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Fast Food Friday: Is Wendy’s breakfast the next big thing?

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The burger chain is taking its biggest cut yet at morning meals. On the merits, it’s rapped just a solid single.

Wendy’s

In my nearly 30 years on this Earth, I’ve tried — and loved or loathed — a lot of fast food, and read about even more. I figured I should start writing about it regularly. So, on the last Friday of every month until I get tired of writing this, I give you Fast Food Friday.

Wendy’s breakfast: An adequate alternative, not a revolution

The way that Wendy’s has hyped its new breakfast offerings, you would think that the burger chain truly believes it has the next big thing on its hands — this year’s answer to the runaway success that was the Popeyes chicken sandwich. “A Better Breakfast” was the theme of the early February press release trumpeting this new menu, officially available at all Wendy’s as of Monday, March 2 but likely on offer at your local store as of this week.

And to be fair, a Breakfast Baconator sounds good, and items like the Honey Butter Chicken Biscuit and the Frosty-ccino would seem to position this menu as an answer not just to the well-known, time-tested McDonald’s and Burger King breakfast menus, but a competitor to Chick-fil-A and Starbucks.

The problem is that it’s mostly just okay.

When news broke of Wendy’s intending to make a full-on push into serving breakfast last fall, I made sure to make use of one insomnia-generated early morning to make a 20-minute trek to one of the few hundred locations in the U.S. that was already serving breakfast, and got a smattering of the offerings, including a Breakfast Baconator, a croissant sandwich, a burrito, and their seasoned potatoes.

I tried all of that on the first day, and ate it over a couple of days — some items reheated and subsequently finished — and liked but didn’t love all of it, with the Baconator’s bacon and egg both seemingly pressed into thin lattices that didn’t let either texture stand out. It’s been a while, and I unfortunately didn’t take scrupulous notes at the time, but I recall thinking the croissant sandwich was inferior to Burger King’s Croissan’wiches, and the burrito inferior to what both Sonic and Burger King sell, though maybe a half-step ahead of what McDonald’s offers.

This morning, though, I zipped over to a far closer Wendy’s — one that is within a half-mile strip that also contains a McDonald’s and a Burger King — and picked up another Baconator, the Honey Butter Chicken Biscuit (which, because of what might have been a miscommunication on my part, had bacon on it), and the Sausage and Gravy Biscuit, balancing all that (and some seasoned potatoes) with a large vanilla Frosty-ccino.

The most important thing to know about all that food is that it basically put me to sleep by just after lunch, and that I would absolutely not recommend spending nearly that many calories on breakfast for any reason other than being at a buffet, where I have been repeatedly told that calories do not actually count.

The second-most important thing to know is that it was still just okay. This was a better Baconator, though I spent basically its entire existence wondering whether the meat patty was beef or sausage — it’s sausage, though so mild it did not stand out — and still thought the fried egg was a bit thin for my liking. The Honey Butter Chicken Biscuit (with bacon!) was a little too sticky and sweet, and I can’t really envision it being a good on-the-go eat. The seasoned potatoes remained undercooked and underseasoned potato wedges, and I don’t even order those at KFC, which does them best in fast food, at least to my knowledge. The Frosty-ccino, which I was told is cold brew with literal vanilla Frosty — so, soft-serve ice cream? — added, contained no hint of vanilla that I could taste, and the large was so large, in a 32-ounce cup, that it was a tremendous amount of coffee even with the cup half-filled with crushed ice.

The only thing I unequivocally liked was the biscuit and gravy, which was served in a tray and with a fork. I’m not surprised to have really enjoyed it, because the bar was low: It’s nearly impossible to screw up sausage gravy, and this version was suitably savory, if a bit salty, which helped save a tougher-than-expected biscuit.

Should you try Wendy’s breakfast, if you’re into fast food for breakfast? Yeah, probably. It’s slightly on the overpriced side, with nothing but a basic honey butter biscuit coming in at or under a dollar that I saw and combos of all kinds looking like a $6 price point, but there are some decent coupons in the Wendy’s app — I think there’s a buy one croissant, get one code; I used a $2 off any combo code — and the portions, as is usual for Wendy’s, are large. Unless you absolutely need to have a coffee with a Frosty in it that doesn’t actually taste like it does, I’d say skipping the sides and just ordering a sandwich or two is sufficient.

Will Wendy’s be taking significant market share from McDonald’s or Burger King, though? I doubt it, even if there’s a three-year plan behind this. This is going to be the most-marketed fast food offering of the first half of 2020 in a walk — Wendy’s has a long-standing relationship with the NCAA Tournament, and is absolutely going to flood the airwaves with commercials over the next month — and yet it just doesn’t have a killer item that is going to break anyone’s habits, I don’t think.

Any major new item or menu in fast food is going to be compared — fairly and unfairly — to the Popeyes chicken sandwich, which was reported on largely for its virality and originally limited availability, and for its contrasts to the classic Chick-fil-A sandwich. But the often-overlooked thing about the Popeyes sandwich is that it truly was a revolution, with the chicken chain throwing an exceptionally large piece of its beloved fried chicken on a high-quality bun with a little sauce and creating a tasty, easily-eaten, and competitively-priced item that is arguably best in its category.

Somehow, Popeyes made a better mousetrap. It was received accordingly.

A Breakfast Baconator with better sausage — or coming in a croissant version, especially given that there’s a Maple Bacon Chicken Croissant that aims for a sweeter taste profile — might have been an equivalent breakthrough. But as such a standout doesn’t exist yet on the Wendy’s menu, I reckon my preferences — on the mornings I want a drive-thru breakfast, anyway — will still lead me to the flakier Burger King croissants and the sweeter McGriddles most days, and rarely to Sonic or Taco Bell. There also isn’t a simple Wendy’s staple that will go eye-to-eye with the venerable McMuffin, which will turn 50 in 2022.

And, of course, McDonald’s and Burger King are both throwing out deals, discounts, and freebies to retain customers during this launch; if those are enough to keep you on your usual commute, you’re probably not getting around to hitting up a Wendy’s for a while — and you probably won’t be missing anything.

I’m curious to see if there will be a second step in this Wendy’s breakfast push, like the inclusion of gravy on a sandwich or something genuinely creative on the menu. There is a mention of a new blend of coffee debuting next year in one of the above-linked QSR articles, but that’s probably too far in the future to matter.

If not, I think Wendy’s only made itself just another player in the breakfast space, one whose dare of a slogan — “You up for this?” — would have better fit a more daring menu.