Fast food appeals to many people. Trying to understand why, I’ve been visiting some of the companies that make it in Miami. Generally, I’ve been disappointed.
My fast food past
Growing up in suburban St. Louis, I had close by within driving distance on Manchester Road an early Steak ‘n Shake that my father liked, an early McDonald’s several miles to the east, and in Brentwood my favorite, Carl's Drive In, an A&W Root Beer stand. At that time Carl’s served foot-long hot dogs and cold root beer in a fishbowl glass.
The Steak ‘n Shake is gone. I don’t know about the McDonald’s, but Carl’s Drive In is still there, offering cold root beer – without the fishbowl.
I don’t remember the specials that seem now to come and go on a daily basis.
Today’s fast food outlets
Today, fast food restaurants are desperately trying to create new menu items and de-emphasize their dependence on beef hamburgers.
A sub-category, fast casual sit-down restaurants, includes Steak ‘n Shake and Johnny Rockets. Steak ‘n Shake hamburgers are not what they used to be. Johnny Rockets hamburgers are better than most.
The fast casual sit-down restaurants are slightly more expensive, but often they are the freshest healthy alternatives to traditional fast food. Two of the better national examples are Panera Bread and Subway, neither of which sells hamburgers.
We like to eat in Panera Bread stores. They are fast casual sit-down restaurants with friendly staff, known for quality baked goods, free-ranging chicken, fresh vegetables, salads, and soups. They have whole wheat and multigrain breads. Wendy’s tried whole wheat bread and a salad bar years ago, but both are long gone.
A headline on a recent story in Yahoo! Finance read: “Wendy’s developed this new flatbread to crush Panera Bread.” Wendy’s would like to be like be a casual dining restaurant like Panera Bread. Wendy’s is not.
Tweaking the menu
Fast food restaurants compete by holding prices while reducing the size of their hamburger patties; by offering limited-time chicken, turkey, and fish specials; and by duplicating each other’s specials. Limited means just that. The chains spend a lot of money teaching consumers about new products, and then within a few weeks they are gone.
My husband found a chicken mozzarella sandwhich he liked at a local Wendy’s. He ordered it twice. I wanted to try it and the restaurant was out of the ingredients. My husband came back for a third time and the special had ended, with nothing to replace it that met his diet requirements. He had a similar experience with McDonald’s fish bites.
What is offered these days seldom looks like the television ads or the pictures in the restaurant. I purchased a special hamburger in a local Burger King. It was a great deal smaller than its photo suggested, and tasted like sawdust. A friend who is a fast-food industry veteran suggested that it had sat too long waiting to be purchased and was dried out.
I ordered a tangy pineapple chicken wrap from the Coconut Grove Pollo Tropical. It was small, tasteless, and had almost nothing in it. I saw another sandwich at another Pollo Tropical in Aventura that was small but actually looked a bit like the photographs. My daughter likes their Tangy Pineapple Chicken Salad. She says it’s ample, tasty, and filling.
My best advice is to stick to chains and locally owned establishments you can trust. Watch the food other people are ordering before you buy. Then complain if the food is not what you expected. Never be afraid to send it back.
McDonald’s has served breakfast for a long time. When traveling, if nothing else was around, we would stop there for breakfast. Now McDonald’s is considering doing breakfast all day. Other companies, including Panera and Dunkin Donuts stop breakfast service at a set time.
McDonald’s 1/3 pound Angus Beef Burger is going away. Rising beef prices make serving this item unprofitable. Drought in the Corn Belt, corn-based products being converted to ethanol to fuel cars, and the demand by cultures that depend on corn for their daily food all are having an impact. This year the price of an ear of corn, whether organic or conventional, is high and some of the corn available has been tough and tasteless.
With prices rising, the beef industry wants federal lands on which wild mustangs roam to be converted to cattle range. The mustangs are being rounded up and auctioned off.
Science fiction often foretells what could happen. SeaQuest 2032 (1993-1996) on NBC also known as "SeaQuest DSV" had an episode when one of the characters, against regulations, cooked a real hamburger in his room. A family member sent him the meat. He was caught. How soon will real beef be so expensive and hard to get that most people will not be able to afford it or obtain it?
What we like
My daughter and I have together and independently visited the following restaurants for hamburgers more than once. They are consistent, with friendly staff and a quality product.
Three hamburgers we like are the Texas Burger at Flanigan’s, a South Florida chain of 23 restaurants; Johnny Rockets based in Aliso Viejo, CA; and 5 Napkin Grill on Lincoln Road in Miami Beach and in New York City.
We have visited other fast food and fast casual sit-down restaurants in Miami-Dade County, but they tend not to be consistent and often could not get our hamburger orders correct.
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