Today in Tedium: The talk of fast food in recent weeks has been two seemingly unrelated phenomena. The first is the growing interest in realistic vegetarian meat such as the Impossible Whopper and the Beyond Burger. The other reflects a more basic desire: The desire for a really good chicken sandwich, with Popeyes usurping the “best chicken sandwich” throne from Chick-Fil-A seemingly out of nowhere. One has a lot to do with innovation, laboratories, and the language of science; the other seems like a stroke of luck on the part of a company that found a way to sell high-quality chicken sandwiches, a food considered table stakes by many. But what if I told you the chicken sandwich was once an area as ripe with innovation as the Silicon Valley veggie burger? It’s true, and it’s just one of the fast food patents we’re going to talk about in tonight’s Tedium. — Ernie @ Tedium
Today’s Tedium is getting a push from Walt Hickey’s Numlock News; more from them in a second.
“The fried chicken sandwich establishes its balance by simulating a complete meal, and all the sensory factors that go into one. Fried chicken is universal; the condiments and additions to the party may vary drastically from one purveyor to the next, but at its core, it is a unifying form.”
— Writer Danny Chau, explaining on The Ringer why the chicken sandwich is the kind of thing that’s so easy to get hung up on, due to its mixture of key basic elements and flourishes that help such sandwiches reach perfection. As Chau notes, the debate over the Popeyes sandwich mimics a similar debate that happened in the New York restaurant world in 2016—one sparked off in part by Chick-Fil-A entering the city for the first time.
The story of the key invention that allows fried chicken sandwiches to exist, and how it got patented
I know the talk has mostly been about Popeyes in recent days, but the fact of the matter is that, when one talks about the rise of the chicken sandwich, Chick-Fil-A is fundamental to this conversation. Love ’em or hate ’em, the restaurant chain that once apparently counted Ben Folds as an employee popularized it.
Now, to be clear, founder S. Truett Cathy didn’t invent the process to create a chicken sandwich—something easily proven by the fact that, as far as I can tell, Chick-Fil-A does not have any patent filings under its corporate name.
But Cathy was good at following trends, and he met with the guy who did own a key chicken sandwich patent really early on. At the time, Cathy owned the restaurant chain Dwarf House, a burger joint, and was looking around for the next big thing. He found it in the form of a pressure fryer.
The pressure fryer, which literally combines the liquid cooking methods of pressure cooking with the process of deep frying, is a fundamental concept in fast food. Every major fast-food chain uses it—including every one that tweeted about the prowess of their specific chicken sandwich when Popeyes released theirs.
The concept of pressure frying wasn’t new by the time Chick-Fil-A came about, but its most popular product was fundamental to popularizing it.
Another fast food maven deserves at least partial credit on the popularization front: Colonel Harland Sanders was either the first to the idea or one of the trailblazers, developing his ideas about combining frying and pressure cooking since the late 1930s. (In fact, probably dangerously so: Sanders is lucky he wasn’t a footnote in Kentucky history, because boiling oil in a standard pressure cooker is pretty risky!) Sanders actually filed a patent application for a pressure fryer of his own in 1962, but another inventor had actually beaten Sanders to the patent office by nearly a decade.
And that inventor, using a different process from Sanders, gave S. Truett Cathy both the spark and the access to equipment that would lead to the creation of Chick-Fil-A and turn chicken into an option just as common as beef on fast-food menus.
That inventor’s name was Chester Wagner, and like Sanders, he was innovating on the job. Wagner ran a popular restaurant in Eaton, Ohio, called the Whispering Oak. Like Sanders, who hated the fact it took more than half an hour to properly fry chicken the traditional way, he was tinkering partly out of annoyance with how hard it was to fry chicken.
“I found the process of frying chicken at the restaurant was time consuming and erratic,” Wagner told The Palladium-Item, a newspaper in Richmond, Indiana.
Wagner spent much time perfecting his machine, which separated out the browning pieces in the frying process that negatively affected the flavor of the fried chicken and made it taste burnt.
“The over-browned particles deposit themselves on the food being presently fried, tending to detract not only from the appearance of the food, but also from the flavor,” Wagner writes in a second patent, for a “deep fat pressure fryer.”
The machine in this patent, shown in action in the video above, was the one that got Cathy’s attention. It basically works like this:
First, the chicken goes in while the oil is at full temperature, allowing the material on the surface level to brown.
Then, after all the chicken has been dropped in, the container is closed tightly and the pressure function of the pressure fryer portion of the machine begins. The oil, initially above 400 degrees during the early browning period, is lowered in temperature to around 200 degrees.
A portion of the fryer, near the bottom, is not actively heated at all, and this portion pulls in overly browned bits that negatively affect the flavor.
Depending on the type of chicken, the process can be complete in as short as a few minutes, and because of the mixture of pressure and frying, the chicken is moist—something it would not be if the food was deep-fried in a more traditional way.
In 1960, Wagner decided that the invention he had created was more valuable than the popular restaurant that relied on the technology, and shut down the Whispering Oak, turning it into the offices of the Henny-Penny corporation. His instinct was quickly proved correct, as other restaurants quickly picked up the technology—among them Cathy’s Dwarf House.
Cathy soon found the chicken sandwiches, which could now be made in the same amount of time as traditional burgers, were selling way faster than the original chow. Within a few years, he had started a chain built around chicken sandwiches. That chain eventually combined a good invention, the pressure fryer, with a clever business move—the decision to put the restaurant inside of shopping malls, which didn’t have much in the way of food options at the time. Whatever your feeling about all the other stuff associated with Chick-Fil-A’s brand, the gambit worked.
Now, here we are, complaining about chicken sandwiches.
And despite the fact that pressure frying is literally a mainstay of every fast food chain that serves fried chicken, we don’t even think about the role it plays anymore. Case in point: Despite the fact that pressure frying is the reason we can even have a debate about who serves the best chicken sandwich, I’ve only found one recent thread on Twitter that has even broached the subject of pressure frying.
The food interests us more than the process of how it’s made. Naturally.
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Five interesting things that restaurant chains have actually tried to patent
- The Crunchwrap Supreme. Taco Bell has dozens of patents to its name, including for ladles that are designed to pour the perfect amount of ground beef into a hard taco shell and a soda lid that includes a built-in game piece. But Taco Bell’s most interesting patent application, by far, is for the Crunchwrap Supreme, or as the patent filing calls it, a “comestible wrap product” that combines a hard tostada shell with a burrito shell. (Or as the patent application puts it, “a flexible outer skin folded around the backbone so as to completely enclose the backbone and the one or more ingredients.”) Despite putting much work into the Crunchwrap Supreme patent, the company appears to have abandoned the patent application, which is probably why Moe’s recently started selling them.
- A video communication system for drive-thru orders. Ever wonder why fast food chains have never really been big on using videos of employees in the drive-thru? Anyone who has ever worked drive-thru will tell you it’s because the employee is probably doing twelve other things, but there might be patent-related reasons for this as well. See, in 1992, Burger King was granted a patent that allowed someone ordering to talk to the person through a video screen.
- The packaging for the McDLT. The concept of splitting the burger from the veggies using polystyrene was controversial enough that it eventually led McDonald’s to stop packaging their food in polystyrene altogether, but not before the company was granted a patent for the split-burger packaging.
- The Subway sandwich-serving mechanism. Years before Barack Obama reached his hand over a Chipotle sneeze guard, the cofounder of Subway had received a patent for a key piece of furniture that inspired fast-casual chains the world over. That invention, the “Product server with breath guard,” is a familiar part of any Subway experience, even if it seems a bit obvious. Nonetheless, Fred Deluca was given inventor credit for the mechanism, along with Thomas E. Yingst, a frequent inventor of restaurant equipment. (Here’s what apparently happened, based on my reading of this: Yingst tried to file the patent individually, then Subway complained, and Deluca, having run restaurants with this general serving area design for decades, was given co-inventor rights.)
- A pizza bag with a built-in hot plate. Domino’s Pizza, more than any other national pizza chain, prided itself on efficiency, and it reflected this efficiency by designing parts that met these broader goals. One such part was a “food delivery hot bag with electric hot plate,” a part designed basically to ensure that even as the driver was hurrying to the customer’s home, the pizza would stay nice and hot.
“Without a more rewarding promotional program to retain the goodwill of consumers, consumers’ demand for the goods or services of such a business will diminish in the marketplace over time. Thus, there is a need for a system and method for rewarding customer loyalty while avoiding or reducing the foregoing and other problems associated with existing promotional programs.”
— A passage from a 2003 patent application for the concept of “creating customer loyalty,” something Starbucks actually attempted to patent. Basically, the company was attempting to patent the concept behind the Starbucks Card, but perhaps aimed a little broad with the pitch. One can go back and forth on whether Starbucks is fast food or not (I say no), but we can all agree that the fact that Starbucks attempted—and failed—to patent this concept is very on-brand for Starbucks.
Why trade secrets, not patents, are where the real power of fast food lies
Doing a look around Google Patents for the kinds of things that companies care enough about to legally protect, and you may find yourself surprised by how little of it tends to be top-of-the-ledger-type things.
Sure, you might find patents for equipment, ways to cook the food, or unusual strategies for folding the food in a way no human would ever consider doing unless they saw you do it first. But the important stuff—the really important stuff, the stuff that makes a fast food chain unique—will never end up in the patent system.
Think about it this way. It’s one thing for Colonel Sanders to patent a process for frying chicken, but another entirely for KFC to patent Sanders’ secret recipe. In a way, it reflects the challenge of the patent system: It’s a great way to protect things that matter to an organization’s long-term function, but it’s another entirely when the thing you invented is a trade secret so important to your company’s function that it could negatively affect your business.
Trade secret violations are a big deal: This has nothing to do with fast food, but a former Uber engineer who also worked for the Google-affiliated Waymo was recently charged with 33 counts of the theft of trade secrets in regards to the self-driving vehicles he worked on while he was at Waymo.
And restaurant chains aren’t immune to lawsuits of this nature. Back in 2006, Panera Bread (a restaurant chain I stopped going to because they put the iced coffee dispenser behind the counter, making it a total pain to get refills—if you work for Panera and are reading this, tell your bosses that they greatly disappointed a newsletter writer) sued the pizza chain Papa John’s. The reason had nothing to do with Papa John’s selling bread bowls: In fact, it had everything to do with the fact that the company’s IT guy supposedly misappropriated the company’s trade secrets.
A 2001 New York Times article actually uses KFC as a great example of this issue—where certain things are much more valuable held close to the chest than formally patented and shared with the world. As the Times article states:
As with Coca-Cola’s syrup formula or the McDonald’s Big Mac special sauce, the secrecy surrounding the recipe has become an inherent part of its value. And that means a company like KFC has the law on its side in defending its trade secret—and plenty of incentive to protect the mystery that has become one if its most valuable assets.
The recipe, like many other business practices, resources or products, is intellectual property. But it is the kind of property that is better served as a trade secret than as a patent or copyright. That is because a trade secret can grant proprietary rights in perpetuity, or for as long as the owner is able to maintain the secrecy. A patent, on the other hand, has a shelf life of 20 years from the time an application is filed. And while a trade secret can remain an enigma, a patent application requires the inventor to describe exactly how his invention works.
So while patents exist for many things in the world of fast food, the things that truly matter the most—the differentiators—are going to be buried in a corporate vault somewhere, never to be seen in the public eye.
This whole issue has me thinking about the way that automation is going to change the fast food industry in just a handful of years. How the undercurrent of invention that helped create all this innovation in the way we get cheap food is likely to help us get even cheaper food down the line, and odds are good that the bots may not even be managed with the help of human hands.
But by that same token, I wonder whether the inefficiencies of the process will ever be truly, completely solved. Sure, it looks close, but there are still enough rough edges in the production process at many fast food joints that I naturally feel skeptical that you can run a whole restaurant that can be self-maintained by artificial intelligence. I think to one example in particular, the one that got me interested in writing this piece: Nacho cheese dispensers, particularly the ones they use at Taco Bell.
Back in another life, I worked at Taco Bell, and I remember that, by far, the least efficient part of the whole taco-assembly line was the nacho cheese dispenser, which was effectively a miniaturized version of the same apparatus used in a kitchen sink, except using a pump. It was a terribly inefficient process—one that almost has to be inefficient due to the thick cheese, which had a tendency to solidify when exposed to air.
I couldn’t actually find patent filing for this machine anywhere, but clearly this device was invented by someone who realized the importance of evenly distributed nacho cheese—but put seemingly no focus on ease of use.
It was always the hardest thing to clean on a nightly basis—the pump was complex and its parts would often be covered in cheese, making it gooey and ensuring you had to spend twice as long cleaning it as everything else. It was naturally designed to create a mess—but because of the natural popularity of nacho cheese, it was basically worth all the fuss.
(And occasionally, as a customer recently learned, the pump doesn’t always stay together on the assembly line.)
The nacho cheese dispenser, which is also used for similarly thick substances such as fudge, is clearly something that needs to be eventually rethought, much like when Colonel Sanders thought he was taking too long cooking that fried chicken. It will not work in an era when robots are running the show.
On the one hand, perhaps this might be a good thing: After all, we got the modern fried chicken sandwich out of someone saying that this food production process wasn’t good enough. On the other hand, who wants to improve a tool that requires human intervention basically by design, knowing that improvements to that tool likely will have the effect of stealing someone’s job?
That’s the catch-22 of fast food these days. The idea of innovation sounds great until you realize who you’re innovating for.