McDonald’s vs. Wendy’s: Which burger chain is best?

Wendy’s sign. (Photo by Rick Kern/ Getty Images for Wendy’s)
Wendy’s sign. (Photo by Rick Kern/ Getty Images for Wendy’s) /

Wendy’s or McDonald’s – which of these burger chains reigns supreme? This is an in-depth comparison of the strengths and weaknesses of two of the world’s biggest burger chains.

Monica or Rachel? Coke or Pepsi? Boxers or briefs? Loving Ocean’s 11 or taking things too seriously? Even if you like both options on questions like these, you ultimately have to pick one favorite, and your answer can say something about you as a person.

That’s probably why they are such great fodder for small (and medium!) talk, and why some of them have remained pop culture mainstays for years. But there is perhaps no bigger, more revealing question than the one we’re about to explore in regards to the burger: McDonald’s or Wendy’s?

These two chains have been worldwide staples of the fast food market for decades. McDonald’s, of course, is a mammoth of the industry: one of the most recognizable brands on the planet, a trailblazer that set the standard for what a burger chain can be, and currently has the second most locations of any franchise in the world (behind only Subway).

Wendy’s, on the other hand, is a relatively small chain by comparison: it comes in at twelfth in locations, has a smaller menu than most of its competitors, and doesn’t have quite the same global spread as many larger chains, with its franchises being mostly centralized in the United States. As of 2018, ninety-two percent of Wendy’s locations were located in North America, while McDonald’s is reported to have “only” 14,146 of its 37,855+ locations in the United States, or roughly thirty-seven percent.

But enough big picture stuff. That doesn’t really affect the food going into your mouth, does it?

There are pros and cons to both restaurants, so we’ve taken the liberty of breaking them down into categories. First up, we have the staple sandwich that both of these places are built around: the burger.

Burgers – Verdict: Wendy’s

This is probably going to ruffle some feathers, and it may be the most controversial opinion in the article, but the Big Mac is overrated. It’s not bad, I still get the occasional one, but it’s not the burger it’s generally made out to be.

I have always felt that it is essentially a McDouble with lettuce, Mac Sauce, and an unnecessary middle bun. I love Mac Sauce and lettuce on a burger, but you can easily customize your McDouble to include those things. I know the Big Mac is not the only cheeseburger at McDonald’s, and it’s not like they advertise it as the best and biggest thing on the menu, but it is the standard-bearer for the chain, and it doesn’t quite live up to the name.

The living legend Kenji Lopez-Alt wrote an article comparing a “Mac-ified” McDouble and a true Big Mac, and found that the weight difference between the two is twenty-eight grams, all attributed to the middle bun. He also notes that McDonald’s prepares the Big Mac upside down so that the beef juices drip into the toppings rather than straight into the bun. That is a nice touch, and there aren’t too many other weak links on the menu in terms of hamburgers, but it’s not enough to overcome the competition.

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Wendy’s, on the other hand, keeps it sweet and simple. The square patty is nice to look at but ultimately irrelevant: what makes Wendy’s burgers better is the ingredients: the tomatoes are generally fresher, lettuce cleaner, onions better, and their purported use of never-frozen beef is a game-changer for the patty’s flavor and juiciness.

McDonald’s cooks its ¼ pound patties fresh and its 1/10th pounders from frozen, leading to a patty that is less browned and more dry. And while Wendy’s doesn’t have a secret sauce to brag about, they’re never stingy with the ketchup and mayo.

Chicken – Verdict: McDonald’s

A lot of people these days heap praise onto the chicken nuggets and sandwiches at Wendy’s, but I’ve never found them to be all that special. Nothing beats twenty McNuggets at 2 a.m. when you’ve just crawled back home after a long night of gallivanting at bars filled with people who would cringe at the thought of such hedonism. The difference between the chicken sandwiches at either restaurant is negligible, and the McNuggets alone are enough to win this one for McDonald’s.

Breakfast – Verdict: McDonald’s

McDonald’s takes the cake when it comes to breakfast. Wendy’s has a decent if limited set of options, but it doesn’t seem like they really even try to compete with McDonald’s in this realm. The egg McMuffin is probably the most well-known fast food breakfast item. Their hotcakes are fluffy, empty vessels for a big helping of table syrup, a McGriddle with two hash browns has got to be one of the most satisfying hangover cures known to man. The sausage and bacon are pretty forgettable on their own, but somehow breakfast dishes at McDonald’s are more than the sum of their parts.

Extras – Verdict: Wendy’s

This is one of the more interesting categories to judge. McDonald’s throws a lot of seasonal and limited-time items on the menu, sometimes with less than stellar results (they really shouldn’t be in the business of selling pizza, “Mighty Wings”, or lobster rolls, and that’s not even mentioning the McLean), and sometimes with great success.

Wendy’s will throw a special item on the menu once in a while, but generally they don’t change things up as frequently. However, what they do have is almost always good. The fries are similar to McDonald’s, but more consistently salted and never dried out.

Dave’s Chili is a showstopper. It may not satisfy some of the chili snobs out there, but it’s the homiest thing at either restaurant, the type of thing that mom might cook on a night when she knew you had a rough day at school. It’s filling, flavorful, and can be used as a dip for fries or topping for those baked potatoes.

Wendy’s might not offer as much variety as McDonald’s, but they stay consistent and on theme.

Dessert – Verdict: Tie

Dessert is one area where the variety of McDonald’s shines through. Baked apple pies, a variety of McFlurries, and great ice cream sundaes mean your sweet tooth is never going to be left out at McDonald’s.

The decision comes with an asterisk purely because of the Frosty. First, it’s just a Frosty. Not a chocolate Frosty or a vanilla Frosty. Yes, they introduced a vanilla option in 2006, but to me it’s not really a Frosty if it isn’t half vanilla and half chocolate like founder Dave Thomas intended.

Described as a cross between a milkshake and soft-serve ice cream, it’s a thick and refreshing treat that is also somehow a good dip for fries, and the use of vanilla and chocolate ice cream stops the flavor from overpowering the rest of your food.

It’s the only major dessert at Wendy’s barring a few other options, but it’s good enough to stand on its own. Dave Thomas knew what was best when it came to the Frosty, and the business still knows it doesn’t have to mess with success; even if it did kowtow to the vanilla lovers.

Final Verdict: Wendy’s, but why just pick one?

Now, I’m not here to hurt McDonald’s lovers. I am a McDonald’s lover. But Wendy’s wins this argument because it has found a way to outdo its competitors without trying to beat them at their own game. McDonald’s will always be in the business of cost-savings and convenience first, it’s their thing. That and having big showy limited-time items.

No one is lying to themselves about that, and Wendy’s doesn’t try to outdo them at it. But Wendy’s excels through its simplicity and consistency: it has better patties, fresher toppings, more reliable fries, and chili that passes for homemade. But there are going to be people who prefer the McDonald’s burger, and that’s alright too. For all the criticism I give it, I still want the occasional Big Mac in my life. McDonald’s knows how to keep itself at the top of the podium among burger chains, and that’s no accident.

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Think I’m just a pedantic heathen with fickle standards? Let us know what you think in the comments! It’s a debate that never has to end.