A Food Critic Walks Into McDonald’s…

The fries are good but the story…is another story.

Ronald McDonald has been getting pummeled lately. The quarterly reports are softer than a half day old Quarter Pounder. Investors are getting restless and they’re shuffling execs around in the ivory tower faster than fry-cooks are flipping burgers. Things just aren’t as happy in the land of Happy Meals as they once were. The PR folks are giving people a lot of reasons for the company’s decline but the one thing they’re not saying is that they’re worried. This s just a hiccup; there’s nothing here that can’t be fixed with a few menu tweaks and a remodel. The bottom line is that they’re not worried. But should they be?

McDonald’s is in the food service business; the company serves food to the general public. So with that in mind, a New York Time’s reporter invited the Food Network star Geoffrey Zakarian to join him for lunch at McDonald’s. They wanted to sample the food and the ambiance just as a critic would in any other eating establishment. Because while it may be true that McDonald’s not only occupies but defined the dining category called fast food, that doesn’t mean that they are off the hook. In order to stay in business they have to serve up appetizing food wrapped in a fairly pleasant experience. At least one would hope.

The food snob walked into McDonald’s.

Their meals were simple and the visit was, for the most part, low-profile: the reporter had a Quarter Pounder and Mr. Zakarian had the Grilled Chicken Wrap. They both complemented their meals with a coffee and fries. Not necessarily the go-to order for your standard teen but enough to give them an idea of the food quality. And the verdict: the wrap was too much wrapper and not enough wrapped and the Quarter Pounder “was what it was….” They both however thought the coffee was decent and the fries were money.

After tacking food quality (or lack thereof) they moved on to the bigger question of what the company needed to do to stop the decline. The suggestions were: better food, nicer stores and a better story. What? A better story? Zakarian acknowledged that a fast-food restaurant working with a dollar menu can only do so much with food quality. And as the term fast-food implies, no one is spending hours in a booth so ambiance is also not the place to change the overall perception (although the company is remodeling). But according to Zakarian, “…they need to tell a better story, talk more about quality, the source of their ingredients, address the health concerns. I can assure you that if they had a great story and a better company culture, this same burger would taste a lot better.”

The meat’s not the story.  The story is the meat.

Welcome to the digital age of immediate access to unlimited amounts of information. It never ceases to amaze us that companies, no matter how big or small, fail to understand that the story suddenly matters. What you are, what you make, what you stand for and how you feel about your customer becomes part of their decision to buy. These days, the story a company tells can be even more important than the product it sells. So says the food snob to the fast-food giant. In his assuredly humble opinion, if McDonald’s wants to crawl back into the fast food game, they might want to consider acting more like…Chipotle. Which is another story altogether.

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