The Great '98 Potato War Marketing: Burger King gives away its spuds as it goes eye to eye with McDonald's.

January 03, 1998|By Ken Fuson | Ken Fuson,SUN STAFF

A future conversation:

"What did you do in the war, Daddy?"

"What war, sweetheart?"

"The Great French Fry War of 1998. My history book at school says that was the year civilization peaked. People were so happy and secure and prosperous that they actually debated the merits of Burger King vs. McDonald's french fries."

"Your history book is right. I'll never forget it. On Friday, Jan. 2, 1998, the Burger King restaurant chain gave out free small orders of their new french fries at 7,600 restaurants in the United States and Canada. It was perceived as such a big deal that three governors -- in Oklahoma, Kentucky and New Mexico -- actually officially declared it Free FryDay. Arizona and Michigan issued letters of tribute."

"Jeepers. why'd Burger King do it, Daddy?"

"They wanted a bigger -- pardon my expression, hon -- bite of the $106 billion fast-food industry. That's a lot of money. The GNP of Haiti is only $6.2 billion. And, you see, McDonald's had most of that fast-food money. It was always the king and was always famed for its fries."

"So what did Burger King do?"

"You won't believe it. They had a team of 100 people work on a new french fry recipe for two years. This is how good we had it back then, sweetheart. People actually earned a living concocting new french fry recipes. For two years!"

"And?"

"They ended up double-coating the fries with potato starch. They said it keeps them hotter and crispier. Arby's said it had been doing something similar for two years, but they didn't invest in a $70 million marketing campaign. Burger King did."

"Did it work?"

"That's what the free giveaway was all about. Burger King said an independent research firm talked to 500 people and found that they preferred Burger King fries over McDonald's, 57 to 35 percent. They wanted everyone to try them."

"How many fries did they give out?"

"Burger King officials estimated that they handed out 15 million free orders of fries on that one day. Of course, McDonald's officials countered by saying that 9 million people buy their fries every day."

"Did you get a free small fry, Daddy?"

"Sure did. Went to the Burger King on Pulaski Highway. Talked to Dominic Rose, the operations manager for seven Burger Kings in the Baltimore area. He was helping work the fry station; his hand was hot and pink from the heat lamp."

"Was it crowded?"

"I'll say. Rose said they went through three cases of fries during lunch. They normally only need one. He expected sales for the day to double."

"Did they need more workers?"

"Uh-huh. Rose said they usually have one person operating the fry station. On that Friday, they had three. I ran into one worker, Michele Seager, who was cleaning up the restaurant and restocking the ketchup containers for the third time in an hour. She said, 'I guarantee you that when 8 o'clock comes I'm going to have all my hair pulled out.' "

"Did people show up just for the fries?"

"Yes, as a matter of fact. JoAnn Gracki and her daughter, Karen, were shopping in the White Marsh area when they heard about the fry give-away."

"Did they like them?"

"They did. JoAnn Gracki was a McDonald's fan, but she had to admit, the Burger King fries were pretty good. I remember her exact words: 'I've got to go talk to McDonald's about this.' "

"There were so many other things to care about. Global warming, crime, Bosnia. Were people really that concerned about something as trivial as french fries?"

"Oh, my. Yes indeed. You had people loyal to Burger King and people loyal to McDonald's. McDonald's owned double the market share, but Burger King was scrappy. It produced the Big DTC King to compete with the Big Mac. So then McDonald's promoted a new sandwich in some areas to compete with the Whopper. They called it a Big Xtra."

"Sounds confusing."

"You would be amazed at how much attention we paid. Of course, you couldn't watch a television program without seeing a commercial for one of them. On the Friday they gave away the fries, you could hear people at Burger King discussing french fry texture, saltiness and overall appearance. Bob Dole didn't get that much attention when he ran for president."

"Did you like the new fries, Daddy?"

"I had to agree with Howard Keatts, a 72-year-old retired fellow from the White Marsh area who stopped in for lunch with his wife, Betty. He said he couldn't tell the difference among any of the various brands. He also said he had the secret for making good fries: 'Haul some potatoes in and cut them and fry them. I've never had anything that I thought was as good after it was frozen.' "

"How did the Great French Fry War of 1998 finally end?"

"With a whimper. After the millennium, Burger King and McDonald's focused their rivalry on the one product they sell that is the same -- Coca-Cola soft drinks. Burger King started arguing that consumers preferred the water in its ice. McDonald's countered by saying customers preferred its cube-shaped ice to Burger King's disc-shaped ice. Then, of course, mad cow disease swept in and "

"Stop right there. We don't study that until next week. What's for supper?"

C7 "Potatoes. Baked. Daddy needs to watch his sodium."

Fry Factoids

The term French fried potatoes was first recorded in 1894 by American short-story writer O. Henry; it became french fries after World War II. The term refers not to French origins, but to the French cut - lengthwise strips. More recently, it signals a very American rivalry:

Spuds used each year

McDonald's: 1.1 billion pounds

Burger King: 700 million pounds

Fries 'n' fat

McDonald's: For small

order, 68 grams of food, 210 calories, 10 fat grams.

Burger King: For small

order, 74 grams of food, 250 calories, 13 fat grams.

Overall sales, 1996

McDonald's: $32 billion

Burger King: $9.8 billion

Market share

McDonald's: 41.9 percent

Burger King: 19.2 percent

U.S. locations

McDonald's: 12,000

Burger King: 7,500

Sources: "The Diner's Dictionary" (1993, Oxford University Press); "The Food Lover's Tiptionary" (1994, Hearst Books); Burger King; McDonald's.

! Pub Date: 1/03/98

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