With McDonald's Down in the Polls, Will Booze Help?

Mcdonald's and beer? With "billions served," McDonald's and its Golden Arches have come to be synonymous with American culture: We are the "fast food nation," the Big Mac is universal, children all over the world order Happy Meals with Chicken McNuggets, and the language is understood everywhere.

But fresh off a victory over other quick service restaurants in breakfast loyalty and four "Bests" in the latest Zagat survey -- for French Fries, Drive-Through, Value Menu and Breakfast Sandwich -- the home of Ronald McDonald has suffered a major setback. In Consumer Reports' first-ever fast food survey, In-N-Out Burger was ranked the nation's fast food favorite. McDonald's, along with large competitors like Burger King and other fast food icons like KFC and Taco Bell, got low marks from consumers.
Seems the company's late-20th-century heyday -- as a pulp icon in Pulp Fiction, as the star of a catchy jingle about the ingredients of its Big Mac, as a way for one little girl to make it through her piano recital of Beethoven's Für Elise -- Mickey-Ds is losing its way. Earlier this year, Subway surpassed McDonald's with total number of units -- the sandwich chain now has more than 34,700 units to McDonald's "more than 31,000." The same month, Goldman Sachs warned that McDonald's was "losing its advertising edge."

Now Consumer Reports tells us we're not getting our "bang for our buck" by eating at McDonald's. With the blitz of attempts to keep its relevance -- from offering healthy sides in Happy Meals to hanging on to the excitement of the McRib -- failing, what's an ailing-but-storied leader to do?

Hit the bottle, that's what. It's what Sonic and Burger King are trying. Couldn't McDonald's do likewise?

Burger King "Whopper Bars" recently opened in Miami, Las Vegas and Kansas City, selling beer alongside its Whoppers and fries. The burgers are more expensive at these bars -- which may number as many as 500, the chain says -- and can be loaded up as you watch, a la Subway. And while the beers may be lightweight -- Bud, Bud Light and Miller Light -- the bars offer more of an atmosphere for adults as parents steer their children away from McDonald's. One need do no more than watch an episode of Jamie Oliver's reality show or read a weekly news magazine to decide that fast food chain restaurants are the fastest path toward an early grave for your kids.

Sonic, whose advertising is peopled entirely with adults and marked with sly humor, is also jumping into the alcohol game. Two Sonic restaurants in Florida (where the first Whopper Bar was launched, incidentally) are set to offer three types of draft beer, 25 kinds of bottled beer and 10 varieties of wine. Drew Ritger, senior vice president of business analysis for Sonic told USA Today, "We look at this as an opportunity to drive evening business in this market." (Hey, don't worry, said the chain: It won't offer beer and wine to its drive-through customers.)

Starbucks also has four new concept stores in the Seattle area that sell beer and wine -- a fifth will be added in Portland, Ore., by September. Like Sonic and Burger King, these concept stores are in hip neighborhoods filled with ad agencies, law firms and the like, but few families -- the corporations all say they're targeting evening business, but it's another way to say "Kids not really welcome."

As lawsuits begin targeting businesses that use cartoon characters to sell unhealthy food to kids, McDonald's and other fast food chains are increasingly watching their backs. Could this be the next Joe Camel? Could governments ban Happy Meals and kid-sized milkshakes? Don't laugh. It's already begun. It's either a change in strategy to one that caters toward adults -- who can legally be goaded into making all the dietary mistakes corporations can sell them, at least in the foreseeable food future -- or to one that focuses on healthier, higher-quality ingredients.

Ironically, that's just the strategy pursued by In-N-Out Burger, which picks whole potatoes cut in the store, fresh beef it considers to be higher-quality than regular fast food beef, pure vegetable oil and real ice cream. All these high-quality ingredients cost more and are hard to scale to McDonald's-type numbers.

But in the long term, it's a more sustainable strategy than simply offering even more unhealthy options (sorry, folks, I can't believe that Bud Light is any healthier than soda, even if it is "light") to adults.
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