HARTFORD, Conn. – When Sonic Drive-in opened its first Connecticut franchise in Wallingford last month, it came just in time to serve the fast-food chain’s newest menu item, the Footlong Quarter Pound Coney hot dog.
The beef and pork hot dog is topped with chili and melted cheese. And it is, as the name suggests, one quarter of a pound and a foot long: 810 calories (480 from fat), 53 grams of fat (22 grams of which are saturated fat), 1,800 grams of sodium, 56 grams of carbs and 33 grams of protein.
In terms of gluttony, it’s extreme, but hardly alone. KFC made a splash in the spring with its Double Down: two bacon strips, cheese and sauce sandwiched between two pieces of chicken. Last year, the biggest news to come out of the Northeast’s Big E fair was something called the Craz-E Burger, a cheeseburger topped with bacon, placed between two halves of a grilled glazed doughnut.
These are not so much menu offerings but dares, and they’re thriving at a time when there’s probably more awareness of nutrition and the dangers of obesity than ever. In fact, it might be this awareness that’s spurring on the so-called “stunt foods.”
Kelly Brownell, director of Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy, says these extreme meals are singling out a specific customer.
“They want to appeal to young men and to the contrarians who don’t want to be told what to eat by nutrition people,” he says.
That these restaurants often offer more healthful fare doesn’t lessen Brownell’s criticism.
“They want to cover all their bases; they want to appear like they are making progress,” he says. “I do think the company should be held accountable for their pledges to create healthful foods when they’re also doing this.”
A spokesperson for Sonic said no one was available to talk about the quarter-pound hot dog, or the criticism of it. She did, though, e-mail some nutrition facts about the restaurant that pointed out that Sonic “offers menu options for health conscious consumers who long to have fun with their food, and watch calories too.”
A grilled chicken sandwich with wheat bun, apple slices with low-fat caramel dipping sauce, bananas, salads and smoothies (with two to three times the sugar found in a can of Coke) are among the dishes they highlight for the health-conscious.
The extreme dishes are still anomalies, but Brownell fears that the extra-large portions and fatty content will become the norm. When McDonald’s rolled out the Big Mac in 1967, the mere size of it was an attention-getter. If it came out today, though, its 540 calories and 29 grams of fat would barely raise an eyebrow.
It’s downright prim compared to an order of Five Guys’ large fries, boasting 1,471 calories and 71 grams of fat.
That these over-the-top items are “forbidden fruit” is part of the appeal.
So says J. Justin Wilson, the Center for Consumer Freedom, a non-profit group funded in part by the restaurant industry. With so many warnings about fat, sugar and sodium, he says, eating a towering burger becomes an act of rebellion.
“All of these items are introduced with a certain degree of bravado,” he says. “This is what happens when you push too hard against people’s wills.”
In a way, he says, these extreme meals have their roots in local steakhouses that challenged customers to “eat this three-pound steak in an hour, and get it free!” Its modern incarnation, he says, began when Hardees rolled out Monster Thickburger in 2004. Weighing in at 1,420 calories and 107 grams of fat, Wilson says it “openly mocked the food police.”
And it was wildly successful, getting publicity for a chain “that a lot of people had forgotten existed.”