Wendy’s is changing up their menu with pulled pork in hopes that you’ll fall in love with something that isn’t bacon. Three new offerings are rolling out nationwide: the pulled pork sandwich ($4.49), the pulled pork cheeseburger ($4.99), and pulled pork cheese fries ($2.99). Both the sandwich and the burger come with crispy slaw and brioche buns, as well as a choice of spicy, smoky, or sweet sauces.

Why roll out new premium sandwiches? Fast Company points out one reason: Wendy’s sales are doing quite well compared to McDonald’s and Burger King, which both fell in 2013—by 0.2% and 0.9%, respectively. In 2013, Wendy’s sales rose by 1.9%—a fact the chain largely attributes to its higher-end offerings, like the Pretzel Burger

Wendy’s CMO Craig Bahner told FastCo:

[pullquote]“About 80% of the [sales] occasions in our stores tend to involve premium products. The other 20% are value occasions, where the primary purpose is to come in and sort of get some kind of value item.”[/pullquote]

And so, offering more premium sandwiches that people will go out of their way to eat makes sense. Frequent fast-food diners can tell you the differences in taste between basic Mickey D’s, BK, and Wendy’s burgers. But offering a completely different sandwich is a surefire way to grab attention.

wendy's pulled pork sandwich

But why pork? After all, a lot of people can’t eat pork because of dietary restrictions. If you make pork a mainstay, you’re guaranteeing that those people won’t be eating your sandwiches any time soon.

One reason, from a production perspective: Well-smoked pork shouldersometimes also called “butt,” even though it’s still a shoulder, because apparently the people writing butcher’s manuals like being confusing—is moist, tender, and falls apart in your hands. It practically pulls itself.

wendy's pulled pork cheeseburger

And it sounds like Wendy’s is taking its pork smoking seriously. According to Lori Estrada, Wendy’s vice president of culinary development, It’s been smoked for somewhere between 8 to 12 hours.” When smoking, longer is generally better for flavor—unless you go too far and dry the meat out. Pork shoulder is fairly forgiving in that respect because it’s so well-marbled with interstitial fat that keeps it moist.

Another reason: pork is cheap. While it’s true that prices for beef, pork, and chicken have all been rising, pork is still less expensive than beef.

chart-retail-meat-prices

Chart: Buedel Meats

According to Buedel Meats, it’s a case of low beef cattle supply and rising demand. Overall beef demand was 7.4 percent higher in 2013 than it was 15 years ago, while exported beef demand rose 24.2 percent over that same 15 year period. Drought-stricken cattle producers haven’t had an easy time keeping up supply. Buedel Meats says, “It remains to be seen how all of this will play out in real time, but it appears we will see high beef prices throughout 2014.”

Daniel Vaughn, Texas Monthly’s BBQ critic, agrees. He told FastCo

If you look at the price of a pork shoulder versus the price of beef, anytime any of those places can sell the same weight of pulled pork instead of a burger, they’re going to be making more money.

wendy's pulled pork fries

Still, after a lengthy testing period, Wendy’s arrived at its pulled pork conclusion via the most important thing: taste. Shelly Thobe, Wendy’s director of culinary and product information, told FastCo:

What we wanted was something consumers wanted, but something they couldn’t get on the go. I can’t just fly to Alabama all the time to get my favorite BBQ.”

That’s also why the chain is adding BBQ sauce sparingly, as your sandwiches or fries are prepared—not just soaking it in a sauce bath in steam table pans. 

Bahner also says he feels that everywhere in the country that isn’t traditionally a BBQ stronghold has “long been deprived of high-quality BBQ.”

Those are some audaciously big words, especially given how seriously true BBQ believers take their BBQ.

[via FastCo, Buedel Meats]

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