Seven Stories About the Science Behind Fast Food

(AP Photo/Sunday Alamba, File)

I am a pizza apostate. Not only do I use a fork and knife whenever I eat pizza, I also sometimes bypass my normal slice joint for the siren call of deliciously buttered-and-garlic salted crust that only Dominos can deliver.

According to Bloomberg, I am not the only one who can’t resist the Michigan chain’s pies: the company is now worth a staggering $9 billion—its share price has risen more than 2,000 percent since 2010 (outpacing the likes of Google and Apple)—and Dominos has not only been brought back to life, it is now the leading force in the intersection of fast food and technology. As Susan Berfield writes,

Domino’s has always understood the importance of not having to go anywhere. Although you can still walk into a restaurant if you must, there are at least a dozen ways to order a Domino’s pizza in absentia. Some are self-explanatory: mobile apps, Apple Watch, Facebook Messenger. Others need some explanation. To order via Twitter, you must create an online account, save a pizza as your favorite (known as your Easy Order), and connect it to your Twitter account. Then tweet a pizza emoji to @dominos. “We’ll know who you are, what pizza you want, your default location and payment,” Maloney says. “We send a ‘Sounds awesome, are you sure?’ You send a thumbs up.” But if you want to order something other than your favorite, you’re out of luck.

Maloney clears away the remains of our lunch (Pacific Veggie, thin crust) to show me option 12 on his phone: zero-click ordering. “This will freak you out,” he says. “What’s the easiest way to order? When you don’t have to do anything.” One day Maloney and Garcia were in the car with their ad guys, dreaming of how to one-up Amazon’s one-click ordering. Three months later they had their zero-click app, which does require one click to start. “Tap the Domino’s icon to open it and find my Easy Order,” Maloney says. That’s it. “I have 10 seconds before it automatically places the order.” A big countdown clock appears on Maloney’s screen. If he does nothing, his Easy Order, a 12-inch hand-tossed pizza, will be on its way to his home.

While Dominos is at the forefront of our fast food, it isn’t the only company to have paired food science and tech to deliver a product that is utterly craveable. The following are some of the best pieces in the past several years to capture this culinary shift.

The Taste Makers (Raffi Khatchadourian, The New Yorker, 2009)

A deep-dive into the shadowy world of ‘natural flavors,’ including the creations of Snapple’s Strawberry-Kiwi and the medicine-y taste of Red Bull.

The citrus trek had already generated interest from key clients, among them some of the largest beverage companies in the world. What Givaudan’s team was hoping to find in Riverside was a flavor that told a story. Studies have shown that when a flavor is marketed to consumers as a specific botanical type—evocative of a place or a culture, or complete with some peculiar tale of discovery—people are more likely to enjoy it. For instance, “Georgia peach” is preferable to “peach,” even if there is no real difference. Givaudan was not looking to create a juice, although many juices contain natural flavoring—even ones that would not seem to, such as Ocean Spray’s 100% Juice Cranberry & Blueberry. Rather, the company was looking for something more abstract: botanical inspiration. Its discoveries would lead to the creation of nutritionally vacant additives that could be deployed in all manner of processed food, from soft drinks to ice cream. With few exceptions, even the most artificial-seeming flavored products (Tang) are based on things that are natural (orange juice). Hagen told me, “I try not to have any preconceived notions of what to expect. There aren’t a lot of things that haven’t already been discovered, but Mother Nature is a great flavorist.”

Taco Bell and the Golden Age of Drive-Thru (Karl Taro Greenfield, Bloomberg, 2011)

Fast food redefined the eating out experience—it’s akin to how the Industrial Revolution transformed clothing—and this feature details the lengths chains will go to in order to shave a few seconds off a customer’s wait time.

The operations are now so fast and so efficient that there may not be many more seconds to be wrung out of the current system. A human being can only order so fast, drive so fast, and hand over his currency or credit card so fast. “They have gotten to a place where it is probably as fast and accurate as it is going to be,” says Blair Chauncey, of QSR magazine, adding that this is one of the reasons her magazine stopped doing the Performance Study after 2009. “We got to the point where they were separated by a few seconds and everyone’s accuracy was above 90 percent. Everyone has gotten so good.”

Deep Inside Taco Bell’s Doritos Locos Taco (Austin Carr, Fast Company, 2013)

I love Taco Bell, and the Doritos Locos Taco is one of the greatest inventions of mankind.

Like any serious renovation, Taco Bell’s started with a trip to Home Depot. It was April 2009. To show executives how the companies could fuse the flavor of Doritos with taco shells, the dev teams “basically went out to Home Depot to buy a paint-spray gun, and then sprayed [Doritos] flavoring onto our existing yellow corn tacos,” recalls Creed, with a chuckle. “It was pretty funny watching people from behind glass spraying our tacos with a paint gun. But it was enough for us to know conceptually that we had a big idea.”

Naked Chicken Chalupa, via tacobell.com

Stunt Food (Sophie Egan, Wired, 2013)

Stunt foods have two purposes: to attract attention and be absolutely delicious. Like Taco Bell’s Naked Chicken Chalupa, in which a fried chicken breast replaces the taco shell. Egan explores several of the most popular offerings.

The granddaddy of the stunt-foods movement is the KFC Double Down: a “bunless” bacon and jack sandwich that substitutes fried chicken fillets for slices of bread. (In its April 2010 press release, the chicken chain bragged it would be donating “unneeded” sandwich buns to food banks.) Between the blogosphere brouhaha and YouTube videos—in which thousands of people watched other people go to test-market KFCs and try the sandwich, bragging, “Bet you wish you lived here!”—the Double Down earned more buzz during testing than any other menu item in the company’s history. So much that KFC announced the nationwide arrival of the product before it was even available. In the press release, Javier Benito, executive vice president of marketing and food innovation, explained the unusual move: “We want fans to have time to arrange their schedules in advance for a visit to KFC to try this legendary sandwich.”

The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food (Michael Moss, New York Times Magazine, 2013)

An explosive and damning piece that details the lengths that food conglomerates went to hook people on food that—in itself—is completely unhealthy.

According to the sources I spoke with, [Head of General Mills’ Stephen] Sanger began by reminding the group that consumers were “fickle.” (Sanger declined to be interviewed.) Sometimes they worried about sugar, other times fat. General Mills, he said, acted responsibly to both the public and shareholders by offering products to satisfy dieters and other concerned shoppers, from low sugar to added whole grains. But most often, he said, people bought what they liked, and they liked what tasted good. “Don’t talk to me about nutrition,” he reportedly said, taking on the voice of the typical consumer. “Talk to me about taste, and if this stuff tastes better, don’t run around trying to sell stuff that doesn’t taste good.” To react to the critics, Sanger said, would jeopardize the sanctity of the recipes that had made his products so successful. General Mills would not pull back. He would push his people onward, and he urged his peers to do the same. Sanger’s response effectively ended the meeting.

Burger King is Run By Children (Devin Leonard, Bloomberg, 2014)

I ran cross country in high school, and following my school’s weekly meet, held in the Bronx’s Van Cortlandt park, the entire team would repair to the closest Burger King for what was a truly amazing Whopper. Though anything will taste good after running 2.5 miles of hilly terrain, I always have a soft spot for Burger King, but not many others do, which explains why Daniel Schwartz became the chain’s 21st CEO by his early 30s.

Last summer a trim guy with wavy brown hair, high cheekbones, and a broad smile could be found making Whoppers, working the drive-through window, and scrubbing bathrooms at a Burger King in Miami. His name was Daniel Schwartz. He learned to make a Whopper in less than 35 seconds and blended in well with his fellow employees, except for the fact that Schwartz had a guy with a video camera trailing him. “I cleaned about 15 toilets in the past two days,” he boasted at one point, as if he’d just completed a marathon. Schwartz was justifiably pumped. That June he’d been named Burger King’s chief executive officer, with a $700,000 annual salary and a potential cash bonus of twice that. There was another reason for Schwartz to be exuberant: He was only 32 and well on his way to becoming a star in the fast-food industry.