The Weekly Eater

By Nadine Kam

Thursday, March 6, 1997

Making sense of
fast food price war

THE last time I ate a Carl's Jr. burger was about eight years ago in L.A. I was in a movie as a ninja assassin. One does get hungry chasing after never-say-die action heroes.

At the time, L.A. -- pre-Rodney King beating and race riots, pre-non-fiction shoot-em-up with bank bandits -- was already an appropriately grimy urban battleground, especially compared to our usual set, Aiea Heights Trail.

Well, my then-boyfriend's home movie never saw the light of day (thank God!) and I never had a Carl's burger again, until two weeks ago, for Carl's yellow star now smiles above the Unocal at 2140 N. Nimitz Highway near Puuhale Road.

Carl's Jr. will have no problem appealing to local tastebuds. The fast-food establishment is known for its char-broiled burgers, with flavor on par with Burger King's Whopper and size comparable to Jack-in-the-Box's Jumbo Jack. But at $2.39 for the "Famous Star," and with the least expensive burger-fry-drink combo meal running $4.05 with tax, well, they've stumbled into a rumble in the 99-cents jungle.

AS for who started this 99-cents price war, "It's hard to say," said McDonald's of Hawaii marketing supervisor Melanie Okazaki. McDonald's started offering specials three or four years ago to address consumers' value consciousness, she said, "We started advertising them on a national basis consistently before any of our competitors jumped in."

Now the giant "99&CENT" signs loom everywhere, which comes in handy for research, Okazaki said. "It's easy to see what everyone else is doing."

Here's how the factions size up:

Burger King: Like an Academy Award-bound star, the Whopper comes across exceptionally glossy and photogenic on TV ads. The image relayed is that of a gigantic burger, with a ruffly skirt of lettuce and perfect slices of tomato. The Whopper appears much smaller and frumpier in life, at about 2 inches tall, and with chopped lettuce and a sloppy helping of tomatoes and sliced onions. Still, tasting is believing and a lot of people swear by its char-broiled flavor. The patty ends up being well-done and rather dry. But you wouldn't want a fast-food burger rare anyway.

The Whopper Jr. is also 99 cents at a smaller 4-by-11/2 inches. When it comes to full meals though, nobody tops the Whopper Jr. combo. At $1.99 it includes regular fries and a soft drink.

Jack in the Box: The Jumbo Jack is the most substantial of the burgers sampled. The hamburger has the loosely packed texture of a burger that hasn't been handled to death or needlessly compressed. The lightly salted patty also tastes as it might if you'd cooked it up at home with as little fuss as possible. Your 99 cents will fill your stomach with a serving of two slices of tomato, onions, an abundance of lettuce and pickles -- a virtual salad!

Taco Bell: The 99-cents tostada and basic taco seem meager when compared to burgers. The tostada is bland-tasting with refried beans, a layer of shredded lettuce and cheese. The taco features some kind of meat mash. All I thought was, "Wah! That $2.79 steak fajita looks so much better." If I hadn't been working I would have splurged.

McDonald's: Wins points for diversity. Rather than serve the same "special" everyday, thus negating the concept, consumers can look forward to varied promotions. Currently, it's six Chicken McNuggets for 99 cents.

Regular burgers are even cheaper, at 79 cents in Kailua town. These are plain thin patties and dabs of ketchup, mustard and a bit of minced onion. I couldn't help but think that its creator, Ray Kroc, was a genius. Here was a product that could be produced by the millions, easily, uniformly, with an economy of ingredients not sensitive to regional availability of ingredients.

As a result of this invention, McDonald's now feeds 7 percent of Americans daily according to a New York Times report. And in late April, they may feed more. That's when "Campaign 55" kicks in and the price of the basic burger drops to 55 cents, with purchase of any drink or fries order.

Will competitors match that?

Nadine Kam's restaurant reviews run on Thursdays. Reviews are conducted anonymously and paid for by the Star-Bulletin. Star ratings are based on comparisons of similar restaurants:

- excellent;
- very good, exceeds expectations;
- average;
- below average.

To recommend a restaurant, write: The Weekly Eater, P.O. Box 3080, Honolulu, Hawaii 96802. Or send e-mail to

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