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?
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.