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Advice for struggling McDonald's? Be McDonald's

Maybe the solution to McDonald’s struggles is for it to be good old-fashioned McDonald’s.
Published Mar. 13, 2015

McDonald's is struggling these days. It's more grimace than Grimace at the Golden Arches, as both revenue and net income have declined in the same year for the first time since 1981. Customer visits are down, too. February was a flat-out nightmare, with sales down 4 percent compared to a year ago.

New CEO Steve Easterbrook, whom the Wall Street Journal calls a "change agent," has promised a new direction at Mickey D's, even going as far as emulating fast-casual restaurants a la Chipotle. It's already testing a "Create Your Taste" campaign where you build your own sandwich, a move that got major play in the New York Times.

Even more drastic, it's talking about selling kale.

Yes, kale.

Enough already. One of the most dominant brands in global history has seemingly forgotten how it became one of the most dominant brands in global history. So here's an even better idea for Easterbrook, something way more punk rock:

Just be McDonald's.

Old-school McDonald's. The real McDonald's, not the Eddie Haskell version. If I want Chipotle, I'll go to Chipotle. But I don't want Chipotle. I want a Filet-O-Fish with extra tartar sauce.

I don't want to "create" my own Quarter Pounder. I want a high school sophomore who smells like Clearasil and loneliness making my tasty QP.

Stephen King once called himself "the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and fries." What the bestselling frightmeister meant was this: wickedly delicious fare for the hoi polloi, junk food for just the right occasion, a sturdy, unapologetic meal as American as apple pie.

Yeah, like that.

It has been a long time — well before the fast-food stalwart started selling salads (salads!) — since McDonald's has embraced its original concept. The restaurant has been getting facelifts for years and the mixed-message results are finally catching up with it.

Despite a pronounced public push for healthier living, including from FLOTUS herself — under pressure, Burger King just announced that it's dropping soda from kid meals — McDonald's should embrace it's old-school side. We are still a nation of sinners and guilty pleasures. This is not an obesity story; however, it should be noted that one-third of America is obese. (Wait, maybe this is an obesity story.)

We haven't changed that much. But McDonald's has.

"You're not crazy," says Jonathan Maze, senior financial editor at restaurant industry magazine Nation's Restaurant News. "There are a number of people, especially franchisees, who feel the same way. There's sentiment out there that McDonald's should go back to basics. New products can't gain any traction because they sell so many things."

Maze says instead of emulating Chipotle, maybe McDonald's should copy Chik-fil-A, which has a limited menu that it prepares and serves fast and well. "Franchisees are complaining how difficult it is to operate" a McDonald's these days, Maze says.

So start there. Pare down an overloaded menu. Keep the Big Mac, those life-affirming fries, the Shamrock Shake. You want a seasonal McRib? That's fine, too.

Lose the salads, the wraps, the complex chicken sandwiches. Premium Grilled Chicken Bacon Clubhouse Sandwich? Too many words, dude.

Keep the McGriddle. That thing is brilliant. But lose the Jalapeno Burger. I've never even heard of that. Ditch the apples in the Happy Meal. When I take my daughters to McDonald's, none of us has any intention of sticking to our diets.

Want to try something nutty now and then — the McDLT? the Arch Deluxe? — that's cool. Your novelty sandwich will get more attention with a smaller menu.

Maybe put resources into a better kind of beef. McDonald's announced recently that it will soon start using chicken free of antibiotics. It will eventually offer milk from cows that have not been treated with the artificial growth hormone rBST.

Fine, whatever. Make those changes. That's okay. Ingredients are one thing; total conceptual overhaul is another. If he has the nerve, CEO Easterbrook should go back to being the restaurant equivalent of a Big Mac and fries.

Just be McDonald's.

Contact Sean Daly at sdaly@tampabay.com. Follow @seandalypoplife.

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