Burger King on the Bone: A Rib Success Story

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Courtesy Burger King

Given how often food writers hail a new era of healthy eating for America, it's odd how every few months there seems to be another explosive fast-food-product launch, resulting in near riotous enthusiasm. KFC practically ignited World War III with free coupons for its grilled chicken; the company's surreal Double Down bunless "sandwich" received a likewise deafening response. June brought us Burger King's out-of-nowhere experiment with pork ribs, which turned out to be so spectacularly successful that the chain sold 10 million of them and ran low on ribs a week before it planned to end the limited-time offer. Reaction from the business press was almost breathless in its admiration. "BK Ribs So Hot They're Nearly Sold Out," ran the headline on MSN.

That surprised a lot of people, including me. For one thing, ribs seemed to be way, way outside Burger King's core competency, which is usually a recipe for disaster with something as tricky as barbecue. Moreover, the relatively tiny portions cost a lot by fast-food standards: more than $7 per order. That ends up being a little less than a dollar for each St. Louis–style sparerib, which is essentially a thumb-size object that is mostly bone. Even a runway model couldn't fill up on an eight-pack of these hors d'oeuvres. I would wager that most customers hedged their bets with a double cheeseburger, as I did. But I would also wager that they were taken quite by surprise at how much better the ribs were than anyone had a right to expect. (Nobody is overly pleased by the cost, which is a sop to franchises going broke from having to sell double cheeseburgers for $1. A popular, high-margin item was just what they needed to keep them happy.) Burger King was as surprised as everyone else. "We began to run out of the packaging for the larger portions within the first few weeks," says John Schaufelberger, senior vice president of global product marketing and innovation. Even Burger King didn't think people would be eager to pay almost $8 for cut ribs! But they were. And the reason may well have been that the ribs were not three times removed from their animal origins; they were much closer to food as it exists in the real world. That was their appeal, I think — but also the problem for Burger King and the rest of the fast-food industry.

Ribs are tough things to cook. They have a bone in them, which stays cold for a lot longer than the meat does and makes the preparation time-consuming. And a rib is part of an animal's body; it wasn't engineered to be cooked fast, like a hamburger. It's curved and uneven, and even when you trim it and chop it up, it still doesn't behave as obediently as, say, a chicken nugget. Historically, most restaurants have solved the problem by simmering ribs in some treacly ketchup-like sauce for hours at a time, so that they are essentially stewed and can "fall off the bone," which is what people who have eaten only stewed ribs think ribs are supposed to do. Ribs like that have hardly any pork flavor left; all anyone tastes is the sauce.

The Burger King ribs, at least the ones I bought, weren't all firm, but some were, and they had only the lightest of glazes — less even than you see in Chinese takeout ribs, which is what they most resembled. It wasn't Memphis in May, but this was undeniably meat — it had grain; it had resistance and precious pockets of fat here and there. Unlike its historical precedent, the bizarrely boneless McRib, it represented a willingness to engage with actual animal parts. Burger King used what it called its "game-changing" broiler to cook them, which is a vastly underrated way to cook ribs, even at home.

But when you start cooking bone-on animal parts, you run into trouble. Kentucky Fried Chicken has spent 50 years perfecting moisture-controlled holding ovens, but one van full of hungry Deadheads can clear an oven out of chicken, and it takes 20 minutes to make a fresh batch. That might not sound like much, but it's an eternity in the fast-food world. A drive-through tries to get everybody through in five minutes. If it takes 10, and there are three cars, the guy in back has to wait half an hour to get his food. And that can't happen; he'll drive away, or maybe even open fire on the staff. And then there's the question of getting the pork for a business that sells 10 million ribs in less than a month. That's a lot of pigs. When you look at these ribs, even pieced together, they're small; you can imagine how young the pigs must be that get recruited for this kind of mass-consumption duty. To push that many pigs out the door, let's just say that they're not likely to be treated like Wilbur or Babe.

Burger King deserves credit for trying something hard and making a success of it. The company did something it didn't have to, and Americans stepped up too, paying more for less food because they liked it better. But I suspect it will be hard for Burger King to stay in the rib business long; the less physically connected food is to actual animals — the less it resembles its four-legged source — the easier it is to process, supply, cook and form into marketable shapes and flavors. The fact that the company introduced a product that wasn't perfectly uniform, and that supply ran out early, was the best thing about Burger King's rib experiment. (The company is regrouping after its maiden rib run, which ended last month, and has yet to announce future rib plans.) We can only hope for more of these endeavors from the big chains. Eating animals is supposed to be tricky.

Josh Ozersky is a James Beard Award—winning food writer and the author of The Hamburger: A History. His food video site, Ozersky.TV, is updated daily. He is currently at work on a biography of Colonel Sanders.