Burger King reinvents flame broiling

The fast food chain is testing a new broiler designed to save time, energy, and money, and - some say - makes the Whopper taste better. Fortune's Matt Boyle reports.

By Matthew Boyle, Fortune writer

NEW YORK (Fortune) -- At Burger King, flame broiling will never be the same again.

After spending three years in development, the number-two fast food chain is quietly rolling out powerful new broilers that reduce utility costs, produce hotter, juicier Whoppers, and could allow Burger King to expand its menu to include items like rib-eye steak sandwiches and shrimp kebabs.

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But not all franchisees are on board yet, which could trip up the Miami-based company as it looks to build on the turnaround orchestrated by new CEO John Chidsey over the past 17 months, during which the company's stock price has risen over 50%.

There's also a huge risk involved in tinkering with something so central to a brand's identity - Burger King (Charts) has been known for flame broiling since its founding in 1954.

The so-called "flexible batch broilers," currently in all 897 company-owned restaurants in the U.S. and Canada, represent a great leap forward from Burger King's old broilers, many of which have been around for decades.

Designed in 2004 by Burger King engineers who studied half a dozen prototypes before settling on the winning design, the new broilers cook food all at once in batches - say, eight Whoppers at a time - rather than having to constantly feed patties into a moving, conveyor-belt system. The new broilers are also fully enclosed, not open to the air, allowing them to heat up quicker.

In fact, the new self-contained broilers heat up so fast and run so hot that in a typical cooking cycle, the three separate burners (two on top, one on the bottom) will turn on and off multiple times. Cooking times and temperatures are pre-programmed, so employees only have to push a button.

By not having all the burners running all day - which the current broilers do - a typical restaurant can save about 40% on its monthly energy costs, or about $500 a month.

The energy savings are twofold: Less gas is used, but also, since the new broilers are enclosed, the temperature of the kitchen falls by about five degrees, which reduces the demand for air conditioning. (Labor savings are also possible, as the new broilers are smaller and have fewer parts to clean.) Thus, the new broilers, which cost about $5,400, can pay for themselves within a year, on average.

The "flexible" portion of the broiler's moniker comes from its ability to cook foods beyond the traditional purview of fast food. "We're already gearing up for testing some new platforms as a result of this," says Chuck Fallon, president of North American operations. While Burger King would not provide specifics, those new items could include foods like rib-eye steak sandwiches, pork tenderloin, and shrimp kebabs.

Burger King is not alone in using new technology to expand its menu - privately held Dunkin' Donuts, for one, has employed new fast-cooking "Turbo Chef" ovens in a similar manner.

Winning over the franchises

Glen Helton, president and COO of Strategic Restaurants, BK's third-largest franchisee, began testing the broilers in March and will have them installed in all 256 locations by the end of October. Strategic has invested $2.8 million in the new equipment as well as new software (dubbed "Kitchen Minder") that manages the flow of food orders, and says it's worth every penny.

The contained cooking environment produces Whoppers that are five degrees hotter and juicier, Helton says, which makes for "a more appealing sandwich," especially at the drive thru. And he would know - Helton's first job, at age 15, was behind the broiler at a Burger King.

As proof, Helton points to customer satisfaction scores in his 40 California restaurants, all of which have the new broilers. The percentage of customers who gave their meal experience the highest score rose from 63 percent to 71 percent from July to September, "and the only difference was the broilers," he says. "We have people coming in and saying, 'I don't know what you did, but that is the best Whopper I have had in five years,'" Helton says.

BK's senior VP of research and development John Reckert says the improved taste was a totally unexpected benefit of the new equipment. "We were not trying to make it taste better," admits the 26-year company veteran.

Bob Sandelman, whose eponymous consultancy does customer research for restaurant chains, says the broilers are in too few locations to determine if they have improved customer perceptions of Burger King's food on a wider basis.

Still, despite the benefits, several big franchisees have their doubts. "Some look at this broiler as a new contraption that they are not willing to experiment with," Reckert says. The biggest complaint is that the pre-programmed batch method prevents the broiler from cooking two different items at once - say, burgers and chicken. That could slow things down, especially in a high-volume restaurant.

"The key to new equipment is efficiency," says Darren Tristano, executive VP at restaurant consultancy Technomic in Chicago.

Heartland Food Corp., Burger King's second-largest franchisee, has not committed to rolling out the broilers yet. Carrols Restaurant Group, BK's largest franchisee, is testing both the new broiler, made by Duke Manufacturing of St. Louis, along with an updated version of BK's existing broiler, made by Neico of Windsor, Calif., according to Fallon. (Neither Heartland nor Carrols returned calls seeking comment.)

About 90% of Burger King's 11,200-plus locations are franchised.

Burger King spokesman Keva Silversmith says that franchisees need not purchase Duke's broiler, but its rapid introduction at company-owned restaurants in the U.S. and new locations abroad - they're installed in both Mexico and Germany - shows which broiler the folks in Miami are backing.

However it plays out, the new broiler is another sign that after many years of playing catch up to its peers, Burger King wants to lead the fast-food pack when it comes to innovation.

"A key part of our turnaround over the last three-plus years has been to foster a culture of innovation," says John Schaufelberger, senior VP of global product marketing. Apparently, that culture has made its way into the back of the kitchen as well. Top of page

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Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer LIBOR Warning: Neither BBA Enterprises Limited, nor the BBA LIBOR Contributor Banks, nor Reuters, can be held liable for any irregularity or inaccuracy of BBA LIBOR. Disclaimer. Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.