By , Rachel Sugar
Published December 05, 2016
When you walk into a Burger King, you don’t order a “hamburger”—you order a Whopper. The name was designed to “convey the imagery of bigness,” which, yes, it does.
In the years since, it’s become not just one of many burger options but a brand icon. Most menu items never reach those heights (sorry, Italian Chicken Sandwich). The ones that do become household names. In a divided America, the knowledge of the Whopper is one thing that unites us all.
But a good name is hard to find. The greats are distinctive, but also descriptive; quirky, but not confusing. And the stakes are high: The right name can be the difference between a middling success and a legend. To find out how the magic happens, we talked to four major restaurant chains about how they dreamed up some of their most beloved item names.
Munchkins, Dunkin' Donuts
If you’ve eaten at Dunkin’ in the last 40 years, or worked in an office, you are probably familiar with Munchkins—tiny balls of donut served in boxes by the dozen. They weren’t always Munchkins, though. The first time they made their relatively unglamorous debut on the menu, they were simply “Donut Holes.”
This makes sense because that is exactly what they are. “Like a lot of things in food, you look for ways to reduce waste,” says Jeff Miller, executive chef and VP of product innovation at Dunkin’ Brands. When you make ring donuts, you cut them out of the dough and pop out the centers. Usually, those bits get worked back into the dough, but someone at Dunkin’—while there are conflicting accounts as to exactly who first had the idea, Dunkin’ founder William Rosenberg’s official history credits then-VP Phil Gordon—had the idea to fry ‘em up and sell ‘em cheap. You could buy a dozen Donut Holes for what was then 19 cents, less than the price of a single donut. Immediately, they were a hit. The problem, as quickly became clear, is that they were starting to eat into the sales of actual donuts: People weren’t buying them in addition to the classics, but instead of them.
Still, it was obviously a good idea. Maybe it just needed a new name.
And so, in the early ‘70s, the Dunkin’ marketing team landed on Munchkins, after the characters in The Wizard of Oz, because basically everyone loves The Wizard of Oz. And the name fit: as Miller points out, Munchkins (the donuts), are small and cute and eminently munchable. Dunkin’ got the exclusive rights to the name for cheap. According to company lore, they did a test run of the new name in Providence: in three stores, the bite-sized pastries were sold as “Donut Holes;” in three other stores, they made their debut as Munchkins. The Munchkins won in a landslide. The little dough balls were officially rechristened in 1972.
The Fribble, Friendly's
If “Munchkin” is whimsical, Fribble is whimsy times one million. If it has not yet been done, someone should definitely write a musical about it.
In 1935, Curtis and Prestley Blake founded their first ice cream shop in Springfield, Massachusetts. They already had a few locations going strong when they met George Bond, who had his own a chain of ice cream shops in New Jersey: Bond’s Ice Cream. The trio met up every so often, to talk shop and swap ideas.
Sometime in the mid-40s, Bond got a hold of the Blake Brothers and said, "Hey, I’ve been working on this extra thick milkshake, and I’d love for you guys to come down and see what you think of it,’” says John Macguire, Friendly’s current President and CEO. Bond’s drink was called an “Extra Thick Chocolate Milk Shake,” because, again, that’s what it is.
In a delightful twist of fate, Bond then had one of his regulars try the shake. “And the customer drank it in about two minutes flat, and he set down the glass, and he said, ‘Wow, that was awful big, and that was awful good.” And so the drink became known as the “Awful Awful,” both at Bond’s Ice Cream and Friendly’s—they weren’t direct competitors at the time, so why not? But by 1960, says Macguire, Friendly’s was ready to expand to New Jersey, and so they asked Bond, who owned the name, if they could keep calling the shake the Awful Awful on the menu. Bond, quite reasonably, said no.
And so in 1965 the Blake brothers decided to hold an employee contest to rename the milkshake, $100 for whoever comes up with the winning name. “And three different people come back with the name Fribble,” says Macguire. “Three different people!” (Fribble is indeed a real dictionary word, meaning either “to fool away” (v), or “a frivolous person, thing, or idea” (n).) “It was unique, it was differentiated, it had a certain whimsy to it, and when you put it with ‘Friendly’s,’ it rolls of the tongue pretty nicely.” The total cost of the whole naming process: $300.
The Bloomin' Onion, Outback Steakhouse
Sometimes, it is even easier that that. Take the Bloomin’ Onion, an overwhelming mega-hit, known as both the number-one best-selling appetizer in American casual dining, and a 1,954 calorie nutritional disaster. (To be fair, it is meant to be shared.)
To trace the origins of America’s favorite faux-Australian onion, says Outback co-founder Tim Gannon, you’ve got to go back to the beginning of the restaurant itself in 1988.
Before he teamed up with Chris Sullivan and Bob Basham to get the place going, Gannon had been working in restaurants in New Orleans. “My dream for Outback was to bring in the great flavors of New Orleans to a nationwide concept,” he says.
One might point out here that Outback is not, in fact, a New Orleans-themed restaurant, but “the style of the food was bold, bold flavors,” Gannon explains, “and we needed a theme that would match that.” They wanted to do something new, something that would capture diners’ curiosity. And so they settled on Australia, which, though the first restaurant was in Tampa, Florida, made a kind of intuitive sense: “Australia was very popular back then—the movie Crocodile Dundee had just come out, it was the 200th Anniversary of Australia, they had just won the big sail boat race [the 1983 America’s Cup—a big deal, if you care about boats]. There was just a lot of buzz about Australia at that time.” Plus, Gannon says, Australians, as a group, have a reputation for boldness.
Once the team had the vision down, he says, “everything else flowed.” Gannon had been doing an early version of the onion back in New Orleans, inspired by vegetables carved into flowers that he’d seen in a Japanese cookbook. From the get-go, Sullivan knew he wanted a zingier version of it on the menu.
“So we created this new onion with new flavor profiles,” Gannon explains, “and Chris said, ‘let’s call it a Bloomin’ Onion, and take off the ‘G’ to have fun. Because they use ‘Bloomin’—that’s a great expression from Australians.” It really is: these days, Gannon says, they’re selling a bloomin’ 17 million onions a year.
CrunchWrap Supreme, Taco Bell
That was in 1988. These days, the process is rarely so simple, thanks in large part to increasingly sophisticated market testing. Take, for example, the notably more scientific origins of the CrunchWrap Supreme.
In 2005, Taco Bell began experimenting with a tortilla-wrapped hard-shell taco. The Food Innovation and marketing teams had been hearing from customers that tacos were too hard to eat on the go; tacos may be a perfect food, but it’s difficult to eat while driving. Then genius struck: what if the tacos were also swaddled in a soft tortilla?
The question was what to call it. “We were playing with the fact that it’s almost eaten like a sandwich,” says Melissa Friebe, VP of Taco Bell’s Insights Lab, “so we called it a CrunchWich.” But during testing, consumers didn’t feel “wich” was suitably on-brand. “They said, ‘you’re not sandwiches, you guys are Mexican. It’s a wrap!” CrunchWrap it was.
A good name, Friebe says, has to fit with what consumers expect from Taco Bell—that was the problem with the too-sandwichy CrunchWich—but it also has to be delight the consumer in new and unexpected ways. “It’s always a balance between coming up with a name that drives curiosity and interest, but also fits what the product is.” It’s a science, finding that sweet spot: it takes lots of people and rounds upon rounds of testing and consumer feedback. Research, surveys, tastings, market testing. When the success of the world’s foremost portable taco is on the line, you don’t leave it to chance.
Sure, there will always be “cheeseburgers” and “hamburgers” and “short stacks” of “pancakes.” But the next time you’re studying a menu and you see that telling little ® sign, breathe deep, and appreciate the artistry before you. That Chocolate Thunder from Down Under didn’t name itself.