Last fall, I discussed the teachable moment Panda Express encountered when it tried to swap brown rice for white rice in its signature fried-rice recipe. Many customers were outraged, and the chain—the third-largest fast-casual restaurant brand in the U.S. by sales—put the matter to a public vote. White rice won handily, and the original fried-rice recipe returned to the menu. Customers still, as before, have the option of substituting steamed brown rice for fried rice.
This week, Shake Shack issued its own menu mea culpa, announcing that classic crinkle fries, which arrived at Shake Shacks frozen, would return to the menu this fall after they were dumped last year in favor of fries cut fresh in store and bearing that signature hand-cut marking of potato peel left along the edges.
The new fries had proved operationally difficult—ensuring the consistency of the final product was a challenge. Customers were displeased, and many took to the Internet to mourn the loss of the fries that resembled those they remembered from childhood. (And, after all, Shake Shack positions itself as a classic, old-school, like-in-the-good-old-days-but-better burger joint.)
The consistency issue was a factor in the decision to bring back the crinkle-cut fries. But what was especially notable to me in Shake Shack’s announcement was the chain’s acknowledgement that it had erroneously heeded the calls of a vocal minority in ditching the frozen fries in favor of a fresher product.
“(W)ith the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear that we underestimated the love for our classic crinkle-cut fry,” Shake Shack said. “We reacted to what we thought we heard. But in fact, while listening to a few outspoken critics, we never fully heard the legions of fans that loved our classic crinkle.”
Moving to a product prepared freshly in-house is definitely on-trend; “frozen” has, fairly or unfairly, come to be associated in many consumers’ minds with quality-crimping shortcuts and an inferior finished product. And Shake Shack, created by New York restaurateur and fine-dining veteran Danny Meyer and his Union Square Hospitality Group, prides itself on the high quality of its offerings. The chain has grown immensely by feeding consumers’ appetites for better burgers; sales were up 40% in 2013 to $62.3 million. But restaurants walk a fine line in changing up a signature menu offering, and this is true especially for fast-casual concepts such as Shake Shack where the menu by design is short and sweet—the change is more noticeable and is likely to affect more customers.
It’s no small feat to create signature menu items that customers associate intimately with your brand. Arby’s has curly fries. Potbelly Sandwich Shop has mini-cookie-topped milkshakes. Noodles & Company has Wisconsin Mac & Cheese. Shake Shack had crinkle fries, with their decidedly uniform, not-carved-by-hand appearance giving a nod to nostalgia for places and times in our lives where taste and fun trumped all other considerations. How an item was prepared or sourced, what it contained and certainly its nutrition profile were of little or no import; all that mattered was that it tasted good and provided fleeting pleasure.
Taste still reigns with consumers—no matter their age—especially when they’re choosing a more-indulgent item, such as french fries. (Indeed, as we’ve noted before, 96% of consumers say food taste/flavor is an important or very important factor in their selection of a limited-service restaurant.) And Shake Shack customers loved the taste and appearance of the original crinkle-cut fry. Shake Shack took away that “fun” factor of a crinkle-cut fry at its own peril, and it now has recognized its error.
Starting in November, crinkle-cut fries will be back on the menu, but in consideration of many consumers’ concerns with ingredient integrity and in honor of Shake Shack’s own commitment to Stand For Something Good, this generation of crinkles won’t contain any artificial ingredients. (Panera this summer made headlines for a similar no-artificial-additives pledge.) If they taste just like the classic fry that Shake Shack fans came to know and love, customers should be appeased. And Shake Shack will join the legion of restaurants to discover that what’s trendy isn’t always what’s right for the brand.