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I have never heard of a QSR chain that set out to create a food product that garnered a cult-like following — and I have worked for eight with some of the leading chains. These one-of-a-kind products just seem to happen to the surprise of everyone.

A recent article that ran on authored by Shannon Witte listed a few of these products. It was titled "Food items that create fanatical cult-like followers" (Dec. 21, 2012). A few of those unique products included: KFC Double Down Sandwich, seasonal Starbucks' and Dunkin; Donuts Pumpkin Coffees and Lattes, Sonic's Cherry Limeade, McDonald's McRib sandwich and apple pie and Taco Bell's Beefy Crunch Burrito and Doritos Locos Taco (a personal favorite). Other products I would include are Wendy's Frosty, Dairy Queen's Blizzard, etc.

What creates the cult-like following?

The answer to this question is something every marketing executive wish they understood. But when it happens, a restaurant chain hits the jackpot. In my judgment, it begins with a truly unique food product that people crave — but has limited availability. At other times it might represent a food item with tremendous "Q Value" that gets reluctant consumers to buy it and try it.

Popcorn Chicken phenomena

I was fortunate enough to lead the internal development of Popcorn Chicken at KFC. The Popcorn Chicken phenomena started with an uneventful presentation by the inventor named Gene Gagliardi. We dropped a few of his hand-prepared samples into the fryer, and the rest is history. By some estimates, it generated $20 million gross sales in a 6-week LTO promotion, and represents over $1 billion in yearly international sales. At the time, it wasn't on the radar screen of any mid-level manager or executive because no one saw its potential — except for me! But it filled a "snack moment" category that was just beginning to unfold in the QSR industry. I remember marketing personnel struggling to position the product as a snack on the menu.

Does a new cult-like food product qualify as "Food Innovation?"

I believe it does, because it originates as a first time unique product. It is more than an "incremental innovation" or line extension, and it falls into the "disruptive innovation" bucket because it is truly unique — a product that never existed before. To further authenticate the innovation "I Factor," we had to create unique new equipment, packaging and other support to sustain sales.

What is the business role of new cult-like food products?

First and foremost, they drive brand value as the enormous consumer base recognizes and assigns value to the new product developed by a particular company. Second, it drives repeat business more than any one particular existing menu food product. Third, it creates a platform for new line extensions. And fourth, it fills a coveted marketing calendar slot for a product that can be promoted on a yearly basis.

Finally, how to drive innovative new products.

Fortunately, there are new product innovation processes that a company can implement. Innovation in some industries outside the food industry are building entirely new value propositions for innovative new products, and identifying key performance metrics to measure the "innovative process" progression and success in their company.

For more information on implementing a "New Product Innovation Culture in your company, Food Technical Consulting ( is providing on-site hands-on corporate 2-day workshops and coaching sessions — and a yearly 3-day industry workshop in Denver on "Food innovation Business Principles: How to apply food innovation to your new product development process," March 18 - 20, 2013. Please contact me at or 303-471-1443. A course manual will be available for sale to international small business operators who cannot attend.

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User Comments – Give us your opinion!
  • Richard Axton
    "a truly unique food product that people crave" - if that isn't the most accurate description of the Beefy Crunch Burrito, I don't know what is.
  • robert sulick
    We continue to see efforts by the QSR segment to find ways to bring processed foods to the table that capture the addictive tendencies of the population.

    Are you guys seriously proud and happy about the food you cook and serve?

    Working in QSR and Casual dining is like being a dope pedler to is driving health care costs through the roof.
  • robert sulick
    Addictions to food are as bad as drugs and alcohol.

    Unless the author and the company leaders are also eating these foods every day...I am not certain they are aware of the sad implications of "crave categories"...

    Processed foods...and your apparent happiness that we have populations that buy them almost exclusively... is a major problem in the food is wreaking havoc on our health care system...and knowing the targetted poulations for products like fried chicken are the lower income and education tiers speaks volumes about the issues we have in this country...

    I just don't see how you can go to work every day and say this is a product you can be proud of. Find a product that is good for you and build that into an industry...then go home and look in the mirror...

    We have a long way to go.
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Latest posts by Darrel Suderman
Darrel Suderman
Darrel Suderman, Ph.D., is president of Food Technical Consulting and founder of Food Innovation Institute. He has held senior R&D/QA leadership positions at KFC, Boston Market, Church's Chicken and Quiznos and led KFC’s development team of “Popcorn Chicken”, now a $1B international product –invented by Gene Gagliardi.
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