Freddy's CMO Describes The Best Burger, Chef Collabs, And New Fast Food Items - Exclusive Interview

Freddy's is a relative newcomer on the fast food scene. According to Forbes, the chain first popped up in 2002 in Wichita, Kansas. The burger franchise, defined by its flat-pounded steakburgers, originally started off as a single location run by a 92-year-old World War II veteran, his son, and a friend. Over time, the restaurant expanded across the country and by 2018, Freddy's found its way to over 30 states.

Chewboom reports that the chain now plans to bring back their A1 Chophouse Steakburger, which comes loaded with two patties, white cheddar, onions, mushrooms, and a garlic-A1 sauce. Making a burger like this takes planning and skill, and a solid amount of work went into the conception of the sandwich. Laura Rueckel, the CMO of Freddy's, sat down with Mashed and delved into how a burger at a fast food chain goes from idea to food, what makes a good burger, and much more.

The story of Freddy's

I'm excited to hear what's going on, so tell me about it. What's the promotion?

Maybe I should start with this. Have you ever been to a Freddy's?

I personally haven't, so I'm also excited to learn more about it.

Okay, I think that frames it up. That's important to set the stage of what Freddy's is and how Freddy's is a little bit different, and then what we're all about, and then that leads to the promotion.

Freddy's is a chain that actually started in the Midwest and does cooked-to-order steak burgers. Everything is cooked-to-order, which is a really big differentiator, meaning that until your order is actually placed at the counter, nothing gets tossed on the grill. It's not sitting there in the back waiting to be zapped in the microwave, or thrown in the bag. It's truly customized and a lot of people don't know this about Freddy's: You can make it any way you want. You can add things. You can take things off. There's all kinds of little hacks out there that people have done over the years whereby they have made a bunch of stuff and do funny YouTube videos about it, which is always fun to watch.

As a part of that, even though our core offering is something called an original double, which is two great patties with cheese and pickles, we want to make sure we're introducing new things to our consumers. A lot of brands do that pretty often.

Why Freddy's chose an A1 steak sauce

That's part of why we have the promotion right now. It's an oldie that we actually brought back because it was so popular, and a lot of people have been asking when it's coming back, so we are giving the fans what they want with both the burger, and the other item that we're featuring which is the root beer float.

Tell me about the choice for the A1 steak sauce. That's a unique ingredient. How did Freddy's settle on that one?

Over the course of the years, we've played around with different flavors and you'll continue to see that from Freddy's, whether we might lean in a little bit more of a spicy sauce, or maybe we're going to lean into a little bit more of a bold rich flavor space, which is really a little bit more of where A1 stands.

This burger, when you look at the sautéed mushrooms, the grilled onions, those are freshly grilled that moment you order. When you take that and then the white cheese, it leans [into] a little bit more of that bold, savory flavor, which the A1 sauce is so perfect for.

The flavor profile of the new sauce

That said, to be clear, it is not just A1 sauce. It is actually a homemade sauce that we make with A1, so our technical name for it is the A1 and garlic sauce. It's got a garlic flavoring in there.

We actually make that sauce fresh every day. That's another thing that a lot of people don't know about Freddy's; our quality and [premium] ingredients, incredibly fresh — those onions are cut every morning. Those burgers are very fresh. That's a part of the sauce flavoring, was really to lean in on the bold. Again, you'll see more from us during different times of the year with some different flavor profiles.

It's big juicy, messy, amazing. If it gets all over your mouth, that's okay. People really like it.

Are you able to say what's actually in the sauce? So it's garlic and A1, but can you actually talk about the other ingredients of the sauce?

I don't actually have the full list in front of me, so I can't, but it's the A1 and zesty garlic sauces, so we'll leave it at that — although they're probably online somewhere. I'm sure somewhere we published that information.

What it takes to make a burger

I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about what that process is like, from the thought process of brainstorming and making the actual item and taking it all the way to having an actual physical sandwich on the menu. How does that work?

It's a combination of an art and a science, and in this case, this particular case, this was a burger that had been around a few years ago, when I talk about bringing it back. However, that's not the standard, and I can speak to that process in general.

It all starts with the guest insights. We're looking at what people are buying. We're looking at trends in the culinary space, things like, I'll pick on spicy as an example. It doesn't go away as a trend, which was part of why we, last fall, brought the jalapeno burger back. It's sold like hot cakes. It's now a permanent menu item. [We're] constantly looking, [and] you got to start with your insights, your guest data on what are people like and then you combine that with and then what's right for our brand.

Flavor profiles that the public love

Just because it's some big flavor trend or a particular type of food doesn't necessarily mean that it fits with Freddy's as a brand. Freddy's is a very family centric community [of] delicious steakburgers, our shoestring fries, custard. It's just that. We want to make sure that anything we put out is aligned with who we are. The other thing is, then you combine that with the execution. We do have 400 locations, and we literally opened four restaurants two days ago, all in the same day, which is not something that always happens. We're opening a lot of stores and we're growing real really fast, and you've got to make sure that at the end of the day, all of it can get executed. You can't over complicate it.

That's the unique piece of it. We look at it process wise, certainly from our savory burgers, as well as our sweet treats, and put it through the usual stuff: consumer testing, getting feedback, some of [the] initial online concepts all the way through to tasting it and executing it.

How Freddy's found the right sauce flavors

It'd be great to hear a bit more about that process too. For this particular A1 garlic sauce combo, was there a focus group you had to go through and were there variations of this sauce that were getting tested before you settled on A1 garlic? 

Yeah, there's always some focus groups. Definitely. We played around with different sauces over the time and we actually have, from a sauce standpoint, we have a signature fries sauce. We use certain sauces with our cheese curds, as an example. Getting the sauce right on the burger is a big thing. You definitely want to make sure it [works, by] playing around in the kitchen once we got to that bold, savory profile. Once you get the profile that you're wanting and that you know goes with those mushrooms, then it's some tweaks along the way.

When you were thinking about this new item, do you have those words of bold and savory of mind before going into it, and you're trying to capture that or were you working backwards to get to that point?

No. The official marketing terminology maybe came later, but no, when I use those words, I'm thinking of them truly as culinary profiles. They were there from the start. The intent is truly a nice, big, bold burger that's got really good savory flavor. "How do we make sure we're delivering on that?" That was there from the beginning.

Finding the right burger flavors

It's also interesting that flavor profiles are a big selling point when you're trying to create an item. Are there any other really popular ones, like these profiles that come to your head?

We are about really executing a good burger every day. A lot of that is around things like making sure that the cheese is melted right, making sure the burgers press properly. We talk about our thin crispy edges on the burger. That's part of what our burgers are like and what makes them really great and delicious. From an LTO [limited time offer] standpoint, we want to make sure we're throwing in newer on-trend things that we know our guests really love, so we talk about things like juicy and certainly fresh. We have a very premium product. We are not what I would call your average QSR Restaurant.

What trends are you trying to tap into right now?

I wouldn't say the specifics. Generally speaking, [the biggest thing is] we want to make sure we're getting new people to hear and learn about Freddy's. We're expanding into new markets really quickly. A lot of people haven't had a Freddy's before, so how do you make sure that we're enticing them to come to the restaurant? Once people have had Freddy's, they're like, "Oh, I get it." You know, it's this element of delicious and quality overlaid with our hospitality, which is a really key important tenant of our brand. As far as flavors and flavor trends, I'm going to plead the fifth on that one.

Making the best ice cream float

Know there's a lot of stuff coming, so stay tuned. We've got certainly the back half of the year. We will continue to be innovating, bringing new LTOs to the market and to be honest in a bigger way than we've ever done.

It sounds like you've also worked on a lot of these projects before, not just the particular A1 burger, but the frozen custard float. What's the hardest part of bringing a new menu item to fruition? What's the biggest challenge in that entire process?

I would say it is balancing the idea and the execution. I know that's very simple, but you can build some amazing products, you get these great ideas and, "Oh, we can do [something] that's so on-trend." At the end of the day, you got to be able to source all of your ingredients. You got to be able to get them en masse. In my case, I'm not just [one or two] restaurants. I got to be able to get them in 38 states across the country at a specific time, which is becoming more challenging these days.

Freddy's reason for using frozen custard

One of the other things is the frozen custard too — it was an interesting choice for the floats. Could you talk to me a bit about that? What's the reason for custard instead of a regular ice cream or soft or something?

That is actually all we sell. We are a frozen custard concept and a lot of people in some areas of the country are incredibly familiar with the product and the differences of certainly an ice cream and definitely a soft serve. At the end of the day, it is a premium ice cream, right. That is a part of what it is.

It's a much higher quality. It's actually denser. There's less air in it, and it's so creamy and delicious that ... it hangs with you. It's mild, and certainly above soft serve, I have to say. It's a completely different flavor and texture. To be honest, it really wasn't an option on float or should we serve it with this or should we serve it with that? People have been menu hacking this for a while.

That was part of why we were like, "Wait a minute, we should make this an official launch or LTO in this case because people have figured out, 'Wait a minute, we could add a lot of things with this custard.'" We're going out with root beer. People love root beer at Freddy's, we over index on root beer more than some of our other competitors. Let's give them what they want. That's how we got to root beer float.

Making the best burger

When you work with desserts and with your regular savory menu items, is it the same process, both ways around?

It is very similar. The process is a critical part of it. I've got to make sure that, regardless of what Freddy's you go to, that the team is making that product with excellence, with the right ingredients. Regardless of what the menu item is, we have to make sure we go through all those steps and that it's going to be a proven winner that we know that guests are going to really enjoy and ultimately come to Freddy's for that product.

For you personally, what makes a good burger?

Quality is a definite. Real beef, although I've had things like bison burgers too, but to me, quality is upmost. Freshness things like buns being fresh. In our case, fresh lettuce and not frozen wilted stuff. There's a lot of not-so-quality, "fresh" burgers out there and that's a huge thing. I do like the ability to customize my burger and add a bunch of toppings that are fresh. Sauces also play into that. I am definitely not, although a lot of people are, a plain cheese burger girl. I'm going to add all the pickles and the lettuce and the onions. In our case, we have, as an example, we have a California style burger that has thousand island dressing on and it's delicious. I would put those two things up as my top.

The best Freddy's has to offer

Take me for instance, I haven't been to Freddy's before. If I went there for the first time, what's the go-to order that someone should order?

Our number one go-to is what we call the original double. It's our highest selling burger. It's usually when people say, "What should I try?" That's the usual one. It's just the signature item. It's the one that's been around since the first restaurant opened. It is a double steakburger, because [they] are pressed thin patties. You got to get at least two of them. It's got cheese and our delicious pickles, they're flat planks. They're not round, which is a unique element. It's also what you compliment them with. Our fries are very thin and we call them shoestring fries, people eat them by the handful with our signature sauce, as well as things like cheese curds. Our cheese curds are on point.

How to make a great burger

With that being said, do you personally have any burger secrets, how to make a good burger, like any burger insights that you could give to the Mashed audience?

That's a good question. I don't think it's about burger secrets, but it's fun as a consumer and as a guest to play around with it and make it your own with what you like. We have the ability to do that at Freddy's, but then people [can] take that one step farther. When I see folks, they'll put the cheese curds in the burger and make it up or they'll take a half of this and half of [something else], that's a part of food and the enjoyment of food and meals. Have fun with it.

Ultimately, if you land on something that you like and you order that same thing every single time you come, that's okay, but don't be afraid to try something new. You might, in the example of our LTO, I don't know that somebody might always have gotten the number one and that's all that they order. Don't be afraid to try something new.

The best and worst burger toppings

Has there ever been a situation where something hasn't worked before in terms of burger toppings, like you tested something and ... people had a really negative reaction to it, or personally speaking, what doesn't work on a burger for you? 

Burgers are an interesting thing because people are putting a lot of different stuff on them. I definitely have my own personal preferences, which are probably irrelevant. I don't know if I want to go on record for saying this, but I'm not a big tomato jam girl. It's not my thing. Love the bacon ... but that's a personal thing. I'll put tomato on my burger all day, but I don't prefer ketchup on the burger. I'm a tomato, ketchup/mayo girl over a ketchup/mustard girl.

That's part of the reasons why I like our thousand island on our burgers because they're a perfect little blend of that.

How Freddy's spread through the country

Over the years — and I haven't been on the brand for all those years, so I can't really speak to some specifics — but there's definitely some flavors that are very regional, right? You might have a certain pepper that might be much more popular in California or in the Northeast or in Texas than it is driving that mass appeal. That's something we have to balance as a national brand because yes, we're heavier in some areas than others, but we're in 38 states. We've got to make sure that whatever flavors we're putting out have some level of mass appeal to everyone and aren't too niche to certain markets. 

That said ... certain segments of the population are very curious about flavors and love to celebrate them. We want to make sure that we have that as a part of our offering, too.

Would it be correct to say that it Freddy's has a greater emphasis on their national menu rather than regional limited time specialties?

I don't know that I would say that. We don't really have regional specialties. Anything that you find at a Freddy',s you're going to find at every Freddy's.

Laura Rueckel's favorite chef

There are a couple of nuances we have. I can't remember what state it is, but there's a store in a certain state that sells one item that's different because it's a very unique item to that state. That's more what I'm saying — the experience and the product offering is going to be available as far as the balance between what's on the menu every day versus what we might do as a limited time. That's a balance and we continue to pulse different limited time stuff throughout the year, but it'll still be available everywhere.

If you could have any chef cook for you, regardless, do you have a bucket list chef that you'd love to like have with a personal meal?

Of course, but there's a lot. I got to go [with] Thomas Keller. All day. Every day. I keep his cookbook in my kitchen. That's going to be mine, but there's so many more and then there's different reasons why you pick different ones. If I had to go with one, it's going to be him. That's personal.

Freddy's chef collaborations

There's not going to be a Thomas Keller appearance at Freddy's any time soon?

Never say never, but probably not. I have a sense he's a pretty busy guy.

Has Freddy's ever collaborated with any chefs or done any partnerships? I know that some other brands have done things where they brought in chefs around the country to do pop up menus and stuff like that. 

Not to my knowledge. Freddy himself was a real person, and if I think about an entity that has always been tied to the brand, it was Freddy. Part of that is less about the food and the culinary as it is about what we refer to as the Freddy's way. It's the care, it's the kindness. People talk about how kind this man was. It's the smile, it's the greetings, it's recognizing you by name. It's the care and the quality of the food and really making sure you're getting the orders right, and all that stuff.

That is all wrapped in the entity of Freddy and who he was and what he's about, which is a whole separate story. [He was a] decorated military veteran [and] incredible family man, so we'll forever be endeared to him. That hadn't really been on the radar, simply because of size, as the brand has grown, and as the brand continues to grow. As a marketer, those are all things that can and could be considered for the future. 

Rueckel's go-to kitchen ingredient

It does sound like you might do some cooking yourself at home and you might have some special recipes. For you personally, is there one ingredient that you personally can't live without in the kitchen?

One ingredient that I personally can't live without in the kitchen? There's a lot. I think I'm going to go with heavy cream. It adds so much. I do a lot of sautéing and pan cooking. Whether it's chicken or fish or even pastas and sauces, I think it really adds that extra layer of goodness, especially when combined with butter. I usually always have fresh, heavy cream in my fridge.

Is there anything else regarding this that you would like the larger Mashed audience to know about?

If you haven't been to Freddy's, give us a try. [If there's a location near you,] come experience for your yourself what's unique and different, and once you do, you'll get it. If there's not one near you today, there will be one near you very soon.

Freddy's A1 Steakburger and the new custard float are now available at all Freddy's locations.