A reader sent me a link to an article about how actor James Franco credits McDonald’s for keeping body and soul together when he was struggling financially. That’s not the point of this post, but here are some interesting quotes:
Actor James Franco has written a lengthy endorsement of his former employer, McDonald’s. Franco writes in a Washington Post op-ed that in the late ’90s he was a struggling actor living in Los Angeles. He was fired from a coffee shop and golf course and couldn’t find acting jobs.
He became desperate after his parents cut him off financially.
“Someone asked me if I was too good to work at McDonald’s,” Franco writes. “Because I was following my acting dream despite all the pressure not to, I was definitely not too good to work at McDonald’s.”
Franco says he began working in the drive-thru and practicing foreign accents on customers.
He was able to leave his job at McDonald’s after booking a Super Bowl commercial with Pizza Hut. Since then, he’s become one of the most successful actors in the industry, starring in The Interview, 127 Hours, and Spiderman. But Franco says he still feels affection for the fast food chain.
“I was treated fairly well at McDonald’s. If anything, they cut me slack,” Franco writes. “And, just like their food, the job was more available there than anywhere else. When I was hungry for work, they fed the need.”
Okay, that’s nice. It’s refreshing to see a Hollywood type who doesn’t consider McDonald’s an evil empire. (Full disclosure: I didn’t know who James Franco was until I read the article. It’s a sign of my impending decline into Old Fogeyhood. I see headlines about pop stars and think, “Who the heck is that?”)
But it wasn’t the article itself that caught my interest. It was a linked article about how McDonald’s plans to turn around its flagging sales:
McDonald’s unveiled on Monday its massive turnaround plan to revive business.
“Our recent performance has been poor. The numbers don’t lie,” McDonald’s CEO Steve Easterbrook said in a 23-minute video overview of the plan. “I will not shy away from the urgent need to reset this business.”
Easterbrook said the company would strip away layers of management, focus more on listening to customers, and act faster to adapt to consumers’ changing tastes.
McDonald’s same-store sales have fallen for six straight quarters in the US, where the company is battling a pervasive public perception that its food is unhealthy and over-processed. The chain has also been hurt by a series of food safety scandals in Asia, which contributed to a 15% loss in net income last year.
The company will be restructured into four market segments: the US; international lead markets (Australia, Canada, France, Germany, UK); high-growth markets (China, Italy, Poland, Russia, South Korea, Spain, Switzerland, the Netherlands); and foundational markets (the remaining markets in the McDonald’s system).
McDonald’s will also refranchise 3,500 restaurants through 2018, bringing its total percentage of franchised restaurants to 90% from 81% globally. The restructuring is expected to save the company $300 million annually by 2017, according to the company.
Going forward, improving food quality will be a top priority, Easterbrook said.
There were paragraphs in the article about how the company plans to restructure, re-franchise, etc., to save money. I don’t know or care what those involve. It’s the food quality issue that I believe will eventually make or break McDonald’s.
When Super Size Me was released, there were gleeful predictions among fans that it would sink McDonald’s. I never believed that. The people who cheered Super Size Me didn’t eat at McDonald’s anyway. Meanwhile, I sincerely doubt anyone saw Super Size Me and said to himself, “Oh my gosh! So that’s why I’m fat – McDonald’s has been selling me too much food! Well, that’s it, I’m never eating there again.” While researching Fat Head, I talked to two different franchise owners (both owned multiple McDonald’s restaurants) who told me Super Size Me didn’t affect their sales at all.
Morgan Spurlock didn’t hurt McDonald’s, but I’m pretty sure the paleo movement has. That’s why the CEO talked about food quality, not quantity. The question is whether or not Mr. Easterbrook and the rest of the McDonald’s brass understand what food quality means to the public these days.
Despite what some people think, I have no relationship (financial or otherwise) with McDonald’s and rarely eat there. But it so happens that the day before these articles ran, Chareva and I had one those tight-schedule nights, both of us trying to get the girls to and from different activities while taking care of our own errands. So we ended up meeting at McDonald’s for dinner and a daughter-exchange.
I ordered one of the 1/3 pound sirloin burgers – minus the bun — and it was actually pretty tasty. Not grass-fed, of course, but I don’t expect to find grass-fed beef in most restaurants. I don’t even eat grass-fed beef all the time at home. I don’t believe grain-fed beef is bad for us; just not as good for us as grass-fed beef. So I was fine with the burger.
But then there are the other items on the menu: buns made from mutant wheat, skim milk (whole milk isn’t even available), salads with Newman’s Own salad dressing – main ingredient: soybean oil.
The girls split a small order of fries. I didn’t eat any. Because of the carbs? Nope. My diet is low-carb but not zero-carb, and I’ll happily eat a serving of potatoes now and then. But McDonald’s fries are fried in vegetable oil. As Nina Teicholz explained in her outstanding book The Big Fat Surprise, the vegetable oils used in fast-food restaurants these days may be even worse than the trans fats they replaced:
Gerald McNeill, vice president of Loders Croklaan, which is one of the country’s largest suppliers of edible oil, told me something scary. He explained that fast-food chains including McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s have swapped out hydrogenated oils and started using regular vegetable oil instead. “As those oils are heated, you’re creating toxic oxidative breakdown products,” he said. “One of those products is a compound called an aldehyde, which interferes with DNA. Another is formaldehyde, which is extremely toxic.”
Aldehydes? Formaldehyde? Isn’t that the stuff that’s used to preserve dead bodies?
He went on to tell me how these heated, oxidized oils form polymers that create a “thick gunk” on the bottom of the fryer and clog up the drains… Partially hydrogenated oils, by contrast, were long-lasting and stable in fryers, which of course is why they were favored. And beef tallow, McDonald’s original frying fat, was even more stable.
As I told Chareva over dinner, if McDonald’s ever went back to beef tallow for frying, I’d probably eat there more often. As it is, if we go out for burgers and fries (and we’re not pressed for time), we go to Five Guys – largely because the French fries are fried in peanut oil. They taste way better than the fries at McDonald’s, and while peanut oil isn’t the best of fats, it’s acceptable.
I don’t know what Mr. Easterbrook has in mind for improving food quality, but from what I’ve seen lately, McDonald’s is heading in the wrong direction. They still seem to think food quality means low-fat and low-cholesterol. Their big idea for breakfast is the Egg White Delight McMuffin. Egg whites? Seriously? Hell, not even the goofs on the USDA Dietary Guidelines Committee think egg yolks are a problem anymore.
They didn’t ask me (like I said, we have no relationship), but if they did, here’s what I’d tell the McDonald’s brass:
Yes, you’re losing sales to consumer concern about food quality. But that concern is driven by the paleo movement and the gluten-free movement, not the anti-fat hysteria of the 1980s and 1990s. If you want to bring back customers, forget the low-fat nonsense and try a few ideas like these:
- Announce that you’re returning to beef tallow for frying. Yes, The Guy From CSPI will throw a fit, but he’s old news and I don’t think people take him seriously anymore. There have been plenty of articles in both scientific journals and the popular press declaring that the war on saturated fat was a huge mistake. At the press conference, wave some of those around, along with a copy of The Big Fat Surprise.
- Ditch the skim milk and start serving whole milk. There is zero evidence that skim milk is better for our health, and plenty of evidence suggesting that full-fat dairy is better.
- Dump the Egg White Delight. Egg yolks are not and never have been a health hazard. If anything on an Egg McMuffin is a health hazard, it’s the wheat muffin. Which brings me to …
- Become the first fast-food restaurant chain to switch to gluten-free buns and muffins. We’ve tried the gluten-free buns by Udi’s, and they taste just like any other hamburger bun. Not everyone is going gluten-free, but plenty of people are. I promise nobody is going to demand buns with gluten in them. Yes, the gluten-free buns cost more, but what the hell, you’re McDonald’s. You’d be selling millions of millions of them, so I’m sure you can strike a good deal with a provider.
- No disrespect to Paul Newman, but get rid of the soybean-oil dressings. There are plenty of recipes out there for delicious dressings that use healthy fats like avocado oil and full-fat yogurt. I’m sure someone would mass-produce them if McDonald’s was the client. If I could get a chicken salad at McDonald’s and a quality dressing to go with it, I’d eat there far more often.
Yes, I know McDonald’s tried “healthy” options before that flopped. You all probably still have painful memories of the McLean Burger. But you see, those “healthy” options flopped because they tasted awful. People don’t go to McDonald’s to buy tasteless, low-fat food.
The changes I’m suggesting don’t punish anyone’s taste buds. In fact, they’d improve the taste of the food while simultaneously improving the quality.
Give those a shot, and Ronald McDonald may live to a ripe old age.
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