By Danielle Wiener-Bronner, CNN Business
(CNN) - The past few years have been tough for Burger King.
Missteps during the pandemic caused the chain to lag behind competitors. Over the past few quarters, Burger King has been playing catch up, and now the company is hoping a major investment in restaurants and advertising will help spark growth and propel it ahead of its peers.
In the next two years, Burger King, which is owned by Restaurant Brands International, is planning to invest $400 million in improving the brand — $250 million will go toward updating restaurant tech, kitchens and remodeling, and $150 million to advertising and digital products. Franchisees will also invest in improving the brand.
One key part of that plan? Reminding customers of what Burger King is all about: The Whopper.
"What we really want to do in the short term is reintroduce America's love affair with the Whopper," Tom Curtis, President of Burger King North America, told CNN Business. The plan is to make sure workers are well trained in making the best possible Whopper, and that kitchens support consistency and ease of preparation.
The fast food giant is also going to lean in to advertising its signature burger.
"I don't think we've talked about it enough. I just don't think we've celebrated it enough," Curtis said. "And I'm looking forward to putting it back in its rightful place as our lead act." Through advertising, Burger King wants to remind customers that the Whopper is flame-grilled and customizable. But some other tweaks could be in store as well, Curtis said.
The brand is "evaluating whether or not there are changes to the Whopper that could make it a better product," he said. But the team also doesn't want to risk messing with its best known offering. "[We're] a little bit in the camp of if it ain't broke, don't fix it," Curtis said.
What went wrong
During the pandemic, restaurants had to quickly adjust their business models to contend with disrupted supply chains, closed dining rooms and a spike in demand for delivery. Burger King didn't adapt very well.
"Over the last few years during the pandemic and coming out of the pandemic ... [Burger King US] didn't do a great job of adjusting our business to the environment, " RBI CEO Jose Cil told CNN Business. "We didn't simplify."
In the pandemic, many restaurants quickly slimmed down menus in order to simplify kitchen operations when delivery orders suddenly went through the roof. Workers scrambling to fill online orders could at least avoid complicated preparations.
But Burger King did the opposite.
"We, in fact, complicated things," Cil said, "we added menu items ... that were more difficult and not necessarily intuitive and typical for us to serve."
Specifically Cil is talking about the Ch'King, a hand-breaded chicken sandwich that the chain introduced last year. The product "created a ton of bottlenecks operationally," Cil said.
The issues set Burger King back as competitors advanced. In the second quarter of this year, sales at Burger King US restaurants open at least 13 months grew by just .4%. Sales at McDonald's US restaurants open at least 13 months jumped 3.7% in that period.
Burger King recently retired the Ch'King, replacing it with the Royal Crispy Chicken sandwich.
The Ch'King "was a great product that was difficult or challenging for teams to execute on," Curtis said. "The best thing for the guest is great flavor and consistency. So our Royal Crispy Chicken, which we just launched, offers both."
As Burger King continues to work on other menu innovations, it will have to balance ease of execution with items that excite customers, Curtis added.
Remodels and rewards upgrades
To help boost sales and restaurant traffic, Burger King is making other improvements, including making restaurants look more modern.
The chain plans to remodel about 800 restaurants over the next two years.
The idea is to have consistent branding, but with customized layouts that make sense for the environment, Curtis said. A Burger King in a city might be smaller, with a higher focus on digital ordering. In a rural town, it might have more seating.
Burger King has already started updating its image. The brand changed its logo last year, switched packaging, uniforms and signage to the new look. A few years ago, it shared what remodeled restaurants might look like: triple-lane drive-thrus, burger pickup lockers and takeout counters.
The company also wants to make make it easier for customers to use the chain's mobile app, revamp its rewards program by offering customized digital deals, and make delivery and to-go orders more convenient.
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