McDonald's testing custom, premium burgers
USINFO | 2013-12-04 20:08

The burgers are served in a aluminum basket. The cost: $5.79 for a standard build-your-own burger. Bacon is a $1 extra.
Months after dropping Angus burgers from its menu, McDonald’s is experimenting with build-your-own-burgers made with premium ingredients selected from an iPad menu.

The upscale-burger test, launched Monday in restaurants in Laguna Niguel and Illinois, allows diners to choose from more than 20 toppings and sauces. Some new offerings include sharp white cheddar cheese, guacamole, caramelized onions, grilled mushrooms, applewood smoked bacon and creamy garlic sauce. The patty is the same one used on the Quarter Pounder, but it is “chargrilled-to-order,” McDonald’s said.

At a newly remodeled McDonald’s in Laguna Niguel, customers create their custom meal using one of two iPad ordering stations near the entrance. Employees wearing fine-dining-style black and white chef’s aprons are there to help customers use the touch-screen menu.

“With these tests, we will have an opportunity to hear directly from our customers in real-time on what they expect from McDonald’s in terms of the overall restaurant experience and their ability to further customize their menu choices,” McDonald’s told the Register in a prepared statement.

Restaurant industry experts say McDonald’s is going after fussier and older fast-food eaters who have migrated to better burger concepts like Smashburger and Five Guys Burgers and Fries.

“This is an effort to deal with fast-casual,” said Jeff Davis, president of Sandelman and Associates, a San Clemente-based fast-food consulting firm. “McDonald’s is becoming way more adult-focused.”

The limited-time experiment comes as McDonald’s and its rivals scramble to add premium offerings.

Last week, Carl’s Jr. debuted fresh-baked buns for its Six Dollar Angus burgers. Lake Forest-based Del Taco introduced “epic” fresh-Mex inspired burritos last week. Wendy’s is hawking a bacon portabella melt on a toasted brioche bun and a pretzel pub chicken sandwich. Arby’s is selling a roast beef sandwich with King's Hawaiian rolls. Irvine-based Taco Bell launched a Chipotle-style Cantina Bell menu last year.

“When you look at the QSR (quick-service restaurant) industry, they have been striving to close the gap with the fast-casual players,” said Dennis Lombardi, a restaurant consultant with Ohio-based WD Partners.
One way for McDonald’s to close that gap is to test a customized premium burger, Lombardi said.

New research from restaurant consulting firm Technomic shows that 95 percent of consumers say they eat burgers at least once a month. And they’re not looking for subpar burgers.
“Consumers expect something extra when dining out, and better burgers with quality ingredients and customer-chosen toppings or specialty preparations can really help deliver that as part of a solid value equation,” said Darren Tristano, executive vice president at Technomic.

In Laguna Niguel, the test is playing out in a McDonald’s that recently reopened after a major makeover. The new look includes large upscale lamp shades and bright colored booths and barstools.

Customers can choose one of three specialty burgers with set ingredients or they can build their own burger. The three signature burgers include SoCal Style, Hot All Over and Grill Thriller. The SoCal burger, for example, comes on a bakery-style bun with white cheddar cheese, chili-lime tortilla strips, tomato, lettuce and garlic sauce. Specialty and custom burgers cost $5.79. If you add bacon, the burger cost $6.79.

Once you swipe through selections, an employee re-enters the order on a separate handheld tablet. A third device is used for paying. The burgers are served open face in a stylish aluminum basket – similar to Smashburger.

After ordering a McRib sandwich on Wednesday night, McDonald’s regular Jeff Weiss took a quick look at the custom burger options available at the Golden Lantern restaurant.

“It looks new and exciting, but it is too hard of a left turn,” said Weiss, 49, of Laguna Niguel. “It doesn’t fit their business model.”

McDonald’s provided no other details about the test, including when or if it would go national. The other restaurant testing custom burgers is in Romeoville, Ill.

“It is too soon to tell whether these concepts, or something similar, would be rolled out nationally, and these tests represent just one aspect of our broader menu innovation journey,” McDonald’s said.
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