Another fast food giant is dragging the good name of barbecue through the sauce. Late last week, Wendy’s announced their new line of pulled pork menu items: the predictable pulled pork sandwich with slaw; a pulled pork-topped burger; and pulled pork cheese fries—all served with your choice of three barbecue sauces. Barbecue lovers rejoice? Well, not really, but that was how Wendy’s titled their press release that announced this latest menu rollout. They also hinted at their “inspiration from local barbecue spots.” No word from corporate yet if “local” refers to the area surrounding their headquarters of Dublin, Ohio, or somewhere closer to Memphis.
As expected, there have been some negative reactions to this latest menu reveal:
I don’t want to eat BBQ pulled pork from Wendy’s for the same reason I don’t want to listen to Katy Perry covering Beethoven.
— numberFire (@numberFire) September 26, 2014
But an undeterred Wendy recently launched an advertising campaign that includes a television commercial that strives for sincerity, but falls far short with insulting statements like “Barbecue has a new home.” I spotted a billboard with this slogan east of Fort Worth and almost caused an accident. Even worse, these barbecue interlopers want you to believe that they are somehow democratizing barbecue. In an ad for “barbecue accessibility” that features Texas native “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, Ralph Macchio (the Karate Kid), and Alfonso Ribeiro (Carlton from the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air) they push the new Wendy’s Twitter hashtag #BBQ4MERICA. That tongue-in-cheek commercial along with a WhiteHouse.gov petition to recognize barbecue as the “National Dish of America” are just a few techniques Wendy’s is using to deflect their blatant commodification of American—particularly Southern—barbecue culture.
The ad campaign got even more laughable when “Stone Cold” Steve Austin got a little zealous with the product placement possibilities in a recent interview. He told USA Today how he wished he could have another match with Brock Lesnar.
“And make it a BBQ-pulled-pork-sandwich-from-Wendy’s-on-a-pole match, where the winner would have to climb up the pole to eat the BBQ pulled pork sandwich and be the victor. There’s no way—no way!—that Brock Lesnar could win that match…When it comes time to try to get a BBQ pulled pork on a pole, I’m gonna win.”
Through #BBQ4MERICA, Wendy’s also found an unlikely ally for barbecue accessibility in the form of frozen ribs:
Wendy’s needs barbecue while the term is still fashionable. Their profits are down six percent this year, and have barely budged since tanking in April. They need to jump on the barbecue bandwagon now before companies like it and Arby’s dilute its image down to a mere representation of barbecue. That way they can attract new customers with a hot new menu item. It also helps their bottom line. While beef prices continue to rise sharply, pork prices have a flatter trajectory, but it’s hard to raise the price on a cheap burger that everyone is conditioned to value at no more than a dollar. The $4.49 pulled pork sandwich comes in for the rescue. But just how cheaply are they getting that pork?
In a profile of the new menu items, Wendy’s VP of culinary development, Lori Estrada, told Fast Company‘s Chris Gayomali, “That’s 100-percent pork cushion. It’s been smoked for somewhere between 8 to 12 hours.” Gayomali was invited to Wendy’s “Innovation Center” to taste the new items, but didn’t recall where the meat was being smoked. According to his notes, Wendy’s has five smokehouses across the country providing their stores with pre-smoked, pulled pork cushion.
The cushion is cut #405B from the picnic. It’s the tricep muscle taken from just below the pork butt. I asked a major D/FW food distributor if they sold much cushion meat. They told me that despite the inexpensive cost, they only have three restaurants in the entire region that order it, and none of it is used for barbecue. But at just $1.62 per pound on the wholesale market (pork butt is $2.52 per pound), as compared to $2.80 per pound for fresh ground beef, there’s no wonder why Wendy’s targeted this cut. Barbecue accessibility, my butt. There’s just not as much money in slinging burgers.
As a barbecue evangelist, I do feel a twinge of complicity given how much I’ve worked to raise the profile of barbecue, but my goal has always been to seek out and champion the art of smoked meats, not provide a path for cheap imitations to sully the market.
As for barbecue having a new home, it’s up to the rest of us to show Wendy’s that barbecue was just fine living where it was. These menu items are being tested nationwide for the next two months, and no, I will not be reviewing it. I implore you to spend that $4.49 at a local, independent barbecue joint instead, because then maybe Wendy’s will realize that barbecue isn’t just another horse to ride to profitability. In the words of barbecue legend Mike Mills, “Barbecue is a culture, not a concept.”
You see, Wendy’s, barbecue has history. It is a part of us and our community, not just a menu item. You can compile a few ingredients and make a pork sandwich, but Wendy’s, you’re not doing barbecue or its fans any favors, and you can’t recreate tradition by checking off a simple grocery list.