With all the recent excitement over Shake Shack - its share price more than doubled the day it went public last week - and Habit Burger, whose share price also more than doubled when it went public in November, you'd think America was entering a new golden age of the burger.
Then there's McDonald's, the mother of all burger chains and one of the most potent symbols of America around the globe. Even as Americans flock to so-called fast-casual burger chains, McDonald's is struggling.
Its same-store sales in the United States have dropped for five consecutive quarters. Consumer Reports rated its burgers the worst of 21 chains'. Millennials, the demographic that reached adulthood in the 2000s and now have children, are avoiding it, in part because of its hard-to-shake reputation for unhealthy fat and calories and oversize sodas. A little over a week ago, it said it was replacing its chief executive, Don Thompson, with Steve Easterbrook, a company veteran. I grew up on McDonald's but haven't had a Big Mac in years - decades, actually. But given the success of Shake Shack, Habit Burger Grill, Five Guys, 5 Napkin Burger, In-N-Out Burger and a spate of other burger chains, I wondered what McDonald's was like these days, and how it might reinvigorate its still-formidable brand.
So I asked the celebrity chef Geoffrey Zakarian, an "Iron Chef" winner, a star of the Food Network, the chef and owner of the Lambs Club and culinary director of The Plaza hotel, to join me for lunch at McDonald's this week. As we squeezed into a bustling outlet on Manhattan's Third Avenue near Bloomingdale's, he confessed he'd never eaten at McDonald's before.
The place was loud and chaotic, packed with teenagers. Slushy conditions outside meant someone had to be mopping the floors constantly, and cold drafts swept in every time the door opened. Harsh fluorescent lighting made everyone look even paler than usual at this time of year. The color scheme was garish - McDonald's signature bright red and yellow.
We weren't exactly anonymous: Several customers recognized Mr. Zakarian and crowded around to take photos. We ordered a Quarter Pounder for me and a grilled chicken wrap for him. (He was obviously going for the healthier option.) We both added fries and coffee. The bill was a little over $15. We took a number and stood aside. We had trouble hearing the numbers above the din, but a few minutes later a helpful employee delivered our bag to us and suggested it would be quieter upstairs.
Mr. Zakarian took one bite of his wrap and then looked inside. It seemed mostly tortilla, with some wan strips of chicken and shreds of iceberg lettuce. It was, in a word, tasteless. "Why would anyone come here for this?" he asked. "You can get a much better wrap at Chipotle. McDonald's should stick to what it does well."
We turned to the iconic burger, which I divided in half. It seemed awfully small for a quarter-pound of beef. No one had asked what we wanted on it, but it had the usual melted cheese and some ketchup, mustard and wafer-thin onion shreds.
Mr. Zakarian took a bite and looked slightly pained. "Well, it is what it is," he said.
I thought it was pretty good, as long as you like soft and squishy. (The bun had no texture and collapsed with the first bite.) I ate my half and, seeing that Mr. Zakarian had left the rest of his untouched, finished his half, too.
We turned to the fries, and Mr. Zakarian visibly brightened. "Excellent," he said. "I wouldn't change anything." And we both agreed the coffee was good. "I'd come back for the fries and coffee," he said.
I asked him what he thought McDonald's could do. "Of course, the food could be better," he said. "All fast food could be better. McDonald's has been incredibly successful, and you have to respect that. It only has to be incrementally better." Some easy options might be leaner beef and a better bun, and maybe a higher-priced option "since all these things come at a cost," he said.
Mr. Zakarian said he used seven ounces of 75 percent lean beef from grain-fed, free-range cattle for his burger at the Lambs Club, which is on the menu for $22. It's cooked to order, served on a challah bun and comes with hand-cut fries and house-made condiments.
"That's not the answer for McDonald's," he said. "Price and value are important, and people don't want to wait. But they need to tell a better story, talk more about quality, the source of the 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."
Most of all, he said, McDonald's should focus. "That's the message from Shake Shack and Chipotle," he said. "They have very limited menus. McDonald's should do what it does well. You get the feeling they're throwing things against the wall to see what sticks. You can't be all things to all people."
Mr. Zakarian noted that a burger could only be so healthy. "It's a treat. People love them, but no one should be eating one every day," he said. He added that the Shake Shack version wasn't any healthier than the Quarter Pounder: 490 calories and 30 grams of fat for the basic ShackBurger (which also contains a quarter-pound of beef) compared with 520 calories and 26 grams of fat for the McDonald's Quarter Pounder with cheese. But Shake Shack stresses that it uses only "100 percent all-natural, Angus beef" and "no hormones and no antibiotics ever." McDonald's says only that its beef patties are made from "100 percent ground beef."
Apart from the food, the McDonald's ambience was abysmal, although Mr. Zakarian observed that the raucous teenagers seemed to be having a good time.
Karl Backus, a San Francisco-based principal at Bohlin Cywinski Jackson and the lead architect for the acclaimed Apple retail stores, said that in its design, "McDonald's seems to be treating all of us like we're messy kids." He added, "It's like everything was chosen so it can be swabbed down."
Like Mr. Zakarian, Mr. Backus said McDonald's needed to figure out a core message, and then reinforce it through its architecture and design. "When Apple came to us, they said they wanted to be associated with innovation," he said. "That was the message. So we focused on cutting-edge glass technology."
Mr. Backus noted that Shake Shack and Chipotle use design to reinforce a consistent message. "Both of these companies are obviously trying to communicate more about their values than what is being served in their physical space," he said. "They've focused on the overall presentation, how it's packaged, presented and the environment it's served in. They created places where people want to stay and linger. That builds customer loyalty. At McDonald's, you feel it's all about getting in and getting out."
Still, there's plenty that McDonald's could do to improve its existing outlets, he said. "Start with the lighting," he said. He mentioned LED lighting, which is both environmentally sensitive and far more flattering to food and customers.
Both he and Mr. Zakarian agreed that McDonald's needed to generate some buzz and media attention that would move the spotlight off the nutritional issues and declining sales, perhaps by enlisting some celebrity chefs and star architects and designers.
When I shared these thoughts with McDonald's, it turned out the company has had some of the same ideas. A McDonald's spokeswoman, Heidi Barker, said that McDonald's was renovating several hundred outlets a year to focus on better lighting, design and materials. I checked out two of the new prototypes in Manhattan this week, and they are vast improvements over the Third Avenue branch. There are natural wood slats, softer lighting, better acoustics and a soft neutral color scheme (though there are still touches of bright red and yellow).
Even bolder, McDonald's is testing what it calls "create your taste" programs in a few locations, and hopes to introduce the concept in 2,000 locations by the end of the year. Customers order from flat-screen computers and can choose a toasted bun or roll, three types of cheeses, various sauces and toppings. Then, they take a number and pick a seat. The order is delivered to their table.
These seem to be excellent and long-overdue steps. Still, Mr. Easterbrook, the new chief executive, clearly has his work cut out for him. McDonald's hasn't substantially improved the taste and quality of its food, changed its marketing message or done enough to change perceptions of the health issues.
"Changing only one or two things will not give them credibility or believability," said Ravi Dhar, professor of management and marketing and director of the Center for Customer Insights at the Yale School of Management. "McDonald's needs to rethink all the elements of the value chain that impact the overall customer experience."
What would it take to get me back into a McDonald's? I don't think it would be that hard. I like the new décor and custom burger option. I don't mind waiting a few minutes. I don't eat much ground beef, so I'd like a turkey or salmon burger option, served with decent lettuce and tomatoes. And I agree with Mr. Zakarian: The fries and coffee are fine.
© 2015 New York Times News Service