Limited-time offers, value meals drive foot traffic at major burger chains

Major burger joints launch special offers to drive traffic

Starting Wednesday fans of Carl's Jr. and Hardee's will have not one, but two new burgers to taste.

The chains, owned by CKE Restaurants, will now offer a Grilled Ham 'N' Cheese Thickburger at Hardee's and a California Classic Double Cheeseburger at Carl's Jr., for a limited time only.

While the California Classic is a play on a regional flavor palate — we're talking lots of Thousand Island dressing — the Grilled Ham 'N' Cheese Thickburger follows CKE Restaurants' trend of topping its beef patties with mountains of meat. Its chains have sold Philly cheese steak burgers, pastrami burgers, French dip burgers and burgers topped with Memphis barbecue in recent years.

Chains like Carl's Jr. and Hardee's are known for their unique and short-lived burger concoctions. These offers, which expire within eight weeks of release, are a staple for restaurants looking to grab attention and drive sales in a quick burst. McDonald's, in particular, has launched several regional limited-time offers in recent months, including garlic fries and bratwursts.

"Limited-time offers at a chain restaurant are the equivalent to a daily special at a mom and pop restaurant," Brad Haley, chief marketing officer for Carl's Jr. and Hardee's, told CNBC. "It's the same strategy, you are simply trying to get your customers to come in a little more than they normally would if you had a static menu."

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While there are some limited-time offers that make the rounds every year (think McDonald's Shamrock Shake), CKE Restaurants tempts fast-food fans with wacky burger flavors every few months.

"Limited-time offers create excitement, they generate buzz and people know that they are only there for a short period of time, so they want to get them before they are no longer available," Bonnie Riggs, a restaurant industry analyst with the NPD Group, told CNBC.

Of course, limited offers aren't the only way that burger chains can entice customers. Food bundles like Wendy's 4 for $4 meal and McDonald's McPick 2 for $5 are driving heavy amounts of foot traffic for burger chains.

Dubbed the Value Wars, these combination specials offer a more balanced meal package for consumers and have increased check averages. While initial estimates suggested that these food bundles had a minimal effect on chains like Burger King, McDonald's and Wendy's, recent data suggest otherwise.

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Traditional combo meals, in particular, have been on the decline for burger chains, according to Riggs. However, these new bundle meals, which have a lower price point and include a more diverse selection of food, have resonated with customers and are driving higher checks for chains.

Riggs also noted that consumers want to choose what is in their combo meal, perhaps influencing McDonald's to expand its McPick 2 menu or Wendy's to allow guests to pick between a burger or a chicken sandwich when they order the 4 for $4 meal.

Even non-burger chains are jumping into the Value War. For a limited time, Starbucks is offering customers an $8 Power Lunch, which allows consumers to pick one sandwich or salad, one snack (popcorn, chips or pretzels), either a banana or a fruit bar and a bottle of water. The deal runs through May 30.

"The economy is certainly challenging and uneven," Ted Marzilli, CEO of YouGov BrandIndex, told CNBC. "There are people who are doing quite well in the country at the moment, but there are a lot of people who are unemployed and certainly a lot of people who are underemployed. If you are trying to feed a family of three or four or five, these value promotions can really make a difference."

Correction: Hardee's is offering a Grilled Ham 'N' Cheese Thickburger. An earlier version misstated the name.