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McDonald's confronts its junk food image

NEW YORK (AP) - At a 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 event, held in New York City's Tribeca neighborhood, was billed "A transforming dining experience of 'fast food' to 'good food served fast.'" Attendees tweeted out photos and the night was written up on various websites.

The dishes aren't intended for McDonald's restaurants. Instead, the evening is 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 so-called "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. And in coming months, mandarins 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 to 3 percent of sales. And the chain last year discontinued its Fruit & Walnut salad and premium Angus burgers, which analysts said were priced too high for McDonald's customers at around $5.

The problem is that some simply people don't consider McDonald's a place to get high quality food, in part because the prices are so low. And while McDonald's has added salads and a yogurt parfait to its menu over the years, Americans are gravitating toward other attributes, like 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 noted 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 an analyst conference in May.

But even that reputation for supply chain rigor was recently tarnished when the chain's longtime supplier was reported to have sold expired meat to its restaurants in China.

The Price Conundrum

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. And 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.

Adding to its challenge, McDonald's can't seem to raise prices without driving people away. Pressured by rising costs for beef and other ingredients, the chain tried to move away from the Dollar Menu in 2012 with an "Extra Value Menu" where items were priced at around $2.

But customers are apparently righteous about the $1 price point, and the strategy was scrapped. Last year, McDonald's changed its tactic a bit, hoping not to turn off customers. It tweaked the name of the "Dollar Menu" to the "Dollar Menu & More."

McDonald's low prices also are part of what keeps it from competing with places such as Chipotle, which is touting the removal of genetically modified ingredients from its menu, and Panera, which recently said it will eliminated all artificial ingredients by 2016. Such moves would be Herculean feats for McDonald's, given its pricing model and the complexity of its menu.

Meanwhile, the company acknowledges there are problems with how people perceive its food. "A lot of our guests don't believe our food is real," said Dan Coudreaut, director of culinary innovation at McDonald's, in an interview last year.

Taking Control of The Narrative

The image of McDonald's food is a growing concern for the company at a time when U.S. sales have been weak for two years. The last time McDonald's managed to boost a monthly sales figure at home was in October, and the company warns its performance isn't expected to improve anytime soon.

McDonald's has said it has other problems, including slow and inaccurate service at its restaurants. But improving perceptions about its food is also a priority.

Following the dinner in New York last fall, the company hosted a similar event last month for reporters covering the Essence Festival in New Orleans. Beignets filled with grilled chicken and dusted with sugar were served alongside a packet of McDonald's honey mustard sauce.

Other "chef events" in local markets are planned for coming months, according to Lisa McComb, a McDonald's spokeswoman. She declined to provide details but said the events will be a spin on a recent contest between two friends to make a gourmet dish out of a Big Mac meal.

McComb said McDonald's wasn't associated with that particular contest, which was posted online.

The company continues to tweak the menu, too. The new Bacon Club burger McDonald's is promoting comes on a brioche bun and looks more like something that might be found at a trendy burger joint. It costs $5 or $6, depending on where you live, making it the most expensive sandwich on the menu.

In Southern California, McDonald's also is testing a "Build Your Own Burger" concept, with the patties being cooked to order more slowly on a separate grill.

Beyond the menu, the company is determined to take control of its narrative.

"We're going to start really, really telling our story in a much more proactive manner," said Kevin Newell, U.S. brand and strategy officer for McDonald's said late last year.

He added that McDonald's has gone too long in "letting other folks frame the story for us."

Join the discussion

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Bob August 18 2014 at 12:39 PM

McDonald's should stick to their original menu. Burgers, fries and shakes. If people choose to abuse themselves by eating it for every meal, the let that be their choice. There is no such thing as a bad food. Calories are calories. There are, however, bad choices. Just out of curiosity, if I make my own burgers, fries and shake at home, what makes it any better than the one I get at McDonald's? I used to work for McDonald's and the quality of the food they serve is the same as what we can by at the local market. Stand your ground McDonald's, go back to your roots!

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balaland August 18 2014 at 2:44 PM

Perfect example of giving the P.C.people what they want...Just because someone does not like what you sell does not require them to change it. Simple Don't Go There.. Why Change what made the corporation Profitable ? ..P.C. correct idiots have to stop trying to change the world , it's a disease that needs a cure..........

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Mace August 18 2014 at 1:01 PM

This article is often mixing together too concepts as if they are the same: low quality food, and healthy food. They are only marginally related. Although there are probably many people who think McDonald's has low quality ingredients, there are many other people who know that McDonald's tends to use some of the highest quality ingredients available for the types of food they serve. (Pink slime, now removed, notwithstanding.) Hamburger meat is not particularly healthy even if it is high quality meat. Some of the traits of high quality meat would be very fresh from quality controlled sources, and from healthy animals, but also with a very low percentage of non-meat contaminants such as insect parts. (Don't cringe, it's pretty much impossible to keep 100% of them out. Just more protein.) So I will eat McDonald's burgers, but I wouldn't eat a BK burger on a bet. Chicken nuggets, no matter the source, are high in fat. McD's tend to be better than most.

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HAT1701D August 18 2014 at 1:02 PM

In "changing thier image" and getting away from their tradition...that is what is destroying them. Sorry, you don't go to McDonalds to eat healthy, you go to eat quick and fast and a "tradtional" American fast food experience that was one of the early quick on the go style food joints. If they want to add a perminant food item that regularly proves a monetary success and hit...they simply need to make the McRib a standard item on the menu. McDonalds will never be a healthy experience and it is supposed to be that once and a while "indulgence" that we know is not good for us.

It's up to each person to decide whether to eat their product or not and more importantly whether or not to eat it a significant number of times a week. That's called personal responsibility and that is not up to McDonald's ownership at either franchise or corporate level. That's at each and everyone of our level. We have options....eat out all the time OR take the time to prepare meals at home the old way.

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2 replies
balaland HAT1701D August 18 2014 at 2:35 PM

Life is indulgence, P.C. thinking is changing this corporation , i agree with with your post.......Surveying the public would help , instead of the corporate think-tank they use......Just look at Burger King another P.C. corporation going down....

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balaland HAT1701D August 18 2014 at 2:47 PM

Great - post...

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mgt0331 August 18 2014 at 11:41 AM

Who doesn't love a Big Mac once and a while. But the people who eat this crap 5x's a week are crazy. The food is crap. A celebrity chef can make crap taste good. McDonald's is killing people.

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3 replies
crowland503 August 18 2014 at 3:28 PM

Time to tell the Government to crawl back down the hole it came from. The First Lady wastes millions of tax payer's money on food school-aged kids refused to eat!
Every year the nutrition experts sounds like nitwits because their studies of what can and can not eat, or drink, are wrong!
I eat and drink as I chose not what the Government dictates! Big Mac and fries and jumbo Coke here I come!!! The hell with the food police.

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1 reply
arvig crowland503 August 19 2014 at 4:32 AM

The government has nothing to do with how people see McDonald's. The current food fads would exist regardless. Did you even read the same article? McDonald's is simply trying to change it's image so it's not seen as a place that serves low quality food. Not because the government demand they change.

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cza2129 August 18 2014 at 5:02 PM

Mc D's KEEP your image it has WORKED all these years, DUMP the PC and give the finger to those who don't like you for WHATEVER reason

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cza2129 August 18 2014 at 5:03 PM

Tell the PC police to kiss your @$$.

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kayla.box August 18 2014 at 7:00 PM

well the breakfast sandwitch is healthy because its made with an english muffen egges and meat so its jacked with protien :p ha!!!!!!!! lol

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kayla.box August 18 2014 at 7:01 PM


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