*Click here to view a slideshow of images of the new broiler and menu innovations.
For decades, Burger King has relied on the same conveyor oven technology to provide its signature flame-broiled flavor profile. But that technique, originally designed to cook the brand's Whoppers, also limited the types of product offerings the chain could explore.
Now, as the company completes the rollout of new flexible broilers, Burger King is looking forward to creating new menu items made possible by the equipment.
Fire-grilled bone-in ribs, extra-thick burgers and shrimp kebabs are just a few of the new offerings Burger King is considering as the chain completes the switch. The goal, said company officials, is to go beyond the conventional quick-serve menu.
"New product innovation has been a hallmark of our growth strategy," said John Shaufelberger, senior vice president of global product marketing and innovation for Burger King. "The new broilers have really enabled us to deliver truly new-to-the-category ideas that customers have only really been accustomed to at a casual dining outlet."
With its old conveyor broiler, the chain's research and development team was limited to rolling out products that fit the speed of the conveyor chain. The new broilers feature flexible cooking methods that enable Burger King to prepare virtually any type of product.
Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Chicago-based Technomic, said the new broiler technology is a smart move for Burger King. First, the company will grow its capacity to broaden its menu, making it more competitive. Secondly, the chain is able to do so without a large investment to franchisees, he said.
Unlike McDonald's owner/operators who are investing nearly $100,000 to add the McCafe specialty coffee line, Burger King's modern, flexible broilers cost less than $10,000. The equipment is in more than 60 percent of stores, including all company-owned locations, with the rollout expected to be complete by early 2010.
Additionally, Tristano said, the company will be in a position to attract casual dining customers, especially with its rib product.
"It's going to provide you with a much better trade down than most of the other burger chains," he said.
Burger King isn't aiming to compete with casual dining retsaurants, per se, Shaufelberger said. Instead, the company is hoping to attract its so-called super fans more often.
Burger King's research has shown that its super fans eat at QSRs about 18 times a month, but those fans also eat in casual dining restaurants another 13 times per month.
"So, it's not a different person we're going after," Shaufelberger said. "We're just going after those casual dining occasions."
New broiler offers flexibility
To develop the new broiler, the company turned to its equipment manufacturers, including Windsor, Calif.-based Nieco Automatic Broilers, which produced the company's old conveyor oven. The company also approached St. Louis-based Duke Manufacturing.
The goal was to keep the flame broiling method while providing the chain a more flexible cooking platform. Both the Nieco and Duke solutions enable that by using control features during the broiling process.
The new platform now allows the chain to feature fresh-cooked premium offerings, such as thick burgers. Offering fresh-cooked thick burgers like new Steakhouse XT provides a distinct advantage over competitors that rely on pre-cooked patties for thicker burgers, Shaufelberger said.
"The varying length of cooking allows us to make sure we're delivering a hot, juicy, well-cooked burger to our consumers regardless of thickness," he said.
Burger King has completed installation of the Duke Flexible Batch Broiler in its approximately 800 company-owned stores. Franchisees can choose to install either the Duke or Nieco broiler. About 3,200 franchisees also have installed the Duke product, and about 1,800 franchisees have opted for the Nieco MPB 94 Low-Energy Broiler.
Although the end product is the same, the two manufacturers took different approaches in design. Nieco added a second conveyor with a flexible cooking platform so that Whoppers and ribs, for example, can be cooked at the same time on different belts.
The company also added an automatic feeder to the Whopper and burger conveyor to reduce labor and speed up service.
Duke abandoned the typical conveyor-type platform and designed a batch broiler, which can cook up to eight Whopper patties at one time. The oven's control system cycles the amount of heat used during the cooking process based on parameters designed for the specific product.
However, some in the industry have wondered if Duke's batch broiler slows operations because only one type of product can be cooked at a time. Shaufelberger said Burger King's new kitchen and labor minder technology built around the Duke broiler prevents any slowdown.
The design for both broilers created several unexpected benefits, including significant energy savings and better tasting burgers, Shaufelberger said. The energy savings is a big part of the equipment's 12-18 month return on investment, the company has said in its quarterly conference calls. Tom Baker, vice president for Nieco, said the new Nieco broiler, which uses convection heat, can deliver a 30 percent energy savings per year thanks to a built-in energy management system. The old broiler operated at full capacity continuously during operating hours.
Bill Rose, vice president of sales for Duke, said energy savings from its batch broiler are about $3,000-$4,000 a year. Those savings qualify franchisees for energy rebates in a number of states.
One complaint of the old broiler was the heat it produced. Both of the new broiler designs operate with a much cooler external temperature. For example, the Nieco oven uses a more efficient burner system and any external heat produced is now funneled into the hood system, Baker said.
Shaufelberger said that the company doesn't see much difference in the end product of either broiler.
"Both at the end of the day deliver the same thing to our consumers," he said. "The key benefits, things like better speed of service, looking at varying energy levels, most importantly the ability to deliver better products — whether it's current products or new products — both broilers deliver that."
Christa is editor of QSRweb.com and contributes to FastCasual.com and PizzaMarketplace.com. She has experience in the restaurant industry as well as 15 years as a journalist.