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Wendy’s new French toast sticks simply don’t stack up to Burger King’s

French toast sticks from Burger King, left, and Wendy's, which recently rolled out the menu item. (Rey Lopez for The Washington Post/Food styling by Nicola Justine Davis for The Washington Post)

The smell.

I don’t know what it is exactly, but the funk hits my nostrils like an 18-wheeler filled with maple syrup, wet dogs and old fryer oil. I haven’t even taken a bite of one of the new homestyle French toast sticks at Wendy’s, and I’m already regretting the purchase. My car is starting to smell like rancid fat dipped in Mrs. Butterworth’s.

Wendy’s introduced the French toast sticks on Monday, part of the chain’s play to grab a larger piece of the fast-food breakfast market. If you’ll recall, Wendy’s was late to the game: The chain debuted its breakfast menu in March 2020, just as the pandemic was settling in for the long haul. When almost everyone started working from home, folks had little need for a morning sandwich from the drive-through, and breakfast sales dropped accordingly.

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But more than two years after Wendy’s went after America’s breakfast dollar, it has reaped the rewards. By the end of this year, morning sales could account for 10 percent of revenue, according to the reporting of one industry publication. Wendy’s, in fact, is breathing down Burger King’s neck for second place in the breakfast category among burger chains. “Our first job is to leave them behind, which we’re very confident that we’re going to be able to do here in the not-too-distant future,” Kurt Kane, Wendy’s U.S. president and chief commercial officer, told CNBC in March.

The new French toast sticks are part of Wendy’s attempt at regicide. If my tastings are any indication, the King will survive this early-morning coup. Perhaps just as important, Burger King is trying to outflank the enemy during the Syrup Wars: Through August, the chain is offering Royal Perks members free French toast sticks with a $1 purchase on the BK app.

The sales gimmick is, frankly, not necessary.

Even if you can get past the unprovoked stink attack, Wendy’s sticks are no match for those at Burger King. Which is not that surprising. Burger King’s version has stood the test of time. They’ve been on the menu since the mid-1980s, when the Wendy’s mascot still looked like Pippi Longstocking on the set of “Gunsmoke.”

I’m no expert on Burger King’s French toast sticks. I couldn’t remember the last time I had ordered some. I have no idea how they have evolved over nearly four decades. According to one news source, the chain was bragging in 1986 about its “dripless maple syrup-like” sauce, a description that must strike the ear of the average Vermonter like an ax handle. (The “syrup” in this ’80s-era commercial looks like Log Cabin cut with a gallon of New York City tap water.)

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The item’s history doesn’t matter that much, I guess. As with life, all we have is the now, and the French toast sticks that I sampled recently at a Burger King near my home were everything I’d want in portable breakfast snacks: The thick strips of bread, coated and crispy, are sweeter and more cinnamon-y than those at Wendy’s, even without a dip in the syrup. But the thing that separates BK’s version is its crunch. The French toast sticks have a craggy exterior, not unlike the coating of fried chicken, with little nubbins that crackle under tooth.

I have no idea how Burger King prepares its sticks. An email to a publicist for the chain went unanswered. But my colleague Aaron Hutcherson suspects the secret may be feuilletine flakes, broken bits of crepes dentelle cookies that may be mixed into the egg dip. If Aaron’s theory is correct, Burger King’s French toast may be the first in history to earn its name.

The Wendy’s interpretation doesn’t pass the sniff test. Literally. I still can’t get this smell off my tongue, even after a cup of coffee, an Italian cold-cut sandwich for lunch and a double espresso. The smell lingers like a bad memory.

The flavor and texture of Wendy’s sticks are not bad, once you hold your nose and dive in. They’re chewier than BK’s, like a cross between mochi doughnuts and classic French toast. They’re also served with Mrs. Butterworth’s, a thicker and stickier syrup than the brand version from Burger King. I’m told that Wendy’s flash-fries its version in the restaurant before serving. I suspect that’s where this thing goes off the rails, the victim of bad oil or something.

I tried another Wendy’s location the following day, just to see if the results would vary. The smell was still present but more muted. It didn’t take over whatever room you occupied, but you could sense it once you waved a stick under your nose.

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This time around, I had a better idea of what, I think, Wendy’s is chasing: A French toast stick that behaves like fried plantains — that is, sweet, caramelized logs, with lush interiors and crispy edges. Something, I suspect, is going haywire in the frying process, an interaction that leads to those off-putting aromas. Is the oil not hot enough, thereby clinging to the sticks and leaving behind the flavors of whatever was fried in it previously? Were they fried too long?

Whatever the issue, Wendy’s should take the time to figure it out. I suspect Burger King’s French toast sticks didn’t strike all the right notes when they debuted, either. Just recall those words from 1986: dripless maple-syrup-like sauce.