LARGO — Ray Kroc, fast food’s founding father, was a quotation machine. One of his doozies was, "We’re not in the hamburger business. We’re in show business."
This month, McDonald’s show got a little more sizzle. In the approximately 890 locations in the Florida region, McDonald’s rolled out fresh beef for its premium burgers: the quarter pounder, the double quarter pounder and the signature crafted recipe burgers.
On Tuesday, the Tampa Bay Times visited a McDonald’s on Seminole Boulevard in Largo for an exclusive taste test: Fresh beef patties, never frozen, no fillers, no preservatives, just a little salt and pepper. Sampling several of the more than 650 million quarter pounders McDonald’s will sell this year — it is consistently a top seller — it was clear that this new product, a slightly coarser grind, had a "steakier" feel, was juicier with greater tooth resistance and a bit more beefy "umami" flavor.
While each franchisee sets their own prices, for the Largo store this improvement wasn’t reflected in higher prices. A quarter pounder remained $4.39 on its own and $6.99 as part of a value meal.
Ironically, McDonald’s started in 1955 with fresh beef, moving to a frozen product as the company expanded. This return to its roots has come at a cost. Suppliers spent roughly $60 million in the transition in changing out production lines to accommodate a different beef grind; franchisees each spent a couple thousand dollars in swapping out a griddle-side beef freezer for a two-drawer beef fridge, as well as in retraining costs.
So why the shift? Some would say it’s keeping up with the Joneses: Five Guys, In-N-Out, Smashburger, Wendy’s and Whataburger already tout their fresh beef patties. Others will say the primary motive was speed and efficiency. McDonald’s fresh beef patties are cooked to order and require 60 to 80 seconds of cooking time; frozen patties are batch cooked, six at a time, and require 120 to 130 seconds on the flattop grill.
But the largest push may come from shifting consumer tastes and expectations. It’s about the evolving McDonald’s narrative. In the past two years, the company has removed artificial preservatives from Chicken McNuggets as well as from breakfast items such as pork sausage patties, omelet-style eggs and scrambled eggs. It has removed high-fructose corn syrup from its hamburger buns, ditched margarine in favor of real butter, and announced it would source milk from cows not treated with growth hormones and eggs from cage-free chickens. The company has had some misfires (McKale!), but a push toward higher-quality ingredients and more sustainable products has mirrored consumer preoccupations.
"We let customers dictate, just like we did with all-day breakfast," said Florida region vice president Karen Garcia. "We let the customers guide our journey."
And increasingly, frozen is a dirty word. In recent years, frozen food sales have flattened or dropped by about a percentage point each year. Frozen juice, pizza, vegetables, chicken and beef patties have all taken a major hit, "fresh" winning out as the buzzword of the moment.
Many of McDonald’s recent changes have been about courting new potential customers like the huge demographic bubble that is the millennial generation. The company has launched a store redesign they are calling the Experience of the Future that includes in-store touch-screen kiosk ordering. According to Garcia, the rate of adoption varies by store, but about 30 percent of in-store customers utilize the kiosks, skewing dramatically toward younger customers. Same goes for the partnership with UberEats delivery, which launched in over 5,000 domestic McDonald’s stores in January 2017; same goes for the mobile ordering and payment app.
But the push toward fresh beef, which will likely be picked up for all of the menu’s beef patties if this launch goes as expected, crosses customer demographics. It’s about capturing customers looking for that premium burger experience.
"In testing, we were looking for a burger that would drip down your arm," said brand reputation manager Denise Wilson. To that end, the new fresh beef burgers come with a paper sleeve aimed at containing juices, a boon to auto upholstery everywhere.
Fresh meat is not nutritionally more dense than frozen, and meat with sufficient fat thaws and cooks quite well without a lot of liquid "purge." It is with more subjective measures like texture and juiciness that fresh edges out its colder competition. That said, the cult of "fresh" is a bit of a runaway train: The rising national preference for fresh foods has been met with a corresponding surge in food waste in the U.S.
McDonald’s serves 25 million meals daily at more than 14,000 domestic locations. A ship that large takes a while to turn, but as McDonald’s goes, so goes the nation. Even incremental changes have the potential to move the needle in the zeitgeist. A commitment to fresh beef patties will exert pressure on competitors such as Burger King and perhaps cause even non-burger competitors to examine where fresh versus frozen products might be employed.
For the world’s largest restaurant and all of its competitors, constant innovation and growth have proven essential in jockeying for market share. It was practically Kroc’s credo: "As long as you’re green, you’re growing. As soon as you’re ripe, you start to rot."
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.