Carl's Jr. holds a nostalgic place in my heart. My Lebanese mother used to take me there every Friday afternoon of my middle school career so my brother and I could enjoy food that didn't involve pita bread.
Now when I eat there, I feel the same way one does when buying a carton of cigarettes with a skull-and-cross bones sticker.
Today marks roughly a year since I've set foot in a Carl's Jr., and I felt unusually queasy looking up at the menu. I was out of practice ordering here, my mouth unable to form the words asking for my usual Famous Star and Spicy Chicken Sandwich.
I was always King Ding-a-ling at Carl's. I knew what to order, how I wanted my suicide soda mixed (equal parts Cherry Cola and Dr. Pepper), what table I wanted and where to place the fold-up plastic order number so my girl Gertrude behind the counter knew where to deliver the goods.
Not today. I couldn't move.
There I was, in line at a Carl's location I had never been to before, my friends filing past me to put in their orders while my indecisiveness left me paralyzed and stranded, just a few awkward steps away from the counter. They punched in their classic orders with the lovely lady at the register. Geoff and Rudy ordered up their always delicious Western Bacon Cheeseburgers, and Marc was quick to the draw with his usual order, a Jalapeno Cheeseburger paired with a Spicy Chicken sandwich.
Then I saw the virus, Carl's Jr.'s ALL-NATURAL Burger. No added hormones. No antibiotics. It was speaking to me because I'm your guy, Carl's. I am an indecisive periodic healthy eater who feels guilty after every begrudgingly amazing trip to McDonald's. I'm the millennial you think you're targeting. You're doing great things here offering me up a natural option that essentially pits me against an entire menu of my childhood favorites. Those very favorites that, in comparison to the almighty ALL- NATURAL Burger must be littered with antibiotics, oozing with hormones, and are of course the exact opposite of natural. That's what this burger's branding is making me feel right now.
I stepped to the counter, put in an order for the new All-Natural Burger and a side taco from the Green Burrito. I don't know what the hell happened—nothing like the All-Natural Burger is what I wanted to order when I walked in the door—but somehow the messaging had gotten to me.
If I had a choice between all natural and fake, I should go all natural, right? I give a shit about my body. Carl's is telling me to give a shit about my body—I think. Wait—why hadn't Carl's Jr. made the decision to make their entire menu all natural?
Carl's Jr. is not the enemy. I'd like to think their intentions are noble, but I can't help but feel that this All-Natural Burger is nothing but a reminder that the rest of their burgers are still left in the dark age. Why tell us that only ONE of your burgers is free of added hormones, antibiotics and steroids? Where does that leave the rest of them?
At work the following day I realized I wasn't the only one with these stray thoughts.
Fellow writer Isai Rocha even went so far as conducting an email interview with a Carl's Jr. executive a few months back that never made it onto our site. The answers didn't ease my chill, and did not make my last trip to Carl's Jr. any less conflicting. Isai asked:
"Does it bother you that you're still keeping a lower quality beef on the menu? What is the value in keeping available a beef that's not of the best quality?" -- Isai Rocha, Foodbeast
Get ready for it:
"Our objective has never been to tell people what to eat, but to serve them what they want to eat. Research showed us that more natural products are important to some of our consumers, so we’re providing options that they’ve asked for." -- Carl's Jr. Executive
What the fuck?
"We listen to our guests and the trend today is toward natural foods, particularly among Millennials." -- Carl's Jr. Executive
Natural foods? I'm glad Carl's thinks going natural is a trend and possibly only worthy of a single menu item. McDonald's, the traditional target of cleaner eaters, has made news in their recent efforts to overhaul their menu. Reuters has a good read on the matter: McDonald's USA to phase out human antibiotics from chicken supply.
Mickey D's is undoubtedly the largest burger chain around, with equally large supply-chain dilemmas to deal with. Changing supplies of meat and produce doesn't happen overnight. 2014 was McDonald's worst year in a decade so they know changes need to be made. Not what's trendy, but what's necessary.
The world's biggest restaurant chain announced on Wednesday that within two years, McDonald's USA will only buy chickens raised without antibiotics that are important to human medicine. The concern is that the overuse of antibiotics for poultry may diminish their effectiveness in fighting disease in humans. -- Lisa Baertlein, Reuters
At a time when all-natural brands like Shake Shack, In-N-Out and Chipotle are placing a focus on quality, why would you try to run in that lane if you plan to half-ass it?
Quality isn't something you 'dabble' in. You don't see Chipotle promoting two different qualities of chicken on the same menu. Chipotle doesn't leave a decision like "quality" up to the consumer once they've decided to eat there.
The idea that Carl's considers all natural a trend, as opposed to respecting that millennials are becoming more aware is problematic. Awareness isn't a trend.
Places like In-N-Out, Shake Shack and Chipotle have branded themselves as all-natural since their beginnings. Their brand DNA is engrained with that notion. Not to say a brand can't make those adjustments, and Carl's Jr. has been making steady strides to increase awareness of more from-scratch items like their Hand Scooped Ice Cream Sandwiches and baking some of their buns in house. But there you go, even their bun program is half-assed.
You get the option between a Fresh Baked Bun or their regular-ass bun. Why not freshly bake all buns? Do some people prefer buns that have been sitting in packaging for weeks as opposed to your well-constructed freshly baked buns?
The All-Natural Burger represents hypocrisy at its finest. Even the commercials say the only thing the "all-natural" declaration refers to is the meat patty, while everything else is still up for scrutiny for those who even know the Carl's Jr. nutritional calculator exists.
Even The Charlotte McKinney Commercials Have Terrible Subtext
Carl's Jr. commercials are usually perfectly suitable for the target: pitching a tent in my Levi's.
That said, there's not a single blemish on the adorable Charlotte McKinney either. She struts around beautifully in the new All-Natural commercial—my loins couldn't thank her enough. But does Carl's realize they've essentially nullified their entire roster of female burger puppets that came before? Are they wittingly aware that this model is real while those prior weren't so?
McKinney's boobs are real, yet Kim Kardashian's ass might be a product of science? Stop reminding me that this burger is real while your others are fake. WTF are you setting yourself up for?
I'm so confused. I never thought ill of Kim Kardashian before. Yes, she has minimal talent, but is great on the eyes. I knew what I was getting into before, much like the entire menu at Carl's Jr. Yet now, you're telling me there's something pure, something wholly better for me—yet you still peddle the rest of the menu as if I'm too dumb to understand.
I tell you what...I must be too dumb to understand.
I ate there again today, but this time returning to my classic Famous Star order. I felt sick now, not just because I had two of them, but because I was reminded that I had not gone all-natural. I had avoided the menu item clearly labeled natural and opted for whatever the hell might be in your Famous Star. The meat that was not grass-fed or steroid-free and likely full of antibiotics. The bread was not freshly baked.
I fucked up Carl's. But so did you.