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Packing Heat: Burgers Getting Spicier and Spicier

04/10/2015 03:51 pm ET | Updated Jun 10, 2015
BurgerBusiness

Wendy's next week introduces the Jalapeňo Fresco Spicy Chicken Sandwich and a sidekick, Ghost Pepper Fries. These are the burger world's latest attempt to see just how fiery a sandwich can be. Diners say, "Bring it on."

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Wendy's packs heat: the new chicken sandwich features an all-white-meat chicken breast topped with fresh, diced jalapeños and a proprietary ghost pepper sauce. It all goes on a freshly toasted red jalapeño bun. Menu is $4.99 (interesting because Wendy's reportedly tested the sandwich at $5.49). The Ghost Pepper Fries are covered with cheese sauce and then topped with diced, fresh jalapeños, shredded Cheddar cheese and a ghost pepper sauce. They'll be $1.99.

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Wendy's Jalapeňo Fresco Spicy Chicken comes on the heels of Carl's Jr. -- and sibling Hardee's introducing the $5.49 El Diablo, a third-pound or half-pound Black Angus burger with jalapeňo peppers, pepper-Jack cheese, habanero sauce, sliced jalapeňos, and bacon. How spicy is this burger? Advertising gives this warning: "This Lava Bomb Will Melt Your Face Off."

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"Spicy" certainly isn't new, but the kinds of ultra-spicy products coming on the market do reflect a shift in how much heat diners can stomach. Jalapeňos are giving way to habaneros and ghost peppers.

"When it comes to spicy food, a lot of the consumer research being done on the topic today clearly shows that the public's desire for heat just keeps growing and growing every year," said Brad Haley, chief marketing officer of Carl's Jr. and Hardee's, in a release announcing the burger. "We've witnessed that phenomenon in our own restaurants, where potential menu items that used to be rated as 'too spicy' in our market tests just a few years ago are now just right."

Earlier this week, Burgerville, the Pacific Northwest regional chain that tends more to organic ingredients than spice, joined the trend with a Spicy Pickled Pepper Cheeseburger, topped with pickled peppers and chipotle mayo.

Spicy burgers and chicken sandwiches have been piling up on chain menus. Ghost Pepper sauce is on the Jack's Blazin' Chicken on Jack in the Box's menu, which also includes a Spicy Sriracha Burger (below). Burger King recently ran a Spicy BLT Whopper LTO and earlier offered a Spicy Big Fish for Lent. Red Robin Gourmet Burgers has a Fiery Ghost Tavern Double burger with ghost pepper sauce, pepper-Jack cheese and jalapenos.

Wendy's has had several version of spicy chicken sandwiches and nuggets. A Spicy Chipotle burger and chicken sandwich were LTOs. Smashburger tried a Spicy Buffalo Chicken sandwich.

McDonald's isn't riding the heat wave. It's new slimmed down menu doesn't offer many spicy options. The new Sirloin Third Pound burgers don't have a spicy version either. It's one more area for the Arches to look at as it rethinks the brand.