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Upscale chef Bayless to weigh in for BK

Upscale chef Bayless to weigh in for BK – Burger King Corp. hires Rick Bayless to promote new chicken baguette sandwiches

Amy Garber

MIAMI — In an unlikely pairing of fine dining and fast food, Burger King Corp. has tapped Chicago chef-restaurateur Rick Bayless to promote BK’s new line of low-fat chicken baguette sandwiches.

While the collaboration is strictly promotional, both parties indicated they are open to the idea that Bayless — who owns the four-star Topolobampo Mexican restaurant and is a well-known TV cooking show personality — would take a more active role in Burger King. The nation’s second-largest burger chain is in the midst of a massive brand repositioning aimed at reversing years of sales and traffic declines.

“We have great interest in potentially expanding a relationship with Rick, but only one logically related to his credentials in Mexican cooking,” said Russ Klein, chief marketing officer for Miami-based Burger King Corp.

The new baguette line includes three chicken sandwiches, each of which has 5 grams of fat and 350 calories and will be unveiled through a staggered introduction over the coming weeks. The first variety, which is now available nationwide, is the Santa Fe Chicken with roasted peppers, onions and fire-roasted Southwest sauce. In October BK will debut the Savory Mustard Chicken with mustard sauce, lettuce and tomatoes, followed weeks later by the Smoky Chicken Baguette topped with grilled peppers, onions and BBQ sauce. The sandwiches sell for a suggested price of $2.89. For $4.59 customers can buy the Lite Combo Meal, featuring a baguette sandwich, a side salad and bottled water.

Bayless is expected to appear in TV commercials for the Santa Fe Chicken, but financial terms of the sponsorship were not disclosed.

“This is not something that I would normally do,” said Bayless, who also is the chef-owner of Topolobampo’s casual sibling, Frontera Grill. “But I have been talking and writing so much about good, simple everyday eating, and this is something that fits with the message that I have been putting out for a long time.”

Bayless described the ingredients of the sandwiches as “much less processed than a lot of things we get at fast-food places.”

The chef also dismissed criticism that his sponsorship could hurt the brand image of his two Chicago restaurants.

“You can’t eat fine dining every day, because it would become less special,” he explained. “1 would be stupid to think that because I’m in fine dining I don’t have any place in my life for a quick meal. Fast food isn’t going away, and I want to do anything I can to encourage fast-food producers to make healthier foods.”

However, a veteran ad agency executive said it would have been a much smarter move for Burger King first to rely on Bayless’ culinary expertise to improve product quality before turning to him as a spokesman endorsing a menu item he didn’t create.

“It sounds like a bunch of people in an ivory tower who don’t have any merchant sense,” said Raymond Coen, a business consultant in Pacific Palisades, Calif. “They [BK officials] seem to be looking for an advertising strategy to make something out of nothing.”

If beleaguered Burger King eventually hires Bayless to consult on menu development, it would not be unprecedented. In 1999 rival McDonald’s joined forces with renowned restaurant impresario Richard Melman, founder of Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises in Chicago. While there was speculation that Melman was leading a research-and-development team that would devise new test products for the chain, the partnership seemed to have dissolved quietly before any menu items came to fruition.

BK’s Klein indicated that the chain “might also look at other culinary relationships that would help elevate the message of our other new products going forward.”

Burger King is not the only fast feeder reaching out to experts from other specialties in an effort to enhance their images.

Given consumers’ growing interest in personal health, segment leader McDonald’s has hired exercise guru Bob Greene, personal trainer to Oprah Winfrey, to develop educational materials about health and fitness that will show up in the restaurants as tray liners and booklets. In addition, the chain is testing an adult Happy Meal that features one of its new premium salads with bottled water, a pedometer and an exercise guide.

In a similar move Taco Bell is considering teaming up with America on the Move, a national program recently launched to promote more active lifestyles. The nation’s largest Mexican quick-service chain also unveiled a low-fat salsa option that can replace cheese and other sauces in several of its core menu items as a way to reduce calories and fat.

Taco Bell has sustained almost consistent U.S. same-store sales growth since late 2001, and McDonald’s domestic comparable-restaurant sales have surged since April. But Burger King has yet to experience the same kind of momentum. BK’s chief executive, Brad Blum, said, “Trends are getting better with traffic and sales,” but he declined to provide details.

However, Burger King’s turnaround still seemed elusive as franchisees continued to grapple with ongoing sales decreases this summer.

Quality Dining Inc., which operates 118 BK units, posted a 9.8-percent drop in same-store sales for the quarter ended Aug. 3. The nation’s largest BK franchisee, Carrols Corp., reported a decline of 10.5 percent at its 351 Burger King units for the quarter ended June 30.

Blum said his “most urgent priority going forward is to set up franchisees for success.” He explained that “incremental traffic” is one of the goals with the chicken baguette line, which features bread baked daily in each restaurant. He added, “We are looking to attract people who have not been coming to Burger King.”

BK indicated that the baguettes could be used in the future as a carrier for other proteins, and Blum said the chain would be “very active in great-tasting healthy food. This is the first of other new introductions that we will be providing in the near future.”

In addition to using television and radio spots to emphasize the “flavor from fire-grilling and not from fat,” BK plans to advertise the sandwich line in nearly 10 new magazines, ranging from People and Self to Cooking Light. Although officials declined to disclose the campaign’s budget, they insisted it was a significant effort enforced by an eight-week introduction, compared with more typical four- or six-week campaigns.

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