Their Royal Rebound

IMAGINE YOU AND YOUR sweetheart lingering over a romantic meal for two. You've ordered the veal parmigiana; your date goes with the fried shrimp. The waiter delivers the entrees, and you raise your sodas in a toast. As you pick up the plastic forks you pause, ignore the cries of ""Fries with that?'' coming from the counter and stare deep into each other's eyes. Look hard, and maybe you'll see the reflection of the neon light out front: HOME OF THE WHOPPER.

Huh? Shrimp, waiters and upscale dinners at Burger King? Ridiculous as it sounds, that was the vision of the folks leading the chain just a few years ago, a crew that helped the fast-food industry's perennial second griddle earn a whopping reputation for ineptness. They aired notoriously bad ads, featuring characters like Herb the Nerd. They tried wild menu expansions, serving up fare like pizza and steak sandwiches. Says Reno, Nev., franchisee Don White, ""We were selling everything but Whoppers.''

No more. After years of troubles, Burger King has finally found the right recipe. The chain has gobbled up three points of market share since 1993, and its newest products are selling briskly. The new management's secret is a back-to-basics strategy with a focus on burgers, fries and drinks. Credit also goes to an active group of store owners who work hard to make sure no more dumb ideas wind up on their menus. Says Mike DeRosa, president of the National Franchisees Association: ""We're making sure the research is being done and that the bombs aren't hitting the front pages.''

Franchisees say the chain's troubles peaked after British liquor peddler Grand Metropolitan inherited the fast-food company as part of its 1989 purchase of Pillsbury. The Brits who came over to run the joint didn't know a Whopper from a shepherd's pie. They ran roughshod over store owners, hoping to find growth by diversifying the menu. A mere mention of the words ""dinner basket,'' the name of the promo that put fried shrimp on BK menus, still makes store owners cringe. The tide began turning in late 1993, when BK entered the ""value meal'' wars by touting cheap deals on burgers. Out went the ads filled with wacky characters; in new spots, says Matt Heller of ad agency Ammirati Puris Lintas, ""the product is the hero, the food is the star.''

The latest star is the Big King, a knockoff of Mickey D's Big Mac that has sold well since its September roll-out. The burger had been in testing for years, but when Burger King suffered negative publicity after buying meat from the then tainted-meat purveyor Hudson Foods last summer, BK president Paul Clayton and his team rushed the new burgers out at a price of 99 cents, a buck less than they'd planned earlier. ""Five years ago we'd debate things like that endlessly,'' Clayton says. Next month comes the national roll-out of a new french fry, which execs say will end the chain's longtime problem of peddling fries that aren't as good as McDonald's. BK's new tater has a coating that keeps it hotter and crispier, even if it's thrown into a takeout bag for a long ride home. Neither the fries nor the Big King is all that revolutionary, but minor culinary tinkering is the rule at the new BK. Says chairman Dennis Malamatinas: ""The last thing you'll see coming out of our kitchens is pizzas or Chinese food.'' And don't expect strolling minstrels at dinner, either.