has worked at Foodmaker for seventeen years, starting when he manned the graveyard shift at a Jack-in-the-Box restaurant in Los Angeles while studying electrical engineering at USC. Eventually he became shift leader, assistant manager, restaurant manager, district manager, area manager, and then he moved to the Kearny Mesa headquarters and into management jobs that have ranged from operations to training to the current marketing post. Iqbal points out that fast food has evolved dramatically during its short lifespan. Back during the Fifties and Sixties, “the way to be successful in this industry was just to open up new restaurants.” The only operational challenges were to “produce a basic commodity product: the hamburger, plus fries and drinks and shakes.”

“An awful lot of work went into the pasta salad. We had to specially develop our own pasta. It was precooked and marinated. Then shrimp and other seafood went into it.... The company quietly dropped it this past June."

Though Ray Kroc was the most successful man to apply technology to the hamburger and mass-produce it, others actually preceded him. Among them was Bob Peterson (now husband to Mayor Maureen O’Connor) who opened his first Jack-in-the-Box restaurant at Sixty-third Street and El Cajon Boulevard in 1951. (Kroc’s first McDonald’s opened in Des Plaines, Illinois, in 1955.) Peterson had expanded his chain to include 350 units by the time he cashed out of the business in 1968, selling his interest to Ralston-Purina. The corporate food giant continued to open new units at a furious pace throughout the 1970s, boasting some 1040 restaurants by the end of that decade. But by 1979, McDonald’s counted an awesome 5747 units within its international family, and second-place Burger King commanded 2439 outlets.

Today industry figures show that there are fewer than 700 people for every fast-food outlet in the country. Granted, the appetite for fast food is extraordinary. Iqbal says that according to Foodmaker’s research, more than ninety percent of all American adults eat fast food at least once per year. Moreover, more than a third of all adults patronize fast-food restaurants ten times every three-month period. As far back as the late Seventies, however, Foodmaker had begun to feel the pinch of all that competition, and the company finally opted for a drastic change of course. Instead of battling head-to-head against McDonald’s for the bland-burger business, largely fueled by parents eating out with their small children (a battle in which Jack-in-the-Box’s only claim to distinction was the gimmicky drive-through clown), top management decided that Jack-in-the-Box should try to carve out a niche for itself as a more “adult” fast-food chain, one offering a much more varied and constantly changing menu.


Several concrete changes quickly followed. First Foodmaker sold or closed all the Jack-in-the-Boxes in the Midwest and East, leaving the chain to consolidate its holdings in the fourteen Western states, including Hawaii. Company executives today claim that being regional gives them much greater flexibility, since they don’t have to be all things to all consumers; they add that Westerners tend to be much less stodgy and more open to new tastes. Along with the consolidation, the product development team also went into high gear. In 1980 they came up with their much-vaunted Chicken Supreme sandwich, which was introduced with an attention-getting television commercial in which the famous "Jack” clown logo was destroyed, as a slogan brayed that the food had become "better at the box.” Since then, the stream of new products has been steady with close to twenty-five new items introduced in the last six years. Today the company management seems sanguine, even ebullient, about the way the new strategy has worked.

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Jack-in-the-Box still claims only 2.5 percent of the market shared by the top fourteen fast-food hamburger restaurants (compared to 51.1 percent held by McDonald’s and 17.2 percent by second-place Burger King, according to figures just released by Nation's Restaurant News.) In 1985 company president Jack Goodall and others acquired the chain from Ralston-Purina in a leveraged buyout, and took it public in early 1987. The stock performance since then has been only mediocre, but Goodall has blamed that on other publicly owned fast-food chains (namely, Wendy’s and Church’s) that have lost money and, in Goodall’s view, dragged fast-food stocks down. In contrast with those unhappy chains, Jack-in-the-Box officials say they’re breaking all their previous sales records. For the fiscal year that ended last September, the company reported a fifty-percent increase in earnings and an eleven-percent increase in sales system-wide. Sales for the first six months of this year have increased at a rate three to four times the industry average, the officials assert jubilantly. And the key to it all has been product innovation, they repeat.

The company managers are so smitten by this notion that they sometimes get a little carried away offering examples of it. Public relations manager Durwin Long likes to point out, for example, that Jack-in-the-Box was the first fast-food restaurant to offer packaged salads. "That was back in 1982. People think McDonald’s was the first one to do that. But they just introduced theirs last year. We were five years ahead of them.” Although Long's last statement is correct, a check with Wendy’s headquarters back in Ohio reveals that Wendy’s came out with its first carry-out salad in 1980.

If Jack-in-the-Box wasn’t the nation’s first fast-food salad maker, however, company officials have lots of other examples to boast about. Mo Iqbal likes to say that even back in the dormant Seventies, Jack-in-the-Box boasted a few unconventional items. "Unlike other fast feeders, we had tacos on our menu,” he states with pride. "At one point, we sold fried chicken and shrimp. We were the first ones to come out with a Breakfast Jack sandwich. McDonald’s Egg McMuffin was a copy of our Breakfast Jack, and they came out with that product almost a year and a half after we did. But with their mass marketing and the media dollars, it appeared to everybody that they were the first to come out with it.”

Iqbal says Jack-in-the-Box was "among the first few” companies to come out with a quarter-pound burger (the Jumbo Jack). Once again, McDonald’s followed with its Quarter-pounder. And Iqbal says he finds it particularly ironic that almost ten years after Jack-in-the-Box brought out its first chicken sandwich (the Chicken Supreme), McDonald’s is only now finally test-marketing its own chicken sandwich (in San Francisco). "And in my opinion, after nine years of work, their product still does not even come close to our Chicken Supreme. We were the first one to offer a whole-wheat bun in fast food. We were the first one to offer more than American cheese,” Iqbal says.

These breakthroughs, as trivial as they might at first appear, address a fundamental human need, Iqbal argues. "In my opinion, there’s a biological need for variety in human beings. Nature has created that need so that we eat a variety of foods and fulfill the nutrition requirements that we all have. No matter how good the food is, even lobster and filet mignon you cannot eat every day.” Food is like fashion, Iqbal say. “There are trends in it; there are fads in it. People always have worn something, from fig leaves to sophisticated silk. The form it takes is different. Sometimes it’s long collars; sometimes it’s shorter collars. As long as humans have this need of variety, we’re gonna find there will be very different kinds of clothes, and the same thing applies to food, too.”

Of course, fast-food restaurants can’t only slavishly follow trends, Iqbal concedes. "There will always be a core menu, where you have some fundamental staple products.” The Jumbo Jack has been around for more than sixteen years, he points out. "We will always sell French fries. You may sell better French fries down the road, but you’ll always sell French fries. Because these are staple products. It’s like rice in China.”

Around this core, however, you have other products that come and go on the tides of trendiness. “If you remember, a few years ago, croissants were a very big thing. Everybody was talking about them. Nowadays people talk about bagels; people talk about fajitas. So we’re out there with fajitas.” he says.

Iqbal sees three fundamental ones, “and they appear to be conflicting, but they’re not,” he says intensely. First, "You see a trend toward more aromatic, more spicy food. When you look at people’s palates, they’re changing. They’re becoming more sophisticated. The spice consumption in this country has gone up quite a bit. Somewhere I’ve read statistics that say it’s gone up to the extent of thirty to forty percent in the last seven or eight years.” Second, Iqbal says, "You also see a trend toward fundamental food, the basic honest food. Foods prepared without heavy sauces or richness, grilled instead. People want that.” Finally, “You’re also seeing a trend toward nutrition. People want to have their cake and eat it too.”

Foodmaker managers really grow animated when they start talking about food trends, it, too, I suppose And we’re doing a reasonably good job in capitalizing on all three trends.”

If it sounds slightly ridiculous to say that people want simple, honest food and in the next breath say they want spicy, novel food, Iqbal points out that no one trend is monolithic. And human beings are inconsistent. “On Mondays we’re a little different creatures than we are on a Saturday or Sunday. On Monday after we’ve had our good weekend and have indulged, we want to go on a diet. And we eat our salads and become a good boy or girl.”

So you can look at Jack-in-the-Box’s current menu and see apparently contradictory products coexisting peacefully. The Ultimate Cheeseburger, two quarter-pound burgers topped with three different types of cheese on a sesame bun, is an obvious play for Simple, Honest Food fans (who ’ incidentally have no qualms about indulging in a high-fat binge). The new Chicken Fajita Pita, strips of spicy chicken breast meat stuffed into a pita pocket, is a trans-trendy product, combining Spicy with Nutritional appeal (since it contains fewer than 350 calories, with fewer than thirty percent of them composed of fat). The “finger foods” (egg rolls, chicken strips, and shrimp) line introduced by Foodmaker last fall caters to the widely discussed “grazing” phenomenon, while the new chicken sandwich still being tested (a whole boneless chicken breast grilled and served on a whole-wheat bun with lettuce, tomato, and the problematic sauce) will give Simple, Honest Food lovers a low-fat alternative.

Ben Dunkley is the master chef who oversaw the engineering of these recent gastronomic curiosities. A five-year veteran of Foodmaker, Dunkley is a tall lean man who looks as if he eats a lot more granola and raw vegetables than fast food. The son of a UC/Davis professor who taught food science for forty years, “I was kind of steeped in food all my life,” Dunkley says. He obtained a food-science degree from Davis, and worked for the Good Earth (natural foods) restaurant chain for three and a half years before making the move to fast food. More than a hint idealism colors Dunkley’s tone when he discusses his work at Foodmaker. He claims he sees his own work as an effort to “do the best I can to bring better food to a huge audience of people. There are a lot of young people here, a lot of forward thinkers who are interested in making a difference in the fast-food business.”

But isn’t fast food junk food? Dunkley retorts, “People have to take responsibility for what they eat.” He likes to summon the analogy of the grocery store. Dunkley says that around the turn of the century, the average market contained around 1200 items, compared with today’s choice of more than 10,000 items in a typical supermarket. The modem grocery store consumers ‘‘can go in and select a terrible diet, or they can select a stellar diet,” Dunkley says.

He concedes that if a person tried to live exclusively on certain items at his local Jack-in-the-Box, his nutrition would be pretty dismal. Dunkley doesn’t argue with the standard criticism leveled at traditional fast-food fare: that it contains a disproportionate amount of fat and protein and little in the way of vitamins and minerals. A Jumbo Jack, for example, contains more than a quarter of the calories recommended for daily consumption by the average woman and more than forty-three percent of the recommended fat — yet it only provides fourteen percent of the U.S. Recommended Daily Allowance of calcium and seventeen percent of the iron.

If the only thing fast-food restaurants sold were the likes of Jumbo Jacks, “if that was all the market supported,” even then Dunkley says he couldn’t really blame the fast feeders. But Dunkley asserts that Jack-in-the-Box instead offers a broad enough range of products that many nutritionally conscientious people can walk into one of the restaurants and select a reasonably wholesome meal. “If you order an orange juice and a low-fat milk and a side salad and one of our special sandwiches — or even a cheeseburger — you’re getting fine nutrition,” Dunkley contends.

His demeanor suggests that this is a thorny topic. Dunkley says in all the research conducted by Foodmaker, “We constantly have to try to sort out what people are saying and what they actually do.” He says nine out of ten times, consumers will claim to have nutritional concerns that then are contradicted by their behavior when they’re given actual food choices. This is further complicated by the fact that people often shed their normal dietary inhibitions when they’re eating in a restaurant. They figure they’re indulging themselves, Dunkley says; they can sin while dining out and repent back in their own kitchen.

So how do you figure out what people really want to eat? At Jack-in-the-Box, the process begins with a core group of managers sitting down two or three times a year and generating ideas for new items they think fast-food customers might want. These brainstorming sessions typically yield seventy-five to a hundred ideas ranging all over the culinary map. Turkey burgers! Swordfish sandwiches! Cajun finger food! But the product development managers next begin to cross items off the list. Product development vice president Paul Haack says Jack-in-the-Box has thought about selling soup, for example. “But the big limitation with soup is portability. A lot of our sales are still from the drive-through traffic, but soup is not really that easy to eat when you’re driving down the street.”

Mo Iqbal says another major limitation is the speed with which the food can be prepared. Iqbal appears to have given a lot of attention to this question: Just how fast must fast food be? He says a lot of research seems to indicate that “there’s a threshold people have on speed of service” They’re prepared to wait for a certain amount of time and during that range they will perceive their wait to be briefer or longer but still tolerable. “If you serve in two minutes, it will appear to them very, very fast. And then at three minutes, they start seeing it a little bit slower. At four minutes it’s acceptable to them, but they start perceiving it as being slightly slower than other fast-food restaurants. Once you go beyond that certain time frame — if you go to five minutes, for example, or six or seven — it appears to be forever. So the trick for us is to stay within that threshold. If you go beyond five minutes, you really are asking for trouble. Our food may take a bit longer than other places, though some of our products you can get rather fast — something that is on a special, for example. Generally we can get the velocity on that and move it fast. The specialty products that are delicate and light most of the time will take a little longer” Most customers will thus accept some extra wait in exchange for a product they can’t get elsewhere, but Iqbal says nonetheless, “All of our things are designed such that we do not have anything that will take too long to cook. If something takes six minutes to cook, there’s just no way you can do it”

When the products of the brainstorming have been whittled down to twenty-five to thirty most likely possibilities, the product development team writes a brief but appealing description for each of these candidates, summarizing what they think the food's biggest attraction is. Fajitas, for example, might be described as “spicy meat cut into strips,” or as “a combination of two items you’ll really love,” according to Haack.

Next Foodmaker assembles panels of “focus groups," typical fast-food patrons who are interviewed in depth about their reactions to the potential new foods. Haack says he’s found it’s crucial for the development team members to sit behind a one-way mirror and watch these conversations in order to read the panel members’ reactions correctly.

“You need to view the level of enthusiasm,” Haack says. “Sometimes someone will say [grudgingly], ‘Yeah, I’d eat that.’ Whereas sometimes when they say they would eat something, you can almost see their mouth watering.” Usually viewing the panels enables the team to pick two or three ideas that seem most promising, and only then do Dunkley and his staff go to work on “recipe-ing the product,” that is, transforming it from a vague idea into something that real people can literally sink their teeth into.

Dunkley says the complexity of this task can vary dramatically. “If the ingredients are pretty common, it doesn’t really take too long to get the rough prototype put together. It could be just a couple of afternoons in the lab.” But some products present a real technological challenge, and Dunkley says fajitas are a good example.

It’s not that fajitas are particularly hard to prepare. Dunkley says in a regular restaurant kitchen, equipped with a standard broiler, you simply put a marinated flank or skirt steak (for beef fajitas) or a chicken breast (for chicken fajitas) on the broiler, then when the meat is cooked, you transfer it to a surface where you can cut it into strips. “But we don’t have the facility or the time to hand-strip the meat,” Dunkley says. When Jack-in-the-Box first considered selling fajitas about three years ago, this problem caused the food development team to shelve the idea. But Dunkley says after another year or so, popular interest in fajitas had grown so much that the team decided to try to solve the technological problems. "We knew right away we needed to have prestripped marinated beef.” But that introduced another problem, he says: How could they guarantee that all the pieces would be uniformly cooked on the Jack-in-the-Box grills?

Dunkley says after long consultation with potential suppliers, the company finally found some who could cut the beef into strips, marinate it, then form the pieces back into a patty that could be frozen. Today the young chefs manning Jack-in-the-Boxes need only place the frozen beef or chicken patty on the grill and cook it, then transfer it to a dish where it can be stirred — and thus broken into strips again. "It’s not a perfect product,” Dunkley says wistfully. “But it works.”

Once Dunkley and his crew have a recipe in hand, they can begin to submit it to exhaustive levels of testing. One form of this is done by what Dunkley calls “sensory panels.” He explains that the company has assembled a pool of forty or so people out in the community — dieticians, food scientists, and others versed in the specialized vocabulary of food. “We need to have people who understand how to express their senses in words,” Dunkley says. Several times a month, he convenes a dozen or so of these people to taste various concoctions. They chew; they savor. They muse on what they’re tasting, then they write up comments that can sound every bit as esoteric as those of professional winetasters. Is the "mouthfeel” of a new burger light? Foamy? Lumpy? Soggy? Brittle? Astringent’ Do they detect smoky, rancid, floral, yeasty, or menthol notes in the aroma’ What about a new sandwich’s “adhesiveness to the palate,” i.e., the force required to remove a product completely from the palate using the tongue, after complete compression of the sample between the tongue and palate (in the words of a special food-taster’s dictionary that Dunkley keeps on hand for the panelists). Never are these sensory panelists asked to say whether they personally like something. Dunkley says instead their role is to help the food developers better understand the qualities of their inventions in the making, to lay a sort of groundwork from which the product can be further refined.

Further focus groups do get a crack at directly evaluating new efforts. And in the later stages, Dunkley occasionally turns to in-house consumer panels like the one in which his team recently checked out reactions to the two different sauces on the new chicken breast sandwich. “It’s an iterative and an evolving process,” Dunkley says. And one that can sometimes focus astonishing attention on picayune details. For example, Dunkley disclosed that the recent chicken sandwich sauce test had revealed a statistically significant favorite, but the next step would be to convene another hundred or so tasters to help Dunkley determine the precise quantity of sauce that should be used on the final product.

Dunkley says one of the final steps is to try out a new product at one of the “test restaurants," which Foodmaker has scattered throughout San Diego County. These are normal restaurants distinguished only by the fact that at any given time, you can find several new items that are being given a trial run. If you walk into the Jack-in-the-Box downtown on Pacific Highway, across from the County Administration Building, you can find the new “Chicken Fillet” sandwich, for example, as well as “Turkey BLT” and forty-four-ounce soft drinks. (Other test restaurants are located in Tierrasanta, on Clairemont Mesa Boulevard, in Rancho Bernardo, National City, and in the Fletcher Hills section of El Cajon.) Anyone who buys one of these prototype items runs a small risk of being ambushed at the door by a Jack-in-the-Box employee armed with a list of questions: How was the temperature of the thing you ate? How was the cheese? How would you evaluate the product overall? How likely would you be to buy it again?


The final step the product I developers say, is to introduce a new product to one entire “market,” that is, to place it on the menu of all the stores in a metropolitan area, usually accompanied with a slick television and radio advertising campaign there. “Then we try to determine if we’ve generated any incremental business,” says Haack. “What we want is to bring in more people through the door.” Even with all the exhaustive testing, actually testing a product in the field occasionally surprises everyone.

Mo Iqbal cites the time Foodmaker tested a line of “deli croissants.” This was a wonderful line, he says warmly. “Very high-quality food. We used nice flaky croissants that we were getting freshly baked on a daily basis, and on top of that, we added some very high-quality roast beef, very high-quality turkey. In my opinion, you couldn’t have bought a better turkey or roast beef or ham on the market. Then we added natural cheese, thick slices of Swiss and Monterey Jack. Wonderful product. Tested very good. And it did very well in our research too, both in the focus group and in the quantitative research, and we were Just moving along very well. We went to test market, we created some advertising for it, and it was a bomb. The test market just didn’t work; we didn’t sell enough of it. And we started asking ourselves why. We went to consumers. We asked those people who bought the product why their repurchase intent was so low. And we discovered they were expecting a hot product, and this product was cold. They said they liked the idea of having a nice, warm croissant with wonderful steaming roast beef, melted cheese, and all that. That’s number one. And number two, they also said the croissant just was falling apart. It wasn’t conducive to eating on the go, like in a car. With those two problems, they said they were not going to buy it. And we looked at solving those problems and did some work, and we couldn’t solve them in a reasonable manner, given the inherent limitation of croissants and the inherent limitation of beef. If you heat the beef, and it’s high-quality beef, it’s not the same any more.”

Iqbal says sometimes a product can be tinkered with, even at the last minute, and a good example is the Chicken Fajita Pita. Only after it had been tried out in the test restaurants did the Jack-in-the-Box managers decide that consumers simply were too dissatisfied with the quality of the chicken strips, which at that point were a mixture of dark and light meat. Although the competitive pressure was on — the Jacks team knew that Taco Bell also was racing to develop a chicken fajita product — Dunkley and his people managed to produce a new version of the chicken filling that consisted entirely of white breast meat. “We put that in at the market test, and lo and behold, thank God, the product did very well,” says Paul Haack. “The meat went from being the weak point to being the strong point of the product.”

In fact, within three months of its introduction, at least seven cents out of every dollar spent in Jack-in-the-Boxes was being captured by Chicken Fajita Pitas. That’s a very respectable success, the company’s new product developers say. But even successful products cause their own special worries, such as whether the new products are stealing customers from old favorites. Iqbal says one of the company’s big worries about the new Chicken Fillet sandwich, for example, has been whether it would sabotage the venerable Chicken Supreme. (Whereas the Chicken Supreme contains a geometric square of compressed chicken meat, the new sandwich offers a whole piece of chicken tenderloin, each uniquely shaped.)

"Ideally, we would want no cannibalization or minimal cannibalization,” Iqbal says. “But that will never happen, and the more similar the product is, the more chance of cannibalization.” In the case of the two chicken sandwiches, however, Iqbal says the market tests (in both Sacramento and Seattle) have shown “there are two different audiences altogether. Grilled chicken filet appeals to light users of fast food, who use fast food occasionally. By attracting them, we’re bringing in new business altogether. And we found we really didn’t cannibalize a whole lot of Chicken Supreme. It did go down slightly, but not a whole lot”

Such is the delicate art of “menu management.” Iqbal says that in this process, one has to counterbalance the complex job of adding new products with the sometimes painful job of deleting old ones. He mentions the “pasta and seafood salad” that was added to the Jack-in-the-Box menu four years ago. “An awful lot of work went into it,” Iqbal says affectionately. “We had to specially develop our own pasta. It was precooked and marinated. Then shrimp and other seafood went into it.” And it sold well for a while, he says, but then slowly, “no matter what we did — it was the identical product — it came to a point where we were not selling as much.” So the company quietly dropped it this past June, replacing it with a new “Mexican chicken salad.”

To help customers make sense of this sometimes confusing juggling act, Iqbal says Foodmaker just spent $3 million designing new “menu boards.” More clearly organized, these are being installed right now in all of the chain’s 930 restaurants. And the product development managers say they’ve got no shortage of new goodies to be showcased on the new menu boards in the coming months and years. A new trans-trendy item, the “taquito” (Spicy and Finger Food) should appear next month, and Dunkley says his team is working on two “new, exciting” hamburgers. Iqbal says he thinks the whole area of dessert “is an opportunity” (currently Jack-in-the-Box offers only cheesecake, apple turnovers, and milkshakes). “We have recently done some research on that, and we’re going to be using that information to develop some dessert products. As a matter of fact, we’ve got an awful lot in the works now, from very exotic things to something as simple as ice-cream.”

For all the enthusiastic talk, however, Iqbal says he has no hope that even the most enticing comestibles could create a legion of fast-food patrons who were truly loyal to Jack-in-the-Box food. Very few brand-loyal customers exist, Iqbal says, though he remembers one person who used to come to the restaurant where he started out. “Every morning at 6:00 a.m. this person would ask for two cheeseburgers, fries, and a chocolate shake. The same person, day after day, week after week, month after month. Every single day. For years!"

But such people are great rarities, Iqbal says. “Mostly this is not a brand-loyal business,” he says, sounding resigned. “The same person may visit Jack-in-the-Box and Wendy’s and McDonald’s and Carl’s Junior and just float around. We find that people tell us, ‘I come to you for your wholewheat bun on your chicken sandwich. And then at times, I like my Big Mac. And I like flame-broiled burgers, so I go to Burger King, too.’”

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