Burger King Corp. via AP
David "Guilley" Guilfoyle, left, manager of product development for Burger King Corporation holds the original Burger King Whopper, while Brad Blum, CEO of Burger King, touts the new Low-Carb Whopper.
By Phil LeBeau
CNBC
updated 1/14/2004 4:56:55 PM ET 2004-01-14T21:56:55

The battle between the two biggest burger chains is definitely a tit-for-tat rivalry. Often, when McDonald's does something, whether a new burger or marketing campaign, Burger King answers with a new sandwich or new ad.

Now, the latest battle in the burger wars isn't over burgers -- it's over low-carb food.

The burger biz used to be pretty basic: Flip 'em and serve 'em. Not anymore. Today, healthy is in. So, while McDonald's touts low-carb choices, Burger King has cooked up an Atkins-like answer: The fire-grilled Angus steakburger lettuce wrap.

"The steakburger provides us the opportunity to not only meet customer expectations in terms of quality with this product but it also gives us a chance to also utilize that product as a low-carb option as a lettuce wrap as well," said Burger King spokesman Russ Klein.

Whether it's low-carb wraps, new burgers (remember the Arch Deluxe and Big King?) or the taste of French fries, Burger King and McDonald's have been trying to one up each other for decades.

"They’re constantly keeping an eye on each other and the competition, and making sure in McDonald's case, making sure Burger King didn't infringe on it's market share, and in Burger King's case, finding ways to take McDonald's market share," said restaurant consultant Jenniifer Baum.

So who's winning this burger battle? While it often looks like all McDonald's and Burger Kings are next to each other, there are at least 5,000 more golden arches, generating sales an estimated three times greater than Burger King. And the disparity keeps getting bigger.

“If we look at McDonald's versus 16 years ago, even with some of the challenges they've had over that time horizon, McDonald's average U.S. sales per unit is up over 20 percent, while Burger King over that same time frame is down 8 to 9 percent,” said Peter Oakes an analyst at US Bancorp Piper Jaffray. “So we've seen quite a contrast over that time period."

With both companies coming off of rocky times that included McDonald's losing business and Burger King closing stores, their rivalry has changed. It's no longer just with each other, but more with other chains. Wendy's, Taco Bell, and a slew of sandwich shops like Subway make it tougher for the big two burger boys to stand out.

In fact, many credit Subway with changing fast food by making low-fat foods more popular. That helps explain why McDonald's is now pushing premium salads, while Burger King offers low-fat baguettes.

“The grilled chicken sandwich from Burger King is a great alternative,“ said Baum. “And I think it's a great message to get out. That said, the fries at McDonald's are better than at Burger King. And it will always be about the French fries."

French fries have been a sore point for Burger King operators for years. The company has tried new formulas in the last couple years, but Burger King’s fries are still considered by many in the industry to not measure up with McDonald’s.

And Burger King has one other thing to worry about: It is on the verge of being passed by Wendy's in terms of sales.

© 2012 CNBC, Inc. All Rights Reserved

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