It has been a rough few years for traditional fast food companies, especially McDonald’s. Customers, especially the millennial crowd, now increasingly prefer fast-casual eateries where they can customize their orders and trust the ingredients (Chipotle) . . . or frequent a business where a commitment to the community and values makes people feel as if their money is well spent (Panera Bread). McDonald’s recent struggles have not helped the company’s cause, either. Tainted meat in China and contaminated food in Japan are just a couple of the triggers that led to the company’s declining sales overseas, where the world’s largest fast food chain had long depended on steady growth.
As a result, McDonald’s is closing as many as 700 outlets this year and has been scrambling, literally and figuratively, to find its way. From rolling out all-day breakfast menus at its locations in the U.S. to hiring a new corporate strategist and a former Obama administration press secretary, the fast food outlet is trying to shake up a company culture that cannot keep up with changing consumer habits. Even within the hamburger space, McDonald’s is losing ground with upstarts such as Five Guys and Shake Shack now serving up burgers that diners see as way more imaginative and have a far higher quality than that of the Golden Arches.
So does McDonald’s dig in its heels and continue to serve uniformly tasting cholesterol-laden fare or try to keep up with the Panera Breads and Chipotles of the world? After mocking kale earlier this year, the company is now testing it–as in the kale and quinoa salad I had at the Bahrain airport a couple weeks ago. But never mind salads or apple wedges in Happy Meals. McDonald’s is upping the ante by taking a second look at the sandwich that launched the company’s business 75 years ago.
The “McB,” McDonald’s first 100% organic beef burger, is coming to a store near you–if you happen to be in Germany and Austria this fall.
This new menu item is hardly the hamburger for which McDonald’s has become famous, or to its critics, infamous. Instead of looking more like a doorstop or paperweight, the burger looks reasonably authentic. The irregular-shaped meat patty will be served on dark bread, along with curly pale green lollo bionda lettuce, red onions, tomatoes, Edam cheese and a choice of sauces. After October 26, another version of the McB will be served on a sunflower seed bun with arugula. This is quite a change from the day when customization at McDonald’s involved “hold the pickles.”
McDonald’s is taking the McB seriously. The company claims this burger has been vetted by several boards tasked with organic certification, and that suppliers and franchisees have been trained about organics. Furthermore, the company appears to actually want feedback about this burger as it launched an online platform allowing customers to share their opinions on Twitter; provided, of course, they use the hashtag #McB. Even Munich’s landmark Allianz Arena was illuminated in the colors of the McB last week as part of McDonald’s public relations campaign for this reinvented hamburger.
The big question is whether this new menu item will resonate in central Europe or beyond. In fairness to McDonald’s, the company is in a pickle. A huge portion of its client base dismisses the likes of Whole Foods for what they see as more healthful, or “rabbit food,” while McD’s purpose is to serve that occasional greasy indulgence. Plus one complaint McDonald’s customers have had is its overwhelming and confusing menu–witness In-N-Out’s continued success out on the west coast, where the short list of burgers, fries and shakes, along with the “secret menu,” have together become a favorite. That simplicity is in contrast to McDonald’s, which seems passe, dull and static, yet is adding a new menu item once again. McDonald’s image, one that symbolizes corporate greed and Americanization (and for latter, never in a good way), also boxes in the company. Few of us can imagine McDonald’s doing anything other than serving McNuggets and Big Macs. It may take years for the Golden Arches to transform itself and rise again, but by then, it could be too late.
Image credit: McDonald’s Germany