The Quarter Pounder is breaking up with the heat lamp. Close to 3,500 McDonald’s in the US are now serving burgers made with fresh beef instead of frozen patties. By the end of May, all 14,000 McDonald’s franchises across the country will cook both Quarter Pounders and their line of Signature Crafted burgers from raw patties. It’s a major supply chain change and a big deal in the kitchen as well; the new burger program requires special handling and grilling, and has taken four years to implement.
In response to falling revenues, the fast-food chain has tried a number of strategies to lure new customers while increasing the average bill of long-time fans. All-day breakfast, fewer preservatives, and the addition of espresso drinks and kale to the menu over the past few years have all shown McDonald’s knack for market research.
Such changes also confirm that Americans want to eat Egg McMuffins in the afternoon, are willing to spend $4 on a cup of coffee with caramel syrup on top, and like the idea of vegetables so long as they’re smothered in some sort of sweet, vaguely Asian sauce. But what do we learn from the monumental effort that McDonald’s has just spent re-fitting 14,000 restaurants handle raw meat? We want McDonald’s to be more like Shake Shack, just without the lines.
About 90% of McDonald’s are franchises, and the biggest concern from owners was whether a fresh burger would slow down the drive through window. ”Most of the boutique burger places? You’re going to have to wait,” Joe Jasper, a McDonald’s franchisee told Business Insider. ”What we wanted to make sure [was that we could] keep the drive-thrus open.”
In an age of fancy burgers, which includes $30, dry-aged versions on bistro menus along with the rise of fast casual places like Five Guys and Bareburger, McDonald’s has been left behind. Wendy’s, a direct competitor, has taken a cue from the prevailing burger winds and loudly reminded consumers that they never stopped serving burgers made from fresh beef.
Reviews of the fresh beef have been mixed, though a more definitive assessment is sure to emerge as the burgers reach a wider audience in May. But the real question is whether this is going to be a hit, or a huge investment in mission creep—does McDonalds even belong in the fancy burger business? For diners, the switch doesn’t pose a threat anything like the flavor trauma created by changing the french fry oil to be healthier, and less delicious.
Pricing is left up to individual franchises, so the whether or not the fresh burger will ultimately be more expensive will vary. Currently, a Quarter Pounder with cheese ranges between $4 and $5 around the country, which is only slightly less than Shake Shack. McDonald’s franchise owners know their customers—the chain isn’t just selling burgers and fries, they’re also selling convenience and speed. In May we’ll find out whether they can successfully add a side of fresh ingredients to that order.