Using ketchup to dip or slather french fries is a long-established American tradition. The pairing has not only provided consumers with a distinct flavor, but it has given diners the ability to choose how much of the condiment to use, based on their own tastes.
It turns out that this flavor-control ritual also served as the restaurant industry’s foreshadowing of a much larger concept—individualization—that has been sweeping across the industrial world for the past couple of decades.
Restaurants are increasingly using various sauces and dips to provide customers with the ability to construct their own flavor profiles built around existing menu items. This notion is viewed as one aspect of a process that experts have dubbed “mass customization.”
“The idea is that you can create customized products for a large number of customers without a large incremental increase in cost or delivery time,” says Dennis Lombardi, executive vice president at WD Partners, a Columbus, Ohio–based retail design firm.
Mass customization allows customers to be involved in making decisions regarding the design of an end product, often by using technology or flexible manufacturing processes. “This can translate to restaurants just as easily as a manufacturing plant,” Lombardi says.
Some products created through mass customization have thousands, even millions, of permutations, says B. Joseph Pine II, a Minnesota-based partner at the consulting firm Strategic Horizons and an author who has written extensively about the topic.
Customers had few options in mass-produced goods until the 1980s, when Michael Dell pioneered the idea of selling individually customized computers directly to buyers.
“Now, thousands of companies mass customize,” Pine says, “and quick-service restaurant companies are among them.”
One early example was Burger King, whose “Have It Your Way” campaign was used to differentiate itself from McDonald’s, the biggest mass burger operator at the time.
Since then, many quick-service restaurant operators, including McDonald’s, have taken pages, or even chapters, from the mass-customization playbook. In particular, they are using dips and sauces as a relatively inexpensive way to give customers more choices.
In fact, McDonald’s was at the forefront of a major advance in using multiple sauces to provide consumers with more control over their menu items.
In the late 1970s, then-company chef Rene Arend was looking for ways to provide consumers with wider choices as a change of pace. He came up with the idea of fried chicken nuggets with dipping sauce.
Arend tried more than 100 sauce ideas until barbecue, sweet and sour, and hot mustard sauces were selected. The product, Chicken McNuggets, and its dips in prepackaged cups, went into tests in 1979 and were added to the national menu in 1983.