CHASING CHIPOTLE

Why McDonald’s is getting more serious about custom-built burgers

McDonald’s sales continued to slump in November, dropping 4.6% year-over-year in the US and 2.2% globally. The decline isn’t much of a surprise (McDonald’s has long been on the wrong side of what’s trendy among millennials), although it is steeper than analysts were predicting.

Also not surprising, given that the fast-food chain’s quarterly losses practically look to be correlated with fast-casual darling Chipotle’s gains: McDonald’s hopes to win consumers back by offering build-your-own sandwich options, betting that customers won’t mind waiting longer or paying more for made-to-order meals.

The McDonald’s version of made-to-order is called “Create Your Taste,” and it involves ordering your burger or chicken sandwich at an electronic kiosk that lets you choose what kind of bun and toppings you want. McDonald’s has been testing this system at a handful of stores in Southern California since August, and the company announced today that it will immediately expand custom ordering to 30 more stores in Illinois, Wisconsin, Georgia, Missouri and Pennsylvania, and in 2015 the system will be in play at 2,000 of its 14,000 US locations.

At Chipotle, customers interact with burrito-makers and watch as their orders are crafted, which makes highly specific customization possible: For example, “That’s enough guac, stop! And could you put on another spoonful of sour cream?”

Selecting sandwich buns and toppings via touch-screen isn’t exactly the same thing, but if the resulting food is perceived to be higher-quality, that’s a win. Test customers interviewed by Bloomberg and USA Today have given favorable reviews to their “Create Your Taste” experiences, although they couched their compliments with nods to too-high pricing and comparisons to In-N-Out Burger.

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