Nosh Pit

The Nosh Pit: French fry war comes to Greater Sacramento

Two fast-food giants are engaged in a war of french fries, and Sacramento has been selected as one of its battlegrounds.

McDonald’s is preparing to launch Shakin’ Flavor Fries, a line of seasoned fries in three flavors, with Sacramento as one of two test markets in the country. The fries went on sale locally May 9, and will likely remain in the region through the summer.

St. Louis is the only other city to get early dibs on tasting these fries, which could become a permanent item next to the Big Mac and McFlurry on McDonald’s menus once the test marketing is complete.

According to John Gordon, a restaurant economist who has served as an expert in legal cases related to fast-food franchises, McDonald’s is firing back against Burger King, which launched low-calorie “Satisfries” in September.

“This is one of few situations where McDonald’s is following behind Burger King,” said Gordon, founder of the San Diego-based Pacific Management Consulting Group. “This is an attempt to come up with a value-added product that’s highly flavorful and can be sold at a premium.”

Shakin’ Flavor Fries and their do-it-yourself seasoning method have been a fixture of McDonald’s in Asia since 2005. The product works like this: An order of fries is served in the usual red cardboard package, but the customer also gets a popcorn-like bag and choice of three seasonings (spicy buffalo, garlic parmesan or zesty ranch). Dump fries in the bag, add the amount of seasoning to your likening and shake.

Think of Shakin’ Flavor Fries as the equivalent of pouring Doritos or Cheetos powder over your deep-fried spuds. A packet of the “spicy buffalo” seasoning contains 720 milligrams of sodium. If the entire packet is used, the total sodium content of a medium french fries would hit a whopping 990 milligrams. Still, it’s up to the customers to dial in the amount of seasoning they care for.

Clay Merrill, a spokesperson for Northern California McDonald’s restaurants, said local franchise operators lobbied their parent corporation to bring Shakin’ Flavor Fries to the Greater Sacramento area. Some franchisee operators get to taste products in-progress at a yearly McDonald’s Worldwide Convention, or take notes on different McDonald’s items when traveling outside the United States.

“Sacramento won (as a test market) by the franchisees who went and fought for it,” said Merrill. “Usually (the company) lays out the menu and says, ‘This is what we do. Here’s how you do it.’ This was unique because it became more of a bottom-up situation.”

Sacramento itself serves as tantalizing test market because of its manageable size and diverse population. The city’s not like Los Angeles, where high advertising rates would inflate the budget during test marketing, and which is crammed with too many eateries that are competing for consumer attention.

Sacramento was tapped as a test market for McDonald’s in 2012 for a new line of Quarter Pounder burgers.

“Sacramento is almost perfect as a test market,” said Gordon. “It’s big, but not too big. There’s a good mix of urban and suburban stores. And the franchisees are on board.”

Shakin’ Flavor Fries can be found throughout the Greater Sacramento media region – known in the marketing biz as Designated Market Area (DMA) – which includes Stockton and Modesto. Don’t be surprised to find someone taking your survey while you’re snacking on these fries inside McDonald’s. The McDonald’s corporation will keep close tabs on sales, customer satisfaction and taking other field tests during the test run.

According to Gordon, launching a new fast-food product line takes plenty of time and money.

The first step usually starts with consumer testing and taste panels at corporate facilities, along with input from various parties representing finance, product development and advertising.

Then, the test markets are sought out to refine the product and gauge its overall consumer reception.

Gordon estimates that test marketing Shakin’ Flavor Fries could cost McDonald’s upward of $1 million.

Shakin’ Flavor Fries are still a fairly easy product to test market. Franchisees won’t need any extra equipment for this product, just some paper bags and seasoning packets.

But in the country’s highly saturated fast-food industry, worth an estimated $170 billion annually, even a simple french fry line comes with a strategy to usurp the competitor.

“As the country becomes more diverse, people are moving away from the plain Jane flavor profiles,” said Gordon.

“What everyone’s struggling to do is come up with a magic new product that attracts more customers, or gives something new to talk about on TV.”