Wendy’s John Li talks balancing heat, sweet, and Made to Crave on the menu, interview

Wendy's John Li on the May Menu launches, photo provided by Wendy's
Wendy's John Li on the May Menu launches, photo provided by Wendy's /

Wendy’s and menu innovation go hand in hand. From the evolution of the iconic Frosty to expanding the Made to Crave menu, the quick service restaurant brand never strays away from its signature concept of fast food done right. For John Li, Wendy’s VP of Culinary Innovation, bringing new food items to the table can be exciting but it is more than just making a splash for headlines.

From appreciating food trends to satisfying Wendy’s loyal customers, the food offerings need to make a connection far more than just eating another meal. As seen with the new Ghost Pepper Chicken Sandwich, Ghost Pepper Fries, and returning Strawberry Frosty, this menu launch hits all the flavor profiles, and everyone will leave the table feeling satiated.

Although some quick service restaurants are serving totally new menu items for summer, Wendy’s appreciated that it did not need to totally reinvent the menu. Speaking specifically to the Strawberry Frosty, Li referenced the importance of listening to its core fans. “Why would you not relaunch something that blew the socks off of the business. Sometimes it’s better to celebrate that effort and bring it back.” The fans loved Strawberry Frosty and that is why it is back on the menu.

While summer might be strawberry season, Wendy’s understands that its Frosty is unlike anything else in the quick service restaurant market. It defies being put in a particular frozen dessert box. Anyone who has eaten that dessert appreciates the sentiment. From choosing a spoon, straw, or French fry for dipping, the Frosty cannot be defined by anything else but its name.

Wendy's Strawberry Frosty
Wendy’s Strawberry Frosty returns, photo provided by Wendy’s /

For Li, that Frosty foundation allows his team to see beyond the classic flavors. With the Strawberry Frosty, the real strawberry puree combined with the vanilla base seemed destined to become a guest favorite. Going back to the brand’s mantra, fast food done right starts with that strong foundation. Shiny newness might bring excitement, but it is nothing without that foundation.

The Strawberry Frosting might be the sweetness on the Wendy’s May menu, but the Ghost Pepper Ranch Chicken Sandwich and accompanying Ghost Pepper Fries will bring color to everyone’s cheeks. While spicy flavors continue to trend, the reality is that this dish is not just heat for heat sake. It is about the balance of flavors and textures.

Li explained that Wendy’s wanted to capture the complexity of flavors and textures in that Ghost Pepper Ranch Chicken Sandwich. While the heat level was imperative, it had to capture total eating satisfaction, which is part of that Made to Crave philosophy and the leaning forward approach to Wendy’s menu development.

Specifically, Li commented on wanting to create a sandwich build that exceeds consumers expectations. Wendy’s is ready and willing to put in the time and effort to develop that sandwich which hits the flavors. As Li said, “if consumers want ghost pepper, you better be delivering ghost pepper.” The consumer might not make that dish at home, but they are not willing to sacrifice flavor and satisfaction when they are eating out.

Wendy's Ghost Pepper Ranch Chicken Sandwich
Wendy’s Ghost Pepper Ranch Chicken Sandwich, photo provided by Wendy’s /

Looking the Ghost Pepper Ranch Chicken Sandwich, Li said it is about “crunch, contrast, flavor balance,” when creating that food item. For this sandwich the crispiness of the chicken with the seasoned crispy onions and the creaminess of the ranch hit those notes. When taken in totality, there is nothing better.

Although there is emphasis on the spice level from the Ghost Pepper, Li does not want people to forget about the ranch component. Wendy’s ranch has the tanginess that awakens the palate. When paired with the ghost pepper heat, it is that rounded flavor that hits all the notes.

Still, the Wendy’s Ghost Pepper Ranch Chicken Sandwich is not for the spice adverse. Li puts the spice level at an 8, at least, but that level is intentional. This food item is not meant to hide its boldness. It is about embracing that flavor for all it is worth.

Wendy’s embraces its description of Queen of Spicy. Who does not remember the first time they enjoyed those spicy nuggets? Even though that food item might be the gold standard, the Wendy’s brand continues to look ahead to the next food trend, product innovation, and menu creativity. Although no one is ready to reveal what could be on the fall or winter menu, Li suggests that people look to their local Trader Joe’s, grocery store, or favorite food publication for suggestions. When people are craving a particular ingredient or flavor, Wendy’s is probably experimenting with it in the test kitchen.

For now, the Ghost Pepper Ranch Chicken Sandwich, Ghost Pepper Ranch Fries and Strawberry Frosty are on the menu for everyone to enjoy. Whether that meal is all about the heat, ends with a touch of sweetness, or goes on a flavor journey, Wendy’s has guests covered. When that craving hits, Wendy’s fast food done right always delivers.