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Consistency of taste and ambiance, no matter the location, has helped bulk up the U.S. burger business to its present $42.3 billion size. Now the industry leaders McDonald's Corp. and Burger King Corp. are racing to prove that at their thousands of restaurants, diners can now expect something different.

"A higher level of consumer focus is the call phrase," says Lehman Bros. restaurant analyst Mitchell Speiser. "It comes down to customized sandwiches, service with a smile and just a heightened focus on the customer."


Burger King's tactics include a national TV campaign launched in August focusing on taste, a futuristic restaurant design in market test, and new programs to speed up service and make the dining experience less sterile and anonymous.

Chairs actually can be moved at new Burger Kings. See-through bags also allow customers to confirm, at a glance, botched orders.

All this is viewed as a pre-emptive strike against archrival McDonald's, which currently is rolling out a cooking system aimed at improving the taste of its food. The system, dubbed Made For You, will make it easier to customize orders, move items nationally more quickly and serve regional fare like bagels or lobster rolls.


The burger giant is so intent on adding the new equipment, to cost some $25,000 per store, that it is footing half the bill for franchisees.

These moves come as McDonald's experiences growth after tough sledding in the mid-1990s and Burger King suffers stagnant sales after an impressive turnaround. BK reported same-store sales dipped 5% from January to August of this year compared to last year.

According to restaurant consultancy Technomic, both gained market share last year, Burger King up 0.9 percentage points and McDonald's up 0.6 points.

Burgers take center stage in the current ad skirmishes: Whoppers at BK and McDonald's Big Xtra, a burger slapped from the new cooking system. Big Xtra will be the first national sandwich launched by McDonald's in some three years.


Wendy's International has added burger advertising to other ads plugging specialty sandwiches. Wendy's multi-product ad menu is supported by an infusion of marketing dollars from beverage supplier Coca-Cola Co. -- part of its cost for soft-drink exclusivity.

Last year, Wendy's was the lone chain in the top three to increase ad spending, forking out $188.4 million in media, up 9.2%, as it boosted its share 0.2 points.

Observers say burger chains should be crowing about burgers. That may seem obvious, but in recent years the top chains have spent considerable chunks of media on everything from breakfast biscuits to chicken nuggets, not to mention tie-ins with movies.

"At some point you have to get back to the product that brought you to the party," says Ron Paul, president of Technomic. "Most of the [ad] dollars should support the core product line, differentiating from others that line's fresher, bigger, better, faster attributes."

Little threat to the big three is seen on a broad scale from other players, none truly national, although Jack in the Box is seeking to change that. It has started a restaurant building program in Charlotte, N.C., Baton Rouge, La., and Nashville, Tenn., with its sights on 500 in the Southeast in the next few years. The chain, prior to its sale by Ralston Purina Co. to Foodmaker (being renamed Jack in the Box Inc. in October), had East and Midwest locations before pulling back in 1979.

"They will be pretty successful wherever they go," Mr. Paul says of Jack in the

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