Most of the posts on this blog, when boiled down to core components, yield an uncomplicated combination of two or more of the following: tracking numbers, pointless investigations, dumb jokes, declaring definitive winners of things, and content no one but myself truly cares a lick about. This post will be no different. I like to investigate things. I’m all about the definitive. I firmly believe that the world would be a much simpler, and much better, place if there were more yes and nos and fewer grey areas in life. Some would argue that it’s those grey areas that make life exciting, and variable, and pleasurable. I would argue that they are wrong, and I would hit them in the face if they started to say words that I didn’t understand.
I understand that I’m not the first one to try to determine which of the Big Three fast food joints — McDonalds, Burger King, or Wendy’s — truly reigns supreme. I’m probably not the first to do it more longitudinally, nor first to count pickles or bring a package scale to a Burger King to weigh their bacon cheeseburger in real time. But I am the first to do those things who has login credentials to RyanWoerner.com, so my results will be posted here for the 6-8 visitors I’m able to trick into clicking a link that will bring them here.
It was an idea that blossomed on a summer afternoon between two friends*. Determining which of the three largest east-coast fast-food burger joints was truly the best. Preferences weren’t hard to come by; my mom preferred the Flame Grilled taste of BK’s burgs, while I was more partial to the lil onions they top them with at McDonald’s. But this went beyond preferences. An objective, hands-on investigation was obviously necessary if we were going to crown a definitive king (or queen) of fast food. We’d need to hit all three in the same day, biking between locations and taking measurements at each stop. Obviously, our hunger would lessen between each place, but we were seventh graders, not scientists, so that didn’t matter. We made a rough sketch of the plan, and promptly dropped it for about 3 years.
Revisiting the plan with a license — and a car– was easier. Hitting the McDonald’s in Dresher would make the most sense despite being about 20 minutes away, as there was a Wendy’s directly across the street. BK would be last, and we’d hit the one about 5 minutes from our homes back in Abington. An emergency end-of-day bathroom break was not only possible, it was likely, and this gave us the best shot at being close to a comfortable porcelain seat at a moment’s notice. The day was chosen and my associate picked me up that afternoon in his Subaru Outback, as he was the one with the aforementioned license and car.
In tow was a package scale (my father’s) and a notebook to record measurements and notes at each stop. By the end of the day I had filled both a notebook page and my stomach with the contents of three greasy, disgusting burger places. The notebook was tossed somewhere in my room, and was not revisited nor recognized for years upon years.
Until more recently, when I pulled (most) of the page out of a box in my closet. While about a fifth (or twenty percent, for the math-heads) was lost to my troglodyte proto-brain ripping the page and ignoring that at some point, the majority of the data was intact and well-preserved. Upon looking it over and considering that I hdn’t posted here in some time, I decided this study may be worth a revisit after about a decade. In truth, I do not know the date — nor the exact year, even — that the initial study took place. If anyone knows anything about how to carbon date some pen on paper or something, let me know. I can say that the second half of the study took (technically, as I am writing this, will take) place on November 8, 2022 (happy Election Day), as I have off today and want to eat some burgers.
First we’ll look back at the first run of this experiment, the setting, and results, before we segue into the modern recreation and updated conclusion.
* I'll avoid naming my coauthor in this case, as his future employment prospects could suffer if employers realize he is friends with someone as dumb as me.
THE FIRST TEST ~ 2010
The aforementioned first test of this two-part longitudinal study took place circa 2010. I, along with an associate, visited a McDonalds, a Burger King, and a Wendy’s American Fast Food Establishments, and placed an identical order at each.
The methodology was sound. The order, created to mirror an actual order of mine, was as follows:
- One single bacon cheeseburger, extra pickles.
- A medium order of french fries.
With the ultimate goal of determining the best fast food establishment, a number of critical criteria were taken into consideration. The criteria were as follows, in no particular order:
- Time (from placing order to receiving food)
- Weight (burger) in ounces
- Weight (fries) in ounces
- Cost (total, for meal)
- Number of pickles
- Number of bacon slices
- Friendliness (of staff)
- Appearance (of food)
- Taste (of food)
At each establishment, a package scale was used to weigh each of the components of the order while still in their wrapper (for cleanliness). Since no “advanced” burgers were ordered, there was no cardboard packaging to interfere with the weight, only the negligible weight of the paper wrappers. All costs are measured in United States Dollars, and include tax where applicable. Friendliness and appearance were judged entirely subjectively, and taste was determined using the Gherstein – Pretoria Taste Index Scale, which ranges from 0 – 10. Number of pickles and bacon slices were determined using counting, and were measured in numbers. All information was charted in real time in my notebook, using what appears to be a black pen. Orders were judged individually, and eaten inside of the establishment.
To most quickly digest and understand some of the more critical takeaways from our experiment, I decided to start by showing the raw data. I have recreated the chart below in Google Sheets to make reading the information from this historic document easier and more accessible, however, there are caveats. Critically, some of the comments left at the bottom of the sheet of paper were lost to time and poor care. Due to this, information in the Sheet is lacking, but I’ve employed my best researchers to attempt to decrypt the missing letters, and included what I was able to decipher in the chart. Additionally, for historic preservation and posterity, I’ve included a photo of the original document – with torn edge apparent – below.
A few things stand out initially. First, the cost difference is enormous. In fact, I could get three orders from McDonalds for almost the same price ($6.96) as one order from Wendy’s ($6.44). While this difference, on the surface level, seems confounding, some context is leant by reading the notes. Under Wendy’s, researchers noted that the order accuracy was subpar; in fact, the Wendy’s order, which was intended to be a single bacon cheeseburger with extra pickles, was interpreted as a Dave’s Single with bacon and extra pickles. This misinterpretation (Dave’s Single is a quarter pounder) accounts for the higher price and the higher quality of the order. The weight of the burger (about 5 ounces in total) is approximately in line with this conclusion as well.
Accuracy aside, Wendy’s did shine in taste in the ~ 2010 iteration of the fast food showdown, claiming the highest taste score (8.5), and the most pickles by a large margin (a whopping five). And while looks aren’t everything, Wendy’s beautifully fluffed bun, square patty, and flourish of toppings also helped it claim the most aesthetic meal of the three.
However, it was not the winner. As agreed by both researchers at the time, when considering all factors, McDonalds came out on top. The price – a paltry $2.32 – was that within reach of a commoner, but the 3 slices of bacon and 8.5 ounces of total food were befitting of a king. Burger King, despite its lightening fast farm-to-tray time and reasonable price truly proved itself a jack of all trades, but master of none.
- My willingness to score each restaurant on their friendliness may be short sighted as well, as fast food workers are not known – nor should they be expected – to be the friendliest people around. I suppose as long as they don’t spit in my food they should just get like, an 8.
- I dont’ know why I weighed each food item individually, but then judged them on taste as a group.
- There is some confusion on the weight of the burger at Wendy’s. On the original document, the numbers are flipped (as indicated by the arrow), but it’s not clear what exactly the weight of the burger was.
- Giving a range (7.5 – 8) and a single nominal descriptor of “good” for BK, then segueing into straight up numbers for the others was a choice.
THE SECOND TEST, NOV 2022
When I decided to recreate the experiment from 2010, I initially wanted to keep it as faithful to the original as possible. My intent was to revisit this experiment with fresh eyes, lots of inflation, and 10-12 years of additional life experience. Hopefully, this would not only allow me to see how prices would change, but also how the quality, the size of the servings, and how much fast food I could stomach may have shifted. The plan was to visit all three places in the same day – aided by my own car this time – eating, weighing and rating as I went. However, there were issues with a perfectly faithful recreation.
Firstly, I have an apartment now. I’d rather eat from the comfort of my couch than inside of a restaurant that gets mopped with the same water once every two weeks. Secondly, I live in Lancaster, about a 2 hour drive
from the aforementioned Dresher Wendy’s and McDonalds, meaning I’d have to rely on different sources of data (food). Third, I am 30 now and do not have the childhood whimsy I once did. This may also affect my scoring.
I decided to make some changes. First, I’d get all three to go. Aided by the fact that I could hit all three restaurants in a span of about 20 minutes (I was out of my house and back in about 40) I figured all three would beat
least luke warm upon my return (nope) so this wouldn’t matter. I planned out my route (seen to the left) with a McDonalds and Burger King conveniently feet from one another. I’d bring them back to my apartment and, rather than eat each meal successively, I’d take a few bites of the burg and fries from each. The order (single bacon cheeseburger, extra pickles) would be identical, the criteria the same, and I’d still order each inside the restaurant, just how i did last time, to prevent other cars in line from affecting order/delivery time. Notes and scores would be recorded directly into the Google Sheet to save both time and trees.
So, at around 3:00 pm on Election Day, I celebrated our great democracy by doing the second most American thing I can think of: getting in my car and driving to three major fast food chains in a row.
Well folks, they say “times change,” and it seems like fast food quality is no different. In 2010, McDonald’s was the less flashy, cheaper, fill-ya-up-for-$2 option. The cool kid. Micky D’s. Ronnie Mac’s. McMacDaddy’s. The all around winner of the first showdown. This time? Well, I’ll let the data speak for itself. But be warned, the data has a dirty, dirty mouth.
Where to start? In the all important price category, McDonald’s pulled a first-to-worst. From $2.32 to $7.39. An increase of over five dollars. A 219% increase in price. And Wendy’s? Boy did they figure it out this time – not only giving me the right sandwich (a Jr. Bacon Cheeseburger) but pricing it correctly, making it the cheapest of the three by over a dollar.
Another area Wendy’s shined was the overall weight of the food. While all three came in right around 8.5 oz of total food in 2010, the differences here were more pronounced. Wendy’s burger was larger than each of the others, and the fries were not lacking. Pathetically, they included zero pickles on my cheeseburger. Zero. Not a one pickle. McDonald’s, despite some confusion over whether they were able to sell me a bacon cheeseburger, at least put ONE pickle on my burger.
Factors like bacon (both in number of slices and quality) and friendliness were similar across the board. One note indicated that the flavor of the pickles shined through more on the burger from BK, however one may question whether this was less the result of premium toppings and more a burger lacking in flavor.
With the edge in flavor (the burger and fries were both my selection, albeit narrowly), a lightning fast handover time, and a cheap order that didn’t skimp on quantity, Wendy’s came out on top in the 2022 recreation of the fast food wars. It was difficult to select Wendy’s as the champion in spite of its truly heinous shortcomings regarding pickles and the fact that the cashier stood there mopping the floor behind me for a solid 5 minutes while I stood there prior to ordering. That being said, all factors considered, Wendy’s is the current Fast Food King.
There were no limitations on this study. It is all encompassing and entirely accurate. These results are guaranteed.
I tried to take a screenshot of my Chase app to act as proof that I did make these purchases, but I guess Google prevents you from screenshotting sensitive information. Nevertheless, I hired an artist to recreate the photo, seen here.