When QSRs Think Really Outside The Box In The Innovation Race

Burger King Real Meals

The realm of quick service restaurants (QSRs) is and actually always has been a pretty innovative space. The drive-thru window, for example, first met the market in 1947 when it was introduced to the world by Sheldon “Red” Chaney, operator of Red’s Giant Hamburg in Springfield, Missouri. If you’ve never heard of Red, before, it’s because he’s not the guy who became famous for the idea. That honor fell to Ray Kroc — who made the idea famous when he opened the first McDonald’s franchise in Chicago eight years later.

McDonald’s did, however, more or less invent the concept of a Happy Meal to attract kids, launching it back in 1979. The concept was invented by a Guatemalan McDonald’s franchise operator, Yolanda Fernández de Cofiño, in the mid-70s.

In the modern digital era of QSR, it is almost impossible not to mention Starbucks and its myriad contributions to innovation — including the first really successful launch of a mobile wallet product in the U.S. and leading the field when it came to introducing mobile order-ahead to the market. Starbucks first rolled out nationwide mobile order-ahead about four and a half years ago, in late 2015. As of late spring 2019, mobile represents roughly 60 percent of all digital restaurant orders today, according to the PYMNTS Mobile-Order Ahead Tracker.

And of course hardly a week passes here at PYMNTS when we are not announcing some new innovation application in the QSR space. Advances in ordering ahead, rewards offers, delivery options — take your pick, you can probably find an announcement about one of these things or another out of a major chain within the last 14 days.

The problem, of course, is keeping them all straight — and this points to the bigger problem with big innovations in QSR: just how quickly they become table stakes in the industry. Just as everybody has a drive-thru, so too does everybody have an order-ahead feature these days. Digital innovation is keeping brands competitive — but really standing out requires an additional level of outside-the-box thinking.

Really outside the box, as it turns out. For example …

Burger King Rolls Out the Sad Meal

OK, so Burger King has not actually rolled out a product called the “Sad Meal” — though we would argue it has gotten as close as humanly imaginable. Combining the color palette and plot of the Pixar movie “Inside Out” and the outlook on life found on the Nihilist Arby’s Twitter account, Burger King has released what it calls “Real Meals” in honor of Mental Health Awareness Month.

“Burger King restaurants understands that no one is happy all the time. That’s why they’re asking guests to order a Whopper meal based on however they might be feeling,” an online release stated Wednesday (May 1).

On offer are a wide range of other-than-happy emotions to choose: the Pissed Meal (red), the Blue Meal (blue), Salty Meal (green), Yaaas Meal (purple) and the DGAF (Don’t Give a F—, black) Meal. The boxes are different colors, but the meals are the same. Each has a Whopper, French fries and a drink. They’re a limited edition and are only available in Austin, Seattle, Miami, Los Angeles and New York City.

“With the pervasive nature of social media, there is so much pressure to appear happy and perfect. With Real Meals, the Burger King brand celebrates being yourself and feeling however you want to feel,”  Burger King went on to say in the statement.

That the boxes are brightly colored and have the words “Nobody Is Happy All The Time” stamped on their sides and seem pretty clearly designed to be photographed and posted on Instagram is probably a coincidence.

The push has generated some pushback online — particularly on Twitter — that Burger King is attempting to turn a serious issue into a marketing stunt. Others applauded the effort and the money Burger King hopes to raise via the campaign and its partnership with Mental Health America.

Most, however, concluded that the campaign more than anything represented an opportunity for Burger King to grab some attention and troll its rivals at McDonald’s — and that it was pretty successful in both of those regards.

In fact, given that this is a limited edition product that is only available in five markets — and it created two days of national media attention — it might be one of the more innovative and successful acts of trolling in history.

More remarkable, that story is only the second wildest recent innovation for  attracting consumers to a QSR restaurant.

The Rocky Mountain High Cheeseburger

Many people who get high on cannabis products are known to then go to fast food restaurants to eat. In fact, in 2004 an entire movie on the subject was released called “Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle.” But last month, a Colorado eatery, Carl’s Jr in Denver, put a new spin on that relationship with its one-day, April 20 rollout of the “Rocky Mountain High Cheeseburger Delight,” a cheeseburger infused with CBD oil.

Now to be fair, CBD oil, though it can be made from a marijuana plant, does not contain THC, the psychoactive ingredient in cannabis associated with getting high. CBD is reportedly non-psychoactive, can be derived from hemp instead of marijuana plants and can be legally (or at least quasi-legally) sold over the counter in most states as long as it is derived from hemp.

In any case, the burgers did not get people high.

That said, given that the lines to get the CBD burger started in drive-thrus at 6 a.m. and all locations were solidly sold out by afternoon, it seems safe to conclude many of those customers were pretty hungry when they got there. Why they were so hungry for a cheeseburger at 6 a.m. we will leave to your imagination.

But whatever method an establishment uses to attracts customers — Unhappy Meals or anxiety-battling cheeseburgers — the point of course is to get them there. Sometimes the solution is tech. Other times it is considering a fuller — and weirder — menu of options.