Burger giants square off to serve institutional market

Burger King has other things on its mind besides a nasty advertising battle over who makes the best hamburgers.

This week another ''home of the Whopper'' sprang up on the map. But this one happens to be in the Navy Exchange at the US Naval Base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii - the first fast-food place at any military installation.

The restaurant is part of an aggressive campaign by Burger King to enter the ''institutional market'' - including colleges, military bases, truck stops, and airports.

The industry's No. 2 burgermaker has been aggressive on other fronts this year: menu diversification and advertising. In September it launched a series of ''best burger taste test'' ads on the three major television networks. The advertising brought it a lawsuit from McDonald's, which claims the ads are ''false and misleading.''

Although its new Pearl Harbor operation is just one restaurant at one military base, Burger King doesn't expect it to be all alone for long. ''The armed forces' food service market is an area of enormous potential for the fast-food industry,'' says Timothy Johnson, director of Burger King's institutional development division. Ten more deals with the Navy are already under way, he adds.

Mr. Johnson says he is not too concerned about competition in the military market. Colleges, however, are a different story. Both McDonald's and Hardee's have gotten into student unions ahead of Burger King.

In 1974, Hardee's - best known as a roast beef fast food company - moved onto the Western Illinois University campus. It now has restaurants at about 20 colleges and universities - and not all of them are fast food. One is a ''fine dining'' restaurant, one a cafeteria, and another a rathskeller type.

Institutional marketing ''looks like another growth area for us,'' says Gene Arnold, president of the specialty food service division at Hardee's. ''I'm not declaring war on anybody, but this will help round out our company business in food systems.''

McDonald's has three colleges on its list and is talking to some others. But it has been aggressive in other areas: a museum, zoo, riverboat, toll roads, and airports. ''Institutional marketing is a segment we want to pay a great deal of attention to,'' says McDonald's spokesman Steven Leroy.

Burger King, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Pillsbury Company, formed its institutional division a year and a half ago. Since then it has put its yellow-and-orange restaurants in one college and one truck stop.

The truck stop resulted from a recent agreement with Truckstops of America Inc. to develop Burger Kings jointly at truck stops across the United States. Burger King also has a franchise in the works with Air Terminal Services Inc. of Buffalo, N.Y. ATS is investigating in hopes of setting up Burger Kings in the airport market. Most of the 15 to 20 Burger Kings a year that are planned as institutional will be franchises.

The springboard for the institutional marketing drive was Burger King's successful attempt to put its restaurants in Greyhound bus stations. At last count, Greyhound was the franchisee for 26 Burger Kings.

David Goldman, an analyst who follows Pillsbury for Smith Barney, Harris Upham & Co., a brokerage, says the Greyhound Burger Kings ''have higher head counts at almost all three eating occasions.'' Mr. Johnson says the high volume of people buying at Greyhound Burger Kings is one reason the institutional market looks attractive. ''We average $750,000 per year in a Burger King restaurant, and the institutional Burger Kings average more in the million-dollar range,'' he said.

Mr. Johnson categorizes institutional marketing as just one of a string of ''innovations'' hatched by Burger King. Some analysts, however, see the move as another attempt by the companies to avoid getting caught in a saturated fast-food market.

''Institutional marketing appears more of an attempt to get away from saturation than anything else,'' analyst Goldman says.

He says that for Burger King, a company with ''erratic financial performance in the past few years,'' the move ''makes some sense. They will have a captive audience of sorts . . . and should get better sales for all new units being placed.''

On the other hand, the move could be viewed as just a shuffling of customers, because a regular Burger King restaurant is likely to be fairly near a new, institutional one. In a sense, Goldman says, they are putting money in one pocket and taking it out of another. ''The trick here will be to make the new unit more profitable than the one nearby that is being cannibalized.''

For this reason, and because ''there's a limit to just how many times a person can eat at a McDonald's or Burger King,'' the institutional market probably ''won't be terribly consequential,'' says Michael Culp, a restaurant analyst at Bache Halsey Stuart Shields, another brokerage.

To deal with the saturation problem, Mr. Culp says the fast-food industry has three basic alternatives:

* Menu diversification. ''Largely achieved already,'' he says.

* Expansion into other kinds of restaurants. He cites Wendy's decision to go nationwide with its Sisters Chicken & Biscuits chain as an example.

* Developing an outside business, not necessarily related to food but still oriented toward travel, families on the road, and leisure.

But according to Mr. Leroy at McDonald's there is no saturation problem. ''The public is asking for our product,'' he says. ''We are still getting new opportunities in urban and suburban areas . . . and are not shying away from any market.''

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.