Wendy’s is kind of a big deal. Going by the numbers alone, it is the second-largest burger chain currently operating in the United States, according to Forbes. That puts them behind only the Golden Arches of a little place known as McDonald’s and clearly ahead of fast food rival Burger King. But in terms of signature menu items and trademark deals, the restaurant company is a clear and solid champ. Consider the fact that Wendy’s is the only major fast food chain to serve somewhat quirky items like baked potatoes and chili, a rather innovative move it’s been taking on since the ’80s. The chain has also become highly recognizable for its friendly yellow "Biggie" cups, which offer bigger portions of soft drinks, not to mention its homestyle French fries and the Frosty, its one-of-a-kind chocolate shake-like beverage.
The chain, started by Dave Thomas in 1969 and named after the founder’s daughter, has been one of the chief pioneers in fast food value menus. For decades, Wendy’s has offered a number of sandwiches, sides, and drinks for around a dollar or so. It took the idea to the next level with the memorable, irresistibly low-priced "4 for $4" combo. For less than a five-spot, Wendy’s customers could grab a burger, fries, drinks, and a handful of chicken nuggets. It’s one of Wendy’s most popular promotions ever — and it’s one that shook up the very competitive world of fast food. Here’s the tasty and reasonable history of Wendy’s "4 for $4."
The "4 for $4" idea was created by Wendy’s in the 1980s
Wendy’s "4 for $4" menu is hardly the first time the chain has enticed customers who had a pretty distinct set of needs. These potential diners were looking for a quick and inexpensive meal with voluminous food options costing roughly a dollar each. According to QSRweb, Wendy’s introduced the concept of a value menu meant to cater to those needs way back in 1989. It was all part of a response to larger a price war that had been going on between McDonald’s and Burger King, with the two fast food behemoths first reducing the price of their large and relatively costly burgers, the Big Mac and Whopper, to a mere 99 cents. To get in on the action, Wendy’s launched its Super Value Menu.
Created by Wendy’s Executive Vice President George Condos, according to the Columbus Dispatch, seven items were initially sold for 99 cents on the first Super Value Menu. Among the options were a Junior Bacon Cheeseburger, a green salad, a baked potato, chili, Biggie fries, Biggie soft drinks, and a Frosty. Wendy’s called it "bundling," a practice wherein customers would be compelled to purchase more than just one item at such low prices (via MyRecipes). The Wendy’s "4 for $4" deal is simply the next generation of the Super Value Menu, with the bundling already predetermined by the restaurant, and a way to get customers in and still spend no less than $4 a visit.
Wendy’s "4 for $4" was a savvy entry in a fast food price war
According to Business Insider, Wendy’s introduced the "4 for $4" meal to its menus in late 2015. Cheaper than a regular combo meal, it also offered value in the form of more items than the standard burger-fries-drink deal. The first "4 for $4" was much like a French prix fixe meal, basically a fixed set at a locked-in price. It was comprised of a Junior Bacon Cheeseburger, an order of four Chicken Nuggets, a small order of fries, and a soft drink.
The "4 for $4" was Wendy’s latest entry into an ongoing fast food value menu war. The previous summer, McDonald’s had offered a package deal consisting of a double cheeseburger and small fries for a base price of $2.50. Around the same time, Burger King offered steep discounts via smartphone app coupons and sold its 10-piece chicken nuggets at the rock bottom price of $1.49. Meanwhile, KFC introduced a line of "$5 Fill Ups," which came with a fried chicken-oriented entree, a drink, a side, and a cookie.
Wendy’s shot arguably improved on its competitors’ deals, as it was less expensive than KFC’s but offered more food than McDonald’s and Burger King’s cut-rate combos. "We are very happy with the early results, and we are meeting consumer need for a compelling value with a high quality, unique offering," Wendy’s CEO and president Emil Brolick said in a late 2015 investor call (via Food Business News).
Other chains tried their own "4 for $4" deals
Imitation isn’t only the sincerest form of flattery, as the saying goes. It can also be a sign of unbridled success. Wendy’s "4 for $4" idea was apparently well-received, because McDonald’s, Burger King, and Carl’s Jr. launched their own spins on the program within a year of Wendy’s combo. In 2016, per Fox News, McDonald’s got rid of its popular Dollar Menu in favor of the McPick $2 deal — a collection of items that, if ordered in tandem, cost just $2 each (and thus getting diners to spend $4, just like they would have at Wendy’s). Burger King, meanwhile, more blatantly cribbed from Wendy’s with a hint of gamesmanship, coming out with a deal that gave diners five items for $4. At roughly the same time, Carl’s Jr. instituted the Real Deal, made up of a double cheeseburger, a breaded chicken sandwich, fries, and a drink for — yes, you guessed it — four bucks.
Clearly, there was hostility brewing in the world of Big Burger, and it all soon played out on Twitter. After Wendy’s tweeted a photo of a "4 for $4" with a caption calling it "a trayful of mouth-filling glory," Burger King followed suit, tweeting a picture of a "5 for $4" meal. They were clearly ribbing Wendy’s when they noted that "5 is better than 4." When another Twitter user asked the Wendy’s account, "@Wendys what are you firing back," the chain simply and glibly retorted: "edible food."
Wendy’s "4 for $4" combo keeps evolving
After introducing the "4 for $4" menu in 2015, Wendy’s quickly abandoned the notion of keeping the combo as simple as possible. Previously there was no real possibility of substitutions or frills in this deal. But then, to ramp up its drive to get customers in the door or drive-thru line and, of course, to undercut its competitors, Wendy’s aggressively expanded. The bounty of options that were available in the "4 for $4" combo began to proliferate, allowing for literally dozens of possible combinations available to hungry fast food aficionados. By early 2018, according to QSR magazine, the Junior Cheeseburger was joined in the entree and sandwich category by the Junior Bacon Cheeseburger, the Junior Cheeseburger Deluxe, the Double Stack, the Grilled Go-Wrap, the Spicy Go-Wrap, the Crispy Chicken Sandwich, and the Crispy Chicken BLT. The classic four-piece nuggets, fries, and soft drink deal, of course, remained untouched and unaltered.
In the summer of 2020, Wendy’s once more changed the choices for customers on the "4 for $4" combo, both eliminating some poorly selling and defunct menu items and adding in new ones to cash in on the spicy chicken craze. Out were the wraps, the Junior Cheeseburger Deluxe, the Double Stack, and the Crispy Chicken BLT. In their places in the value menu arena entered the compact Spicy Crispy Chicken Sandwich. Customers could also double up on the fiery fowl and get their four-piece nuggets in a spicier version as well.
Wendy’s eventually brought back the "4 for $4" meal
As befitting its very low price, the Wendy’s "4 for $4" meal consisted entirely of relatively small portions. Customers who cashed in on the deal got a small order of fries, four nuggets, a relatively modest serving of soda, and a single-patty sandwich of their choosing. To bring in customers with bigger appetites — or maybe also those interested in a greater perceived value — Wendy’s introduced the $5 Biggie Bag. According to Chew Boom, Wendy’s first offered the larger but still inexpensive combo in March 2019. It consisted of a massive Bacon Double Stack cheeseburger that came along with a substantially increased order of 10 Crispy Chicken Nuggets. As if that weren’t enough, the combo was also graced with fries and a soft drink, and all for a mere $4. When beef shortages became an issue, Wendy’s switched out the Bacon Double Stack in favor of a Crispy Chicken sandwich.
The chain eventually discontinued both the "4 for $4" meal and the $5 Biggie Bag in all its many forms. But in 2021, owing to the ever-present customer demand for value, Wendy’s brought back both combo formats, albeit for a limited time. According to QSR magazine, the Biggie Bag returned with its original Bacon Double Stack as the star. A few months later, the "4 for $4" made its triumphant return, per Living on the Cheap. This time, diners had three entree choices: the Crispy Chicken Sandwich, Junior Bacon Cheeseburger, or Junior Cheeseburger.