Americans are creatures of habit, and the old reliable, tried-and-true menu items at our favorite fast food joints are the staples that keep us steadily rolling through drive-thrus across the country. But every now and then, a new fast food delectable is introduced, like stunt food, that piques our curiosity and promises a decadent, one-of-a-kind dining experience. And since Americans also love novelty, we flock to the restaurant in droves to check it out.
Case in point is Taco Bell’s Doritos Locos Taco, or DLT. This bright-orange bad boy quickly became the restaurant’s best-selling menu item of all time, and it had far-reaching consequences: After selling 100 million DLTs in just ten weeks, Taco Bell hired an additional 15,000 workers to handle the growth in business this tasty treat precipitated.
These freaky, fun and fanciful foods are known as stunt foods, and they serve to jolt us out of our fast-food coma and into some technicolor commercial where everyone’s dancing and laughing while chomping down on the likes of which you’ve never seen. The catch is that it’s usually available for a limited time only, which makes the feeding frenzy all that more urgent and decadent.
The Draw of Stunt Foods
So why do we love stunt foods so much? Barb Stuckey, a food industry expert and author of Taste: Surprising Stories and Science About Why Food Tastes Good, says it may have to do in part with the fact that people are so tired of hearing about how obese we are as a nation and how poor our food choices tend to be that they enjoy stunt foods as a release from the fear-mongering about our diet and our health. They may view indulging in a decadent treat as giving the middle finger to all the naysayers and health nuts who would like to see fast food go down in flames, replaced by quinoa and leafy greens.
Other experts claim that stunt foods are essential for keeping fast food restaurants relevant. The spirit of competition among fast food joints mandates that if you don’t innovate, you’re relegated to the “has-been” pile. Folks lose interest, sales drop, stores close, and that’s the end of that.
How Stunt Foods Come Into Being
Research and development is a major part of every fast food company’s business model. Product development teams are under a great deal of pressure to invent something that will appeal to customers’ preference for novelty, create a big buzz on social media, drive up sales, and keep the company firmly on consumers’ radar.
Once a brainstorming team hatches a brilliant idea–think El Pollo Loco’s Chocolate Nachos or Burger King’s Mac ‘N Cheetos–a great deal of planning, experimenting, testing and tweaking goes on behind the scenes. Food scientists with degrees in culinary science, chemistry, nutrition, and other specialized areas work hard to make sure the food looks good, tastes great, has a pleasant smell and ranks high on “mouth feel” and texture. Test kitchens are abuzz as focus groups and market tests guide the process until the item is proclaimed a success and put up on menus nationwide. This process can take a year or more, finally culminating in a new product that’s the subject of expensive marketing campaigns and social media blitzes.
The result is a novelty item that bolsters sales, drives scores of customers in to try something new and exciting, and keeps the company current in the minds of consumers. So next time you hear of a new, crazy menu item you can’t wait to try, pause for a moment and give silent props to the wild, innovative minds and talents that came together to make it happen.