NEW YORK – At a 2013 dinner McDonald’s hosted for reporters and bloggers, waiters served cuisine prepared by celebrity chefs using ingredients from the chain’s menu.
A Kung Pao chicken appetizer was made with Chicken McNuggets doused in sweet and sour sauce and garnished with parsley. Slow-cooked beef was served with gnocchi fashioned out of McDonald’s french fries and a fruit sauce from its smoothie mix. For dessert, its biscuit mix was used to make a pumpkin spice “biznut,” a biscuit-doughnut hybrid.
The New York City event was billed as “a transforming dining experience of ‘fast food’ to ‘good food served fast.’” Attendees tweeted photos, and the night was written up on websites.
The dishes aren’t intended for McDonald’s restaurants. Instead, the evening was part of a campaign by McDonald’s to shake its reputation for serving cheap, unhealthy food. At a time when Americans are playing closer attention to what they eat, the company is trying to sway public opinion by first reaching out to the reporters, bloggers and other “influencers” who write and speak about McDonald’s.
It’s just one way McDonald’s is trying to change its image. In the past 18 months, the chain has introduced the option to substitute egg whites in breakfast sandwiches and rolled out chicken wraps as its first menu item with cucumbers. Last fall, it announced plans to give people the choice of a salad instead of fries in combo meals. In coming months, mandarin oranges will be offered in Happy Meals, with other fruits being explored as well.
McDonald’s declined to make an executive available for this story, but CEO Don Thompson said early this year, “We’ve got to make sure that the food is relevant and that the awareness around McDonald’s as a kitchen and a restaurant that cooks and prepares fresh, high quality food is strong and pronounced.”
The company faces an uphill battle, especially if the past is any indication. The salads it introduced more than a decade ago account for just 2 percent to 3 percent of sales. The chain last year discontinued its fruit and walnut salad and premium Angus burgers, which analysts said were priced too high for McDonald’s customers at around $5.
The problem simply is that some people don’t consider McDonald’s a place to get high quality food, in part because the prices are so low. While McDonald’s has added salads and a yogurt parfait to its menu over the years, Americans are gravitating toward other attributes, such as organic produce and meat raised without antibiotics.
“People just don’t think of McDonald’s as having that premium quality,” said Sara Senatore, a restaurant industry analyst with Bernstein Research.
In some ways, the image McDonald’s is battling is ironic, given its reputation for exacting standards with suppliers. Thompson has also said the ingredients tend to be fresh because restaurants go through them so quickly.
“The produce and the products that we have at breakfast and across the menu are fresher than – no disrespect intended – what most of you have in your refrigerators,” he said at financial analysts conference in May.
The low-cost burgers, ice cream cones and other food that made McDonald’s so popular since it was founded in 1955 have come to define it. But some people can’t get over the idea that low prices equal low quality.
“It’s the whole perception people get when you sell something cheaply,” said Richard Adams, who used to own McDonald’s restaurants in San Diego and now runs a consulting firm for franchisees.
Anne Johnson, for instance, said she eats at McDonald’s because she can get a burger, fries and drink for about $5. But Johnson, a New York resident, doesn’t think there are any healthy options there.
“Basically, it’s junk food,” she said.