WATT PoultryUSA:  What were the objectives for Carl Karcher Enterprises Inc. in developing the charbroiled turkey burger at Hardee's and Carl’s Jr.?  

John Koncki:  The genesis was in looking for lower-fat options that would appeal to consumers and still have all of those things important to us in taste and consumer acceptance. In looking at all of the meat protein choices, turkey stood out as the best vehicle to accomplish all of that.

We looked at other meat proteins – fish, buffalo and others. Fish was a very narrow niche in fast food. People look for a fried fish sandwich and much other than that probably would not be for us. Buffalo was interesting, but there just isn’t enough livestock out there to supply the amount of product needed. As for a low-fat burger, we all tried the McLean 20 years ago and that did not work. So, by process of elimination, turkey was the obvious choice.

The whole objective was to provide healthier options that fit our brand image. Quality, not the cheapest, but a good value for the price.

WATT PoultryUSA: The charbroiled turkey burger is different from much of the rest of the menu at Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s in that it is a low-calorie sandwich. How does it fit?  

Koncki:  The Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s core customer group is hungry, young guys, so our ad agency and marketing people in the beginning said it wasn’t a fit. In fact, the early pre-launch sandwich concept wasn’t built as healthy. It had bacon and cheese on it. But our product development collaboration with Men’s Health magazine helped change that (see “Turkey burgers gobble sales at Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s”). We offered three healthy choices in the turkey burgers, and we designed our marketing and advertising to appeal to young, hungry guys. What we have seen is that we are getting new people in the door, and the sales are incremental. If some of those new customers are female and older, so be it.

WATT PoultryUSA: Was chicken considered for burgers at Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s?  

Koncki:  Chicken people have brought ideas to us but it was never of any interest to us because we have two whole-muscle breast meat products – one is hand-breaded and deep fried and the other is charbroiled. We also offer chicken tenders. So a chicken burger just did not resonate with us as much as a turkey burger.

WATT PoultryUSA: What is the future of turkey in the fast-food business?  

John Koncki:  Turkey is a great meat protein with many positive qualities. It is affordable. It has good connotations with consumers as a leaner, healthier protein. Consumption and usage of turkey will continue to expand in the future.

Obviously, for burger restaurants, there is the turkey patty, but Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s have also been very successful with sliced turkey as a breakfast club. Turkey is an important part of the sandwich shop offering – the Subways, Quiznos – and those restaurants do a good job with sliced turkey. But I think other national restaurant chains will offer turkey burgers in the future. I don’t know when that will be. I am hoping it will be a while. It is good to be first at Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s with the product nationally.

WATT PoultryUSA: Is the Charbroiled Turkey Burger made of white meat?  

Koncki:  The sandwich patty is predominantly ground white turkey meat. Dark meat has a very strong flavor with higher fat content, and I think that is problematic for the industry to find ways to utilize dark meat. (For details about product formulation, see “Turkey burgers gobble sales at Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s.”)

WATT PoultryUSA: How is the U.S. economy impacting your business and demand for turkey, chicken and beef?  

Koncki:  For the foreseeable future, consumers are going to be watching prices very closely. They want deals and discounts. So we have to be really careful about how we price our products.

We are probably not going to be promoting the higher-end products, although they will stay on the menu. We will focus our product development and promotion on commonsense, mid-priced products that have a favorable financial result for us margin-wise. Those type of products that have been on the menu a long time and have a good following. These include some of our signature burgers. The whole key is meeting the price point. People are looking for deals. Whether it is two for $5 or whatever; that seems to have an appeal to customers. So, we are probably not looking at the $6 or $7 products right now.

However, it is important for us not to drift too far from our core marketing concept. The Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s brands have never been known as the value player like some of our competitors. That is why I said that right now our focus is on mid-price point products, which includes turkey burgers.

WATT PoultryUSA: What impact do new menu introductions have on your business during a weak general economy?  

Koncki:  New menu items tend to drive sales for short periods of time. They peak, and then their sales fall off some. We have a lot of limited time offers to keep customer interest up. We will offer new and different flavors and variety.

WATT PoultryUSA: Are the product life cycles of fast-food items changing?  

Koncki:  Life cycles of items on fast-food menus are much shorter than they used to be. They are becoming incredibly short. Before a product might last six months to a year, and now it might be 12 weeks or 16 weeks. Consumers are demanding continual change from us.

WATT PoultryUSA: Has the number of menu items at Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s changed?  

Koncki:  It’s a constant struggle to control the number of items on the menu because it always tends to get larger than we want it to be. Every six months to a year we take something off the menu in order to be able to add something new.

We have a very large menu. We offer salads. We offer several different types of chicken sandwiches. We offer six salad burgers. We offer mainstream burgers. We offer turkey burgers. We offer hand-made shakes. That’s not including our concept foods, like Mexican food.

 WATT PoultryUSA: Do meat protein prices have a big impact on what you menu?  

Koncki:  The prices of meat proteins play a very big role in what we promote.

It is not a happy time for meat protein purchasers right now. Commodities are out of control, due to weather’s impact on grain supplies.

WATT PoultryUSA: How does  Carl Karcher Enterprises Inc.  evaluate meat protein suppliers?  

Koncki:  We look for protein suppliers that understand our business. For example, suppliers need to understand that we don’t prepare products to be cooked on a flattop grill after breakfast. We use the charbroiler.

As far as the creative part of it is concerned, it helps for meat suppliers to have culinary trained people and scientists who speak the same language as our folks. They need to offer flexibility in packaging and competitive pricing. They should have a track record in an industry.

Our business today is much more complicated than it used to be because we try to have leverage with Hardee's now in terms of volume. We have a core base of protein vendors. We get to know them and they get to know us, so we are not bringing in new suppliers all the time.

WATT PoultryUSA: Is there anything that turkey companies and your suppliers do to help you put more turkey on the menu?  

Koncki:  I think the turkey industry should focus on the versatility of its products. I would definitely get the message across that it is not just a specialty once-a-year protein. For example, turkey can be used to replace ground beef in chili. And turkey has many burger applications. It’s not just a sliced product.

However, I am not that confident in the value of generic advertising. How well did the “Pork: The other white meat” campaign work? I don’t know that it worked.

WATT PoultryUSA: How will menus be different 10 years from now in your restaurants and fast-food restaurants in general?  

Koncki:  It’s hard to have a crystal ball today, but the world demand for proteins presents some incredible opportunities but some incredible challenges. In terms of feeding the population of the world, where does that leave us in this country with our own supplies? Right now beef is in short supply. The weather has affected the supply of feed grains. So the cattle herd is being culled down. Those kinds of things can’t be predicted but have a big impact.

I don’t see fish consumption increasing in a big way to grab a significant share of consumption. I think poultry consumption is going to continue to grow. I don’t see lamb going on fast food menus. It’s not a mainstream fast food. Neither is veal. So I think consumer demand is going to stay pretty traditional, though we will continue finding neat ways to mix it up a little bit.

People will continue to want healthier food choices. Turkey is a part of that as a healthier meat protein option, so I think the consumption of turkey will grow, but slowly.