Fast Food Feature: The War of the Pretzel Buns

Testing the newest fast food creations that the industry has to offer has helped me realize how fanatical the American culture truly is. We have created overnight millionaires by becoming obsessed with “the next big thing”. The American people made Gary Dahl, the creator of the Pet Rock (which for unfamiliar readers is exactly what it sounds like). He’s a millionaire for putting a rock in a box! With consumers throwing millions of dollars at these new items, companies are constantly pumping money into their research and development departments to stay on the cutting edge. Fast food companies rely on their most well-known products to provide consistency in sales and keep the core of their market satisfied (McDonald’s has the Big Mac, Burger King has the Whopper and KFC has their Original Recipe Chicken), but the competitive environment of this industry forces the companies to go beyond these products and offer new and innovative meals for the consumer. Some of these products succeed (offering salads as a healthier alternative), while others fail (RIP Mc Hotdog). The newest venture across the fast food spectrum is the pretzel bun. Three of the largest fast food chains in the country have begun offering a soft pretzel/bun hybrid alternative in an attempt to expand their market share. I’ve run the gauntlet, tested all three, and after going over my thoughts on each I will crown a champion!

Wendy’s Pretzel Bacon Cheeseburger

The first episode of this pretzel bun trilogy took me to Wendy’s to eat the new Pretzel Bacon Cheeseburger. The core of this burger is Wendy’s signature “fresh never frozen” ¼ lb square-shaped all beef patty. Topping that patty is applewood smoked bacon (the staple fast food bacon), melted cheddar cheese, lettuce, tomato, onions, and a sweet & smoky honey mustard sauce. Wendy’s charges $4.99 for the burger alone or $6.99 for a combo with a small fry and soda. The two items that set this burger apart from everything else on the menu are the pretzel bun and the sweet & smoky honey mustard sauce, with the sauce stealing the show completely. The smokiness of the sauce provides a layer of flavor that the regular bacon cheeseburger lacks, while the lasting sweetness keeps the sauce from overpowering the burger completely. The pretzel bun itself was rather plain, mainly because Wendy’s chose to use a salt-free bun. Lame. The bun also lacked the fluffiness of a traditional soft pretzel (which happens to be my favorite part). Even after taking a few bites of the bun alone, it was hard to identify many qualities that compared to a soft pretzel apart from the visual similarities. Although the pretzel bun didn’t add much to the burger, it certainly didn’t take anything away from it or ruin the meal. Taking into account the new sauce, Wendy’s has created a great alternative to their traditional bacon cheeseburger, and it is a meal that I absolutely see myself eating again, whether or not the pretzel bun comes to dinner.

After cleansing my palate I made my way onto my next pretzel bun location, Sonic Drive-In. Sonic is best known for its retro 1950’s style drive-in style dining, and it has ridden that unique experience into the #4 spot on the list of most popular fast food burger joints in the U.S. There are several things that set Sonic apart from the “big 3” (McDonald’s, Wendy’s and Burger King): drive-in style dining, offering tater tots in the place of French fries (though I prefer fries), and my personal favorite difference maker…THEY SELL HOT DOGS! Hot dogs are an American classic, but fast food chains seem to avoid them like the plague. It’s hard to say why, but one of the most common theories for the absence of hot dogs in chains is the regional preferences that go along with the food. Fast food chains prefer everything to be made exactly the same across the country (and often around the world). Hot dogs, however, are topped with extremely different items depending on what part of the country you are in. The amount of time and resources that a big chain, like Burger King, would have to invest in this area doesn’t seem to add up to the perceived risk of failure (Once again I highlight the Mc Hotdog). Thankfully, Sonic has taken the lead and given their customers several regional appropriate hot dog variations. In addition to the traditional “All American Dog” (ketchup, mustard and relish), Sonic offers a “New York Dog” (spicy brown mustard, sauerkraut and grilled onions), a “Chili Cheese Coney” (don’t really have to break that one down), and a “Chicago Dog” (topped with a pickle, relish, tomato, sport peppers, celery salt and mustard). Their newest addition to their hot dog fleet was my target, the “Original Pretzel Dog”.

Sonic Original Pretzel Dog

The Original Pretzel Dog ($1.99 each) was by far the simplest meal I came across this week. The entire hot dog was made of three basic items (if you don’t count all the “items” that make up a hot dog): a pretzel hot dog bun, a regular hot dog, and yellow mustard (minus the bacon bits of the above picture). The simplicity of the hot dog and mustard leaves the pretzel bun as the only real point of interest. Like the Wendy’s bun, Sonic opted for a salt-free option. Unlike Wendy’s, however, Sonic was able to keep their pretzel from being too hard (though it still could have been a little softer and more fresh).  I have to applaud Sonic for resisting the urge to go over the top when making this item. The combination of mustard and soft pretzels has been a match made in heaven from day one, and Sonic stuck very close to that recipe when making this very good, if unspectacular, item.

The Dunkin Donuts’ Roast Beef Pretzel Roll Sandwich is a mouthful…literally.

My final stop was to test the newest pretzel bun item on the market, Dunkin Donuts’ Roast Beef Pretzel Roll Sandwich. Dunkin Donuts has a stronghold on the breakfast market, especially in the Northeast (In New England, Dunkin Donuts is more of a religion than a restaurant). Over the past few years Dunkin has worked on branching out from breakfast and has started offering options for meals and snacks at all hours. Their most successful venture thus far has been with their bakery sandwiches. In addition to the new roast beef sandwich, Dunkin offers tuna, chicken salad, ham, turkey, and chicken breast sandwiches throughout the day. The roast beef sandwich I tested was topped with melted white cheddar cheese and Dijon mustard. Immediately after taking my first bite I was impressed with the heartiness of the pretzel roll. Dunkin did a great job of duplicating the soft and warm nature of a pretzel, and chose to salt the roll on top with traditional pretzel salt. The part of the sandwich that I was most skeptical about was the roast beef (I generally don’t choose to get my deli meat from a fast food coffee shop). I was, however, pleasantly surprised by the quality of the meat. Nobody would confuse the roast beef with premium Boar’s Head, but it could hold its own against the generic brands that grocery stores offer. The addition of the melted cheddar and the Dijon mustard helped create a full-flavored sandwich that left me completely satisfied.

The one thing that may hold Dunkin Donuts back in their lunch and dinner venture is their lack of a complete meal. The roast beef sandwich that I tested cost $3.69. Dunkin offers you the option of adding a bottled beverage (Coca-Cola or Gatorade) to create a $4.99 combo, but the combo stops there. The sandwich and soda alone are not enough though to satisfy most customers. The missing piece of the puzzle is a French fry alternative. I’m not challenging Dunkin Donuts to start making fries, but if they were to add bagged chips (Taco Bell does this with their $2 meal deal) or include their hash brown bites with the sandwich and soda they would stack up better against the competition.

Having completed my pretzel bun triathlon I attempted to evaluate and rank these items, which left me with a bit of a predicament. How do you compare a bacon cheeseburger, a hot dog, and a roast beef sandwich? That’s like trying to rank dinosaur fossils, Velcro shoes and spaceships! It’s pretty damn hard because all of those things are really awesome.

So I have decided to set the meat aside and focus on the pretzel buns…making Dunkin Donuts the clear winner! Dunkin was the only one of these restaurants that successfully captured the essence of a soft pretzel when creating their bun. Other than neglecting to salt their bun (a point of preference because some people like salt-free pretzels), both Wendy’s and Sonic failed to recreate the warm and soft character that defines a well-made pretzel. It was this shortcoming that led to Dunkin Donuts being crowned pretzel bun champion of the fast food realm…at least until another chain jumps into the ring to fight for the crown. Any contenders?