Flame-Broiled Seduction: Burger King Hosts a Meat-and-Greet


The long, black Lincoln Town Car was nestled against the curb; in the front seat, the chauffeur held a card against the rain-spattered window. It was my name, hand lettered in italics. One of my companions let out a low whistle. "Wow, Burger King doesn't screw around."

While the cameraman threw his equipment in the trunk, my editor and I barreled into the overstuffed leather back seat. I didn't need three people to cover this story, but it was the big time: Burger King (BKC) was premiering some new dishes and there were rumors that the launch was going to be a fast food banquet of Roman dimensions. When I mentioned it at my office, my editor got into a steel cage deathmatch with one of the other writers: space was limited and the food was free, a recipe for cubicalcombat. Two men enter, one man leaves: I made a mental note not to mess with the battle-scarred wordsmith who was now taking up half of the back seat.

A Menu Tasting at the BK Lounge

I've never seen a Burger King with a doorman, but the restaurant near New York's Penn Station sported a formidable guard at the entrance and an honest-to-goodness velvet rope. Check-in was packed with cheerful publicists clad in slick suits and little black dresses, their intense friendliness slightly disconcerting. These were PR sharpshooters, the best hired guns that the King could afford, and I was in their world. To put the natives at ease, I tentatively tried out a smile: I was in New York, after all, where showing your teeth is a sign of weakness.

Room for Promotion

Smiling wasn't a problem for Marisa, the tireless publicist who had spent much of the past week reassuring me that everything was copacetic as I planned this jaunt. She gestured to the dining room, which looked like the unholy love child of a Burger King and a cocktail lounge. Black cloths covered high tables and printed menus fought flatware for precious tabletop real estate. Servers clutching polished silver platters circulated, passing out drinks and burgers with reckless abandon.

The room was packed and the mood was high: nothing brings out the New York media like free food, even if it happens to be of the fast variety. The cream of the fast food press was in attendance: world-weary chowhounds from Fox News, the Post, The View, the Daily News, Slashfood and other, lesser lights. Cheerfully vapid newsgirls from a local station worked the room, tiaras perched on their heads, cameraman in tow. Meanwhile, we shared a table with a television producer who had lucked into an invitation; while there was only a slim chance that BK's new culinary innovation was going to get a spot on his show, he gladly partook of the goodies.

And goodies there were. Sure, there was also a presentation: revolutionary new oven, smaller footprint, less energy consumption, the greatest in the business. Burger King can now make food that was never before possible, pushing the boundaries of franchise cuisine and leaving the "other guys" in the dust. My editor whispered, "Who is the 'other guy?' Could it be. . . MCDONALDS?!?" He might as well have screamed it: two feet away, there was a BK Senior VP and I snapped my head around to make sure that we hadn't been overheard. We were deep in the King's territory and even the slightest mention of the happy clown and his minions was likely to get us clasped in chains and chucked into the BK dungeon. I mentally begged my boss to dial it down. Sure, the tasting room was fun and the flacks were friendly, but it was a Potemkin BK lounge: behind the Bundy-empty eyes of the King lay a cold, calculating business machine.

Make no mistake, Burger King is deadly serious. Between health concerns and money troubles, the fast food dollar is more elusive than ever. The burger behemoth, which has always run second to the Golden Arches (MCD), needs to set itself apart from the pack, lest it sink to third place beneath the flowered skirts of the seductive square-patty siren, Wendy (WEN). Sure, BK's stock is good, but sales are down. The futuristic, super-slick Whopper bars that have started to creep into high-end adult playgrounds are part of the King's strategy to remake the brand. Across the board, the chain is experimenting with a new look and some new flavors. The game-changing oven is yet another move; today, the chain was unveiling the future of grilled meat, flaunting its stuff for the fast food cognoscenti.

The Free Lunch Arrives

The first note in the burger symphony was something familiar: a Whopper of almost Platonic perfection. I've had Burger King's signature sandwich before, but this one stood apart, with a slightly smoky flavor, a surprisingly fluffy bun, and impressively crunchy lettuce. The tomato even had flavor. I was tempted to gobble it down, but the King's men made it clear that we needed to pace ourselves. I let the waitress take away half my burger, cursing myself for forgetting to bring a doggie bag -- or a duffel.

My editor noted that the next sandwich, the A-1 Steakhouse XT, sounded less like a burger and more like an assault rifle. I was starting to calm down, but I was still worried that he was going to get us in trouble. The publicists and corporate execs were a mix of true believers and marketing mercenaries, ready to go into battle for their fast food monarch; in this room, burger blasphemy was a fool's game.

Still, he had a point: the XT (the burger and I were on a first-name basis by this point) was a serious hunk of meat. Almost a half pound of beef, it was topped with crispy onions, A-1 steak sauce, cheese, lettuce, tomatoes and mayo. This was the King's latest entry into the premium market, another foot soldier going into battle with the the higher-end Angus thickburgers and third pounders crowding the market. Staring down the barrel of a possible stroke, I split mine with the cameraman. Ditto the "Fire Grilled" pork spare ribs that were cut in half, marinated, roasted and served six to a package. A little heavy on the smoke flavor, they were fall-apart tender, but we were barely halfway down the day's menu and I knew that I could only risk one or two.

And then came the "car show" goodies: fast food delicacies that will never find their way into a real-life Burger King. A "mixed grill" with broiled chorizo sausage, pork tenderloin, rib eye and organic chicken was followed by a filet mignon with pearl onions, port demi glace and roasted mushrooms. Everything was served on white china dishes off the ubiquitous silver trays, but my body was getting close to full-on Atkins overload, and I only risked a few bites. I was in the danger zone and gout was imminent. I could already feel my toes aching.

Dessert was S'mores a la BK: a deep-dish serving of toasted marshmallows on a graham cracker crust, drizzled with chocolate. I wolfed down every gooey bite. A few interviews with the Burger King honchos and we were out the door, clutching our overstuffed goody bags. On the ride home, my body desperately trying to digest an unexpected pound of meat, I looked at the tired, satisfied faces of my companions and had to admit that Burger King may have found a strategy that works.