TAMPA — As Tampa Bay goes, so goes the nation.
On Monday, all of the 202 Tampa Bay McDonald's restaurants debuted something unprecedented: a chicken burger. Not a chicken breast sandwich or a macro-nugget. This is a ground quarter-pound patty of breast and thigh meat that gets a straight-up burger treatment, offered as the Classic (red onions, lettuce, tomatoes and ranch sauce) and as the Signature (grilled onions with lettuce, tomatoes and a tangy and sweet "signature" sauce), both on a new fancy potato bun.
In recent weeks, billboard advertisements went up in the region showing a spatula and a cryptic countdown to #FlippinAwesome. Mysterious, but as a restaurant critic and amateur sleuth, I think I know who is behind this.
Exhibit A: Chicken Burger with avocado, jalapeno, tomato, feta, cumin aioli, toasted bun; $14. This has been a consistent crowd favorite at Oxford Exchange in Tampa. A restaurant owned by one Blake Casper. The same Blake Casper who owns — pregnant pause — more than 50 McDonald's in the Tampa Bay area.
We spoke by phone Monday evening.
"Was this inspired by the Oxford Exchange chicken burger?"
(Wheels turning as he realizes he's been made.) "It certainly opened our eyes to this market. The whole chicken burger market is growing; you're seeing it more in restaurants. This isn't a chicken sandwich, but a chicken burger — there's a real difference in its bite."
It seems he has been working with his chicken purveyor Keystone Foods for the past year and a half on the project, "making sure the patty was right, from the taste to the grind."
Because it was a phone interview, Casper could not know this: The restaurant critic was still wiping ranch sauce from her typing fingers. A late afternoon drive-through of a W Kennedy Boulevard location yielded one Classic ($3.79). Bouncy patty, very mild flavor but wholesome-seeming, the bun a tender but toothsome challah-like contraption with no seeds. My overall assessment: I'd order one of these, especially if going forward they add sauce options (Sriracha lime? Harissa mayo? Chipotle guac? Or for that matter, cumin aioli?).
According to Casper, chicken is a more approachable meat than, say, turkey to do on a huge McDonald's scale, and the resulting burger is less than 400 calories (about 100 calories less than a Quarter Pounder), with 28 grams of protein and "a lot less fat" than traditional beef burgers. He says these chicken patties can be subbed out for beef at no extra cost to customers. (He says the cost to him is about the same as that of beef, despite the fact that chicken prices are a lot more volatile.)
Much has been made this last year of McDonald's disappointing sales figures and the numerous attempts to reinvigorate the brand (breakfast all day!! McKale!!). This reads more like a sensible response to, as Casper says, the times we say to ourselves, "I don't necessarily want red meat today."
Casper says it will be a couple of months before they know whether this new product is a success.
"We're going to give it a big launch and push to see if this is something that's got real legs," he said, adding that because of chicken's versatility, they will experiment with "builds" (the way a sandwich is accessorized), even exploring crowd-sourcing some options.
At the end of the day, though, Casper admits that what is going to make the chicken burger take flight nationally is, "We have to sell a heck of a lot of them."
Contact Laura Reiley at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.