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Robert Sietsema

McDonald's 'Create Your Taste' Menu Is Bound to Fail Unless Ronald Fixes the Meat

I pedaled up to Midtown earlier today with the intention of seeing if you really could make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. Specifically, to the McDonald’s just southeast of Bloomingdale’s at 58th and Third Avenue, probably the most luxurious branch in the city. They have a semi-elegant dining room upstairs decorated with supergraphics and populated with waitresses wearing a darker variation on the usual uniform; downstairs the lines seemed more somber and orderly, the clerks standing at attention rather than slouching miserably.

It’s no secret that McDonald’s business fortunes have taken a nose dive lately, as they have been outflanked by more diverse, more fashion-forward, and more burrito-oriented fast food chains, offering the public choices rather than ironclad set meals. To those ends, Mickey D’s has introduced a program dubbed Create Your Taste (CYT), and in implementation thereof have installed four point of purchase computers as a field test at the branch I visited. Thin, tall, and dark, they look like the obelisk that somersaulted through space in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

When I arrived most customers were lined up at the counter as usual, ignoring the new machines, which were surrounded by computer wonks who were obviously hired consultants, looking a little worried. They were assisted by some designated McDonald’s clerks, one of whom offered to walk me through the ordering process. The whole purpose of this rigmarole is to allow you to customize a ¼-pound or ½-pound patty with a luxuriant number of free substances. Bun, cheese, and dressing could also be specified, perhaps with the intention of allowing you to create a burger that would compete with, say, Shake Shack’s, or maybe Five Guys’.

Here are the choices currently being offered just as the computer described them. It could use some copyediting, and a more random collection of things could hardly be imagined:

Toppings — guacamole, chili lime tortilla strips, crinkle cut pickle, crisp red onions, crisp green lettuce, fresh sliced tomato, jalapeno sliced, grilled onions, grilled mushroom

Dressings — Mac sauce, mayonnaise, sriracha mayo, sweet onion BBQ sauce, creamy garlic sauce

Bread — Artisan roll, ciabatta roll, premium bun, lettuce wrap

It took us two go-throughs to get my order correctly transmitted. I handed my money to the clerk (the tablets were not accepting plastic), who circumvented the lines in order to pay and get my change, then handed me one of those blinking discs and sent me upstairs to wait. My burger, along with a serving of fries in a bistro-style metal basket lined with filter paper, and a frozen pink lemonade slushie ($12.28 total, the only surcharge was for bacon) arrived 10 minutes later, delivered by one of the waitresses. Do I tip her? I wondered. And if so, how and how much?

Robert McDonald's
Robert McDonald's
Robert McDonald's
Robert McDonald's

[All photos by Robert Sietsema]

With all that crap on top, the burger was far better than the usual Mickey D’s. The lettuce was especially fresh and not iceberg, the jalapenos canned, the jack cheese of commercial grade, the raw onions pungent, the sriracha dressing bland, the tomato like a piece of wood, the bacon metered out in the thinnest of half slices, like something given to Oliver Twist in the orphanage, the pickles the same as the usual pickles, and the characterless guac applied only to the top of the bun in the thinnest layer imaginable.

More important, will McDonald’s succeed with this ploy? Well, the burger is certainly more expensive, but really doesn’t achieve the luxury level that, say, Shack Shack does, with its proprietary meat mix, minerality, and extravagant gloppiness. The biggest drawback was the meat patty itself, which retained the usual McDonald’s smell of slowly rotting meat, a rancidity that no amount of toppings can dispel. Until Ronald McDonald addresses the meat problem, this new system is bound to fail in the long run at ramping up profits. And why no mustard among the dressings? Or no vegetarian burger choice? There is a perverse stubbornness at work here, one that will prevent the chain from rising in the long run.

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