The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Burger King’s latest fast food monstrosity is sadly genius

Expect to see these in selected stores on Monday. (Burger King)

On Wednesday, Burger King announced a solution to eat a favorite dish -- mac 'n cheese -- on-the-go. But in doing so, it did something that seems to defy the healthy-eating moment we seemed to be in: It also announced that its deep fried sticks of macaroni cheese would be encrusted in a Cheetos-flavored shell.

As it happens, analysts say the new creation -- called Mac n’ Cheetos -- could be the best food mash-up since Taco Bell introduced in 2012 the Doritos Locos Taco shell.

Starting this coming Monday, the burger fast food chain will offer Mac n’ Cheetos in selected locations. Think mozzarella sticks, except full of gooey mac ‘n’ cheese and crust that is Cheetos powder rather than bread crumbs. They will cost $2.49 and have 310 calories -- and come with ranch dressing on the side.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest’s Xtreme Eating Awards went to nine "winning" chain restaurant meals especially high in calories, fat, sugar and salt. The Cheesecake Factory got three of them. (Video: Tom LeGro/The Washington Post)

The Mac n’ Cheetos has all the trappings of a fast-food mash-up sensation, said Bonnie Riggs, NPD Group restaurant analyst. It combines an ultra-trendy food item with a brand that has massive recognition.

“I think it’s really unique,” Riggs said. “It’s something that will appeal to their core audience of millennials and Gen Z customers.”

Mash-ups, like Taco Bell’s Taco Waffle and KFC’s Double Down, have been popular lately as fast food aims to compete with fast casual chains like Chipotle and Panera. While sales for the latter category grew by 11.4 percent last year, fast food has struggled in a space where many are demanding for healthy options with locally sourced goods.

Mac n’ Cheetos may seem like an out-there idea for a country that often claims to be watching what it eats. But what Americans say they want often doesn’t quite match up with what they purchase, said Elizabeth Friend, consumer foodservice strategy analyst at Euromonitor.

“When we are so focused on trying to make healthy decisions all the time and eating food that we can feel good about, when we do want to indulge, we want to make sure that that indulgence is worth it,” Friend said.

That’s caused fast food restaurants to go in wildly different directions. Burger King and Taco Bell aim for younger customers seeking “experience-driven foods.”

McDonald’s, which has a bigger family appeal, has pared down its offerings and improved core menu items. The company's expansion of serving breakfast all day boosted their sales in 2015 by the greatest amount in almost four years. Wendy’s, keeping pace with fast casual outlets, has expanded their artisanal selections: their pretzel bun, pricey in the fast food world at $4.69, boosted sales in 2014.

“Everyone has had to pick their lanes on how to navigate this new landscape,” Friend said.

And Burger King is doing it better than just about everyone else, Friend said. Their Halloween burger, which featured a co-branding with A1 steak sauce and a black bun, and chicken fries has generated buzz and customers alike.

Sales grew 5.7 percent last year. The amount of stores in the U.S. has remained steady at 7,100, but company executives have said they could add thousands more in the next five years. “Mac n’ Cheetos are a doubly cheesy combination of warm mac n’ cheese covered with that crispy Cheetos flavor everyone loves,” said Alex Macedo, president of Burger King North America, in a statement.

Why mash-ups work

The mash-up strategy works for fast food places in a couple of ways -- some of which don't involve the actual taste or affordability of the item. It gets restaurants buzz in social media. “Anything you can do in this point in this very, very competitive landscape to get people's attention is a win no matter what happens after that point,” Friend said.

A totally ridiculous combination helps, but so does including a brand that people already love. Burger King’s Halloween Burger gained traction not just because it had a black bun, but because it was associated with A1 steak sauce. And Taco Bell’s Doritos Locos tapped into a market that already adores Doritos.

“It really resonated with consumers,” Riggs said. “The identification is with the brand quality of the Doritos. Cheetos also have high brand recognition and high appeal.”

Combining a well-loved brand with a popular product, like mac ‘n’ cheese, generates a lot of interest. "I look at that and I think, ‘I love cheese and I love Cheetos, I love mac ‘n’ cheese, so I might give a shot," Riggs said.

But for a long-term homerun, it’s also important to ensure that the item is, well, actually good.

Taco Bell, which launched in late 2011, sold a million Doritos Locos Tacos every day as recently as 2014. Taco Bell said in 2013 that they had to hire about 15,000 employees simply to handle the rush.

But another Doritos mash-up that launched two years ago, riding on the coattails of the wildly successful Taco Bell case, did not land as well. The chain 7/11 partnered with Doritos for a $1.99 snack called Doritos Loaded. It’s a triangle of cheese deep-fried and covered in Doritos. It generated buzz, but reviewers were apathetic. It’s still in stores, though without the wild success that its ultra-popular Dorito cousin at Taco Bell experienced.

“It does actually have to be good,” Friend said. “You can get people talking about it, which is great, but it has to deliver on the quality side.”