Wendy’s John Li explains why French Toast Sticks present a new menu direction, interview

Wendy's French Toast Sticks, photo provided by Wendy's
Wendy's French Toast Sticks, photo provided by Wendy's /

While Wendy’s food offerings focus on the core idea of fast food done right, the popular quick service restaurant brand continues to expand its robust menu. Although the iconic square burgers and the sweet Frosty are menu mainstays, the food innovations over the past several years go beyond the made to crave signature. Looking to fill a gap in its breakfast menu, the new French Toast Sticks are a departure from previous offerings. How will guests respond to this bite of nostalgia?

When Wendy’s launched its breakfast menu in 2020, the care and consideration into the addition was tremendous. Even though the timing might have been less than ideal, the consumer response was overwhelmingly positive. From the flaky croissants to the tender biscuits, each offering brought the bold flavors that everyone has come to expected from Wendy’s.

Although the breakfast menu has been a hit, it was lacking one element, a sweet offering. Starting on August 15, French Toast Sticks will be added to the menu. Available in four and six piece offerings, plus a combo option, the new breakfast item is a departure for the popular quick service restaurant. While it falls under fast food done right, it takes a different approach to menu expansion.

During a recent conversation with John Li, vice president of culinary innovation at Wendy’s, we discussed the new French Toast Sticks and why this new food option is more than just another sweet treat.

When asked why French Toast Sticks were the newest addition to the Wendy’s breakfast menu, Li mentioned that the reasoning was two-fold. First, he said, “we needed something that was sweet. Second part was to make that item portable.” While the French Toast Sticks accomplish both those components, the dish is more than just another bite to dip.

Specifically, Li said that the culinary team wanted to tap into the “emotional connection that makes a product successful and to tap into people’s emotions in terms of what they remember.” With this launch, the team “focused on the word nostalgia.”

Thinking of French Toast, there are two schools of thought. With the French Toast sticks, some people can remember the school food that instantly caused kids to smile. While we both were reminiscing about the school French Toast Sticks, the reality is that those memories flavor the bite. Even if the lunch lady made croutons versus soft pillowy, custardy bites, it was still the school meal highlight. There is something simple, craveable and comforting about dipping, dunking, and devouring that sweet breakfast item.

But, Wendy’s will never do anything sub-par. According to Li, it took 18 tries to perfect that delicious French Toast Stick. From the Texas Toast to the vanilla in the custard to the amount of soaking to griddling the bread, every step ensures that the product served to the customer is fast food done right.

As Li explained, it is one of the reasons why French Toast resonates so strongly with people. There are no shortcuts to this breakfast item. When he was growing up, his dad was the one who took the time to make French Toast for those special breakfast mornings. Unlike the pancake mix or frozen waffle, it took time and care to prepare that breakfast.

While Wendy’s is always looking to make a better product, the decision to focus on a nostalgic offering is a departure for the brand. Usually, its new menu items are forward leaning. Li said, “this instance is where I am trying not to be on trend. (The menu item) plays off what I remember, what our consumers remember, as adults, and what they want their kids to experience.”

Even though the family breakfast might be a little more hurried these days, the connection is still there. Nostalgic, familiar, tasty are all descriptions that can set the day on the right path. Given that Wendy’s can capture those sentiments in a menu item ensures that it will continue to be a quick service restaurant breakfast leader.

What does John Li suggest pairing with the new Wendy’s French Toast Sticks?

As guests get that first bite of these French Toast Sticks, the sweet breakfast item cannot be enjoyed alone. While some people might go all in with a Breakfast Baconator or other breakfast sandwich pairing, a satisfying beverage is always a good choice.

For Li, he believes that Wendy’s coffee is the “unsung hero” of the quick service restaurant. While he, personally, is a cold brew coffee drinker with a little touch of that Frosty-ccino cream, another pairing might highlight the contrast of flavors. Li suggested the Wendy’s roast offers the perfect amount of bitterness to balance the sweetness of the maple with the French Toast Sticks.

And, for this writer, another pairing might be a game breakfast flavor experience. If there is an extra hot honey packet close by, consider dipping those French Toast Sticks into the hot honey. It might be the flavor wake-up call at breakfast.

Whether it is a school breakfast, a quick bite, or just a longing for a familiar taste, the new Wendy’s French Toast Sticks are making mornings sweeter. It could make you want to hear that alarm clock go off in the morning.