Square Roots: How Wendy's Focus on Quality Hearkens Back to Its Founding

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Since its founding by Dave Thomas in 1969, the Wendy’s Co. has served consumers by focusing on using quality fresh ingredients without cutting corners off anything, including its never-frozen beef.

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December 13, 2021

Jorge Hernandez, vice president of quality assurance
Photo By Jodi Miller

Dragging a Wendy’s french fry through a Frosty just needs to work.

If that slender rectangle of potato isn’t hot and crispy enough, if that Frosty is so cold it’s solid, if all of these things don’t come together, the consumer won’t experience the bewitching combination of salty and sweet, crispy and creamy, hot and cold.

John Li, vice president of culinary innovation at the Wendy’s Co., admits that wasn’t happening 100% of the time with the quick-service restaurant chain’s old fry, which was developed in 2010.

“We knew we had the opportunity to create better fries to do that drag across a Frosty,” he said, sitting in a conference room near Wendy’s Culinary Innovation Kitchen at its Dublin, Ohio, headquarters. “This is one of those products that touches 90% of all orders.”

For two years, Li’s team, in tandem with Wendy’s quality assurance team led by Jorge Hernandez, vice president of quality assurance, worked to develop a french fry that would hold its own against a Frosty, a long drive home from the pickup window or a slightly behind delivery driver.

The process for developing the new fries involved looking at a new battering system. Go heavy on the batter, and the inside won’t be nearly as fluffy. Too light on the batter, and you lose the crispiness.

 

“All the research we did, we found that our fans love the idea of something that’s fluffy, hot and moist on the inside, crispy on the outside,” said Li, who has worked for brands such as Bloomin’ Brands International and Kraft Foods and joined Wendy’s in 2019.

Striving to improve the customer experience and deliver what they want is ingrained at Wendy’s. Since its founding in 1969, the company Dave Thomas started with a single restaurant in downtown Columbus, Ohio, with the promise of fresh, never-frozen beef, has been committed to the idea that people deserve better.

“When we say, ‘Quality is Our Recipe,’ that’s more than a slogan that hangs on the door. It’s been part of Wendy’s since day No. 1.”

— Liliana Esposito, Wendy’s chief corporate affairs and sustainability officer

 

In a world where consumers are more interested than ever in knowing their food is made from the freshest ingredients possible, Wendy’s, which has more than 6,800 restaurants globally, has already been able to take advantage of what it’s always been doing. Revenue has gone up each year between 2018 and 2020. In August of this year, the company reported a 17.4% global increase in same-restaurant sales for the second quarter of 2021.

And the company is taking that success and reinvesting it. While other firms have reduced resources in certain departments — such as quality assurance — due in part to the pandemic, Wendy’s has brought in more people, even hiring some of those professionals who left other companies. The company also redesigned its Culinary Innovation Kitchen earlier this year, making it more friendly for collaboration with a more modern, open floor plan and tools to make it easy to connect remotely.

It should make the kind of collaboration responsible for launching the new french fries — and before that an entirely new breakfast menu — smoother than a Frosty.

“The french fries are another example of our close partnership with [the innovation team],” said Hernandez, who is a Quality Assurance & Food Safety magazine advisory board member.

In fact, each culinary innovation team member had a quality assurance counterpart all the way through the fries’ development. The teams worked together to feed information to suppliers on how to make sure the fries matched Wendy’s requirements for safety and quality. Putting their money where their mouth is, the company announced its Hot & Crispy Fry Guarantee, promising to replace an order of fries for free if a customer isn’t satisfied.

“Quality was the biggest driver,” Hernandez said. “They have to taste very close, even though the suppliers have different processes. We work with them to develop those and to make sure that they were executed the right way at each of the facilities.”

That collaboration aspect wouldn’t work without efforts at the top from Li and Hernandez, who both started at Wendy’s on the same day in 2019.

“John and Jorge are probably two of the closest partners in the company,” said Liliana Esposito, chief corporate affairs and sustainability officer at Wendy’s. “They have to be. When we say, ‘Quality is Our Recipe,’ that’s more than a slogan that hangs on the door. It’s been part of Wendy’s since day No. 1.”

Sometimes, recipes don’t result in a winning dish the first time out.

Before the successful launch of breakfast in early 2020, Wendy’s had tried to add breakfast to its offerings a handful of times throughout the years only to abandon it for a variety of reasons.

“Our operators who were in the system at that time would tell you it was pretty complicated,” said Esposito, who has been with Wendy’s for seven years. “There were different pieces of equipment that had to be used for breakfast and weren’t used the rest of the day. And I also think we tried to test our way into it. We launched in a couple of markets to see how that did, and from a competitive perspective, candidly, that just wasn’t a winning proposition for us.”

But Esposito said the company knew breakfast made good business sense. It was a growing part of the day, especially for competitors in the quick-service restaurant space. The key, she said, would be to place a high premium on its partnerships with franchisees.

“The Wendy’s way was to be collaborative on this,” Esposito said. “For breakfast in particular, there was some history there, and so we really needed franchisees who had negative experiences with breakfast to be part of the team.”

It took about six months to figure out what to offer, and the end result is a menu that features breakfast sandwiches on biscuits and croissants, seasoned potatoes and morning-style takes on Wendy’s classics, such as cold brew coffee with Frosty-flavored cream and a Baconator made with grilled sausage, bacon and egg.

“Then it took us another 18 months to be ready to launch because we really wanted to bring the system along,” Esposito said. “What we ultimately wanted was a breakfast program that had a delicious, absolutely best-in-class menu, but was operationally very simple.”

The system didn’t require any new equipment for franchisees, and even new small wares for breakfast were funded by Wendy’s. It was also built for drive-thru, so dining rooms didn’t have to open too early.

“What we found with our breakfast is that it’s the highest customer satisfaction scores of our entire day,” Esposito said. “We built it with the end result in mind and with the consumer and the operator as the focus.”

But adding that many new menu items also potentially means new suppliers, or new items from existing supply chain partners. For example, serving breakfast meant a big increase in the number of fresh eggs each restaurant would need. The Breakfast Baconator comes with a Swiss cheese hollandaise sauce, which was a new product they’d need.

That’s where Hernandez and his team come in. After Li’s team develops a new product, they’ll communicate to Hernandez’s team and Wendy’s buying group, QSCC, what they need — a specific sauce or kind of cheese, perhaps. The quality assurance team and the buyer team will then look into where they can source that product from, whether it’s a supplier who is already in the Wendy’s supply chain co-op or a new one. If it’s a new supplier, the co-op needs to get approval from quality assurance to make sure they meet specifications and requirements.

“In most cases, each line that produces our products is a part of that,” Hernandez said. “We require certain measurements and tests to ensure continuous compliance. Consistency and transparency are very, very important. And if they do that, they get rewarded with the business.”

About once a week, the Wendy’s quality assurance team gets all chefy.

In a kitchen on the second floor at Wendy’s headquarters, the team cooks up a rotating selection of food. On the menu today are fresh, never-frozen beef hamburger patties, breaded chicken filets, french fries, bacon, buns and chili.

Laid out on trays on a long table flanked on one side by walk-in coolers, and on the other by a wall adorned with “Quality Assurance” in big letters, each cooked product rests on a sheet of parchment paper with a note that lets the team know from which supplier it came.

The quality assurance team, which includes more than 20 full-time employees, is looking, measuring, comparing and, of course, tasting. They’re making sure that each product meets their specifications in areas such as texture, color and taste. It’s another in a list of ways to continually monitor suppliers for quality.

The Wendy's quality assurance team gets real-time data from every truck that’s on the road carrying Wendy’s products via a map with plot points on it.
Each point is a truck.

"We’re consistently making sure that it’s safe, it was produced right and that it was delivered right,” Hernandez said. “With the rollout of breakfast, or any other rollout, those are the things we continue to do to keep track and make sure we are delivering on that promise of consistency.”

But Hernandez pointed out that as new regulations and risks emerge, he and his team have been exploring new tools. For example, they’ve been using a digital vision machine that measures length, width and thickness of products as they’re produced. The system is being implemented across Wendy’s suppliers.

“It allows us to make sure that we have the tightest specification possible and handle any deviations,” Hernandez said.

The system feeds data back to Wendy’s allowing them to track, in real time, specifications on everything from buns to chicken filets, beef patties, french fries and more. If a supplier is producing too-thick filets or too-short french fries, the quality assurance team will work with the supplier to get back on track, and, if there’s no improvement, remove them as a supplier.

The quality assurance team also gets real-time data from every truck that’s on the road carrying Wendy’s products via a map with (slowly moving) plot points on it. Each point (of several dozen) is a truck. They can also see what the current temperature is for that truck to make sure whatever it’s carrying is at the optimal temperature range. If the temperature goes too high or too low, the team gets a notification, which gives them a chance to investigate the cause. If a truck runs out of diesel fuel (meaning no refrigeration), and the product spends too much time above the proper temperature, a member of the quality assurance team can alert the receiver and tell them not to accept the delivery.

Hernandez is also excited about another new tool that involves using Google Glass, a lightweight wearable device that you don like a pair of glasses that displays information on a transparent screen in front of you. In distribution centers or at a supplier, the glasses give the user a hands-free solution for doing audits, with specifications such as temperature and more being displayed on the screen.

“Those tools allow us to think differently about how we do the job,” Hernandez said. “Because if we are relying on the way we did it five or 10 years ago with the scope of what we’re trying to do, we wouldn’t be able to do it.”

The new tools are paying off.

“We have added more suppliers in the last year than we have ever had, and we have been delivering consistently across all the metrics,” Hernandez said. “So, it’s very, very exciting.”

Wendy’s is also using some of these new tools to improve quality and food safety in its restaurants. Google Glass, for example, can also be used in training, such as displaying how to build a hamburger or even checking to make sure the user washed their hands properly before interacting with food.

Wendy’s also uses data from the restaurants to make sure they are meeting expectations for food safety and quality. The team uses twice-yearly food safety assessments, using the time in between to learn about what the data is telling them, such as areas of strength or opportunity. The quality assurance, operations and training teams will get together and look at possible equipment, process or training improvements.

“We’re very lucky that we work very closely with our franchisee groups,” said Hernandez. “We develop training and communications that go to the field that say, ‘Look, this is how we’re going to do it. You have to move from here to here. And these are the reasons why.’ Those are the kinds of things that we embed into the entire way that we work.”

There’s a room in Wendy’s headquarters that employees call Dave’s Office. The room, actually founder Dave Thomas’ former office, now serves as a small meeting room and is home to cabinets full of items such as honorary Key to the City awards given to Wendy’s by places such as Bowling Green, Ohio, Nashville, Tenn., and dozens more.

On a nearby wall are a slew of framed documents honoring Thomas’ advocacy for adoption. Thomas, who was adopted as an infant, started the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption in 1992, which funds adoption professionals dedicated to finding loving, permanent homes for children waiting in foster care.

Framed against that legacy, it’s easy to see folks such as Hernandez, Li and Esposito carrying forward the ideas of customer-first, quality and doing things the right way. You can also see it in the corporate social responsibility initiatives the company has launched.

Wendy’s is no stranger to this area. In 2001, it launched its Animal Welfare Council and Animal Welfare Program, which were developed with support and partnership from Temple Grandin, a Quality Assurance & Food Safety magazine advisory board member. In 2018, the council was expanded to include experts from academia, animal agriculture, veterinary medicine and animal care to provide a diversity of perspectives.

“Now [because of breakfast], we have an egg expert,” Esposito said. “We never needed an egg expert.”

And Esposito beams with pride at other initiatives Wendy’s is undertaking. The company has publicly committed to responsibly sourcing its top 10 food categories by 2030, to increasing the representation of underrepresented populations such as women and people of color across the organization and to sustainably source all consumer-facing packaging by 2026. Esposito said Wendy’s is also setting a science-based target for reducing its greenhouse gas emissions, and that it will recognize suppliers who go above and beyond when it comes to these areas as well.

“The landscape and expectations around corporate responsibility has really risen by customers, by other stakeholders — certainly by investors for those of us that live in the world of publicly traded companies,” she said. “There are risks that are emerging, whether it’s climate or other environmental or social impacts. There’s just a greater awareness that those of us that do any kind of commercial activity have to take on the responsibility of asking, ‘What is our role in all of that?’ ”

Esposito never met Thomas, who died in 2002. But she thinks what the company is doing now is, in part, carrying on his legacy.

“I don’t think you would have ever heard him talk about the science of food safety or quality,” she said. “But there was a commitment from the very beginning that people just deserve better. And if we don’t feel like we can proudly talk to our customers about how we’re making their food, then we shouldn’t be doing it that way.”