It was nearly 11 PM last night when I officially became a rebel. I did what others in America are no longer doing as much as they used to – I ate at McDonald’s.
After a fairly-exhausting 13 hour day at work, I found myself in Tyson’s Corner looking for a bite to eat. It’s clearly late, I hadn’t eaten lunch, and the grumbles in my stomach would have made my hour-long drive back home intolerable. I looked at the Faustian bargain placed before me, and chose the Golden Arches over a slightly-lower BMI.
Apparently, that makes me quite the rapscallion, as McDonald’s sales have taken a decided turn for the worse here in the United States. Domestic sales dropped 2.2% in May. It fell by 4% back in February. They’re closing more stores than they’re opening. This winter didn’t just suck for Boston, apparently.
Please do not get me wrong – McDonald’s is hardly delicious, nutritious food, and goodness knows you can get better burgers nearly anywhere. However, it will always have a place in my heart (and several arteries, much to my cardiologist’s dismay) as my first teenage job where I was treated reasonably like an adult, where my managers treated me decently and with a professional respect. While in high school in the late 1980s, I worked at the McDonald’s in Edgewater, Maryland – sometimes after school, but usually on weekends and on summer vacation mornings. I quickly became the biscuit maker since I could get up at the back-crack of dawn, enjoyed baking, and could stand in front of hot ovens all day and not complain. This is back when McDonald’s actually made the biscuits with real buttermilk, in the stores. They weren’t pre-packaged and shipped from some remote warehouse – a real live person made them in-house. Our biscuit ovens were next to the flat-top where we made the Hot Cakes – from a mix, granted – but they were at least cooked on site, not simply shipped and reheated.
What’s more, I worked at the “good” McDonald’s, and not that “bad” McDonald’s on West Street in Annapolis. Remember when there were “good” McDonald’s and “bad” McDonald’s? Many customers genuinely believed that some McDonald’s were better than others, and they weren’t wrong! Ours was clean, safe, well-managed, efficient drive-through, with solid maintenance and properly stored materials. That West Street location, though – it was a little dirtier. A slower drive through. Maybe not as well-managed. Definitely a staff that cared less.
The good Mickey D’s used the proper amount of burger seasoning, not too much salt on the fries, accommodated special requests, followed the suggested hold times on such things like the McNuggets and made sure fresh biscuit sandwiches were available during breakfast. The bad McDonald’s would let food sit in the warming trays and staging area for hours at a time. They’d simply wipe the onions and pickles off a bun rather than spending the two minutes to make a fresh burger with a clean bun. Those bad McDonald’s wouldn’t use the seasoning for the Quarter Pounders while they sizzled away on the cooking platens. God forbid you ask for fries without salt!
That is not what McDonald’s stands for nowadays. Right now, you can go into any McDonald’s in any state and get a meal that tastes almost exactly like one in another state, which is their worldwide goal. However, instead of bringing up the “bad” MickeyD’s, they simply baselined the good ones down. In their never-ending quest to keep profits up and costs down, they eliminated tons of the in-store prep and cooking variables. The company has automated so much of the cooking process, they’ve taken out much of the human element of cooking.
And I think that’s where their salvation lies – bringing back a more personal experience, and less of a food-factory.
Here’s a few things I’d do, if I had the ear of relatively-new CEO Steve Easterbrook:
1) Add more Mexican/Central American items – in most cities, McDonald’s hires folks from southern countries with varying degrees of English-speaking ability. Which, coming from a white guy, sounds like it could be a criticism, but it’s not where I’m going with this. Instead, I say “let them cook a few things they know how to make from their home countries.” McDonald’s can still offer burgers and fries and shakes and such, but a proper taco or a plantain wouldn’t hurt. Maybe some yucca fries? A McDonald’s cook could throw down a flour tortilla, chop up a McChicken filet, add some lettuce, shredded cheese and some salsa – all easy-to-acquire ingredients, many already in the restaurants – and making a McTostada or McQuesadilla or some such name.
It also doesn’t hurt that the fastest-growing population segment in the US are Spanish-speaking, and offering them more foods that are somewhat akin to their homelands may not be the worst thing. No wonder sales are down in McDonald’s domestically- they’re not making things that are familiar with new residents of the US.
2) Steamed burgers suck. Unless you’re talking about a Juicy Lucy, that is. Bring back the flat-tops or even go with a grill. Burger King’s fake flame-grilled taste is lousy, but it does give more flavor than McDonald’s bland-burger. Keeping those patties in the steamed heating trays is a sure-fire way to kill any flavor other than “meh.”
3) McBrunch – 10:30 am / 11:00 am is WAY too early to make a lunch switch. They could easily make breakfast items all day; they just don’t. Oh, they’ll SAY they don’t have space to run every item – yeah, well, explain the concept of “24-hour diners” that serve anything at anytime, McDonald’s! Embrace the brunch, Mickey! Slap an egg on a burger and make it the McBrunch Burger. Or, put the burger on the English muffin. Live a little. You know you want to.
4) Embrace the Taco Bell ideal – Taco Bell is not delicious food. Some can argue if it is even technically food. However, Taco Bell does not live under a delusion that their existing food is fancy by any stretch. They make food for stoners, college kids and people who are simply hungry with low standards. Sure they have the Cantina menu for the fancy-pants folks, but who are we kidding here? The Dorito-flavored taco shell? GENIUS. The Crunchwrap? Surprisingly tasty, and a great way to add potatoes to a sandwich (we’ll get to that in a second). It’s like Taco Bell watched Epic Meal Time and said “Eureka! I’ll put breakfast inside a taco-shaped biscuit! Or inside a tortilla!”
5) Old people like fun, too. – Every few years, McDonald’s decides to go serious with its foods, trying to appeal to the old folks. They’ll make a serious McDLT or the serious Arch Deluxe, or the seaweed-assisted serious McLean Deluxe (which got folks seriously ill) or these new serious 1/3rd pound burgers, and all they do is suck Ronald’s profits away. Customers don’t buy them, McDonald’s launches them with huge multimedia advertising campaigns, and the people still just buy a Big Mac. That McDonald’s actually believes Panera is their competition is hilarious to me – Panera has 1,800 locations, making serious food, mostly located in only fancy urban and suburban areas. Meanwhile, there’s about 35,000 McDonald’s outlets world-wide, and you can’t go but a couple of rural interstate exchanges or into any city neighborhood without seeing the Golden Arches. But, McDonald’s continues to chant “HEALTHY! LOW-FAT! THAT’S HOW WE’LL APPEAL TO ADULTS! OLESTRA ALL THE THINGS!!!”
Meanwhile, the fine folks mentioned above in #4, Taco Bell, just go “here’s our crappy food arranged into a slightly-different arrangement, buen apetito!”
If you think about it, McDonald’s was all about fun when we were kids. The Happy Meal toys were always better than the Happy Meals, but the Happy Meal boxes were *awesome* indeed! Mazes! Crosswords! Word scrambles! Grimace! Some of those toys are now legitimate collectibles, as are those boxes. The McNuggets were mind-blowing-fun when they debuted (it was the early`80s; we were easily impressed). Birthday parties, slides, ball pits, statues of Ronald or Mayor McCheese in playgrounds for the kids – all fun, for a while. Except those concepts are everywhere nowadays. In 2015, what do you have that’s fun at McDonald’s? It comes down to two questions:
I think the fun in these cult favorites is to figure out how much green food coloring you’re ingesting per sip, or how exactly they make boneless bones on the rib patty.
McDonald’s should change their adult-focused tack – try to make foods that are fun or adventurous rather than “grown-up.” Grown-up and McDonald’s do not fit together, so why they keep trying it, I’ll never know. Go for the gusto, McDonald’s, and go for the fun! Which would you rather have, the current “fancy” McDonald’s mushroom and swiss burger made with sirloin beef, or a McDonald’s burger made with a Philly cheesesteak with peppers, onions or even whiz? A Pittsburgher made Primanti Brothers-style, complete with fries on top? A Chesapeake burger topped with crab dip and some Old Bay? San Francisco-style with garlic fries and chowder? Texas-topped with brisket slices and barbecue sauce? Which of these sounds like something you’d try – “a Carolina burger topped with pulled pork and cole slaw” or a “slightly-thicker Quarter Pounder with the same toppings as a Whopper but at three times the price of either?” You’ve got to give eaters the concept of value if they’re going up-market on their food, so a slight up-tick in pre-cooked weight isn’t going to cut it. Make your grown-up food messy and interesting, not “the exact same thing but more expensive.”
How about a stuffed burger? If Pizza Hut can stuff cheese and hot dogs and a sense of a life spent in loveless despair into a pizza crust, surely McDonald’s can stuff some bleu cheese and sauteed onions into a burger. Or, the aforementioned Juicy Lucy. Switch up the burger game, Clown!
And, not for nothing, Chop’t makes a pretty decent salad, and the Souplantation/Sweet Tomatoes chain has a really loaded salad bar with several international items for a change-of-pace. As a rule, older folks like a good salad. You want old folks; make better salads #justsayin
5) Retro the brand domestically. McDonald’s used to make fresh burgers, on a real-life grill, back when they started. Five Guys, Shake Shack and In-n-Out follow a very similar model; why can’t McDonald’s do that? They practically perfected the genre of the roadside burger shack, so why not bring it back? It wouldn’t work for all the existing stores to be reconfigured, but they could use their incredible product distribution supply chain to make a Chipotle-style burger joint. They owned Chipotle, so they should have learned *something* from the experience. I propose, in the three-lettered spirit of BGR, MCD – a McDonald’s fast-casual, up-scale burger store. Fresh beef, grilled in the visible kitchen. Whole chicken breasts, grilled next to the burgers, with fresh thick-cut bacon and lettuce, tomatoes and onions straight from the farm. A stripped down menu – no Nuggets or Hot Cakes or McFlurries, just a basic burger assembly line like Chipotle. Each burger is topped to order with all sorts of fresh toppings, and they can copy the same store flow methodology as Chipotle – the first person asks “what bun you want? Sesame seed? Potato? Kaiser? Gluten-free?” and the second person asks “Which burger would you like, beef, turkey, chicken, veggie?” and you answer the questions and slide two steps to the left. Six steps later, you have a fresh burger, topped *exactly* the way you want it – none of those nasty reconstituted onions here! – which minimizes waste AND makes the customer feel like they bought something quality.
6) Rebuild traditional stores through breakfast – McDonald’s still has the best breakfasts of any fast-food chain. Taco Bell made a strong debut, Burger King’s croissan’wich lineup is OK, but McDonald’s is still the champ. Let’s not kid ourselves, the buy-one, get-one-free Sausage McMuffins ain’t gonna help slim the ole’ national waist size any, but I think if they emphasize the value of breakfast to a better lifestyle, that a sensible breakfast can help lower overall weight and hunger… how is that a bad thing to advertise? They could try some diner-style changes to their breakfast lineup – maybe fresh fruit-topped Hot Cakes, eggs cooked to order, different bagel flavors, maybe some gluten-free or low-carb bread offerings, or a design-your-own-oatmeal bar, that would begin to get folks thinking positively about the brand. A McOatmeal with fresh cranberries, brown sugar and apple slices and a dash of cinnamon, perhaps a scrambled egg McMuffin, some varieties of cheese.
McDonald’s has tried to capture the Starbucks’ coffee crown in the morning with the McCafe’ concept, but has failed to notice that somebody getting a skim latte’ is also picking up a Kind fruit bar or a danish or a package of nuts to go with a Josh Groban CD. So go retail, McDonald’s – make your own line of protein bars, granola bars, nut mixes – give folks an option beyond a mediocre bagel and a deep-fried potato puck. Even 7-11 does this nowadays, and they are the sleeping giant in the fast breakfast business. Don’t let them realize that they can beat you at the breakfast game handily if they knew what power they possess.