I don't really like surprises.
I like a predictable, almost mundane life, where I know exactly what to expect.
So imagine my surprise when an email hit the email@example.com inbox from McDonald's. Here we are, constantly espousing local sourcing, quality ingredients and individuality and possibly the most well-known multinational fast food restaurant chain is inviting me to try and make their ubiquitous Big Mac.
First of all I checked they had sent the email to the right person, just in case!
Then I re-read it, they were indeed wanting to show off the evolution of McDonald’s restaurants and they were going to let me behind the scenes at the Newbridge restaurant to see how it was done. Perhaps the biggest surprise was that they were inviting me into the kitchen to prepare my own burger. You are very brave, very daft or very confident to invite an outspoken food writer into your kitchen. So with very little hesitation I took them up on the offer, to find out which one it was…
When the big day arrived I was greeted by the franchisee (Bob!) and his loyal and friendly team. It was half one and the lunchtime rush was in full swing as families, solo business-folk, workies in vans and the slightly dazed looking folk that looked like they'd just got off a long haul flight (which they might have now I come to think about it) all looking to get a quick meal. It was interesting to see how in this restaurant they were reinventing the McDonald's concept, keeping the best bits whilst removing the annoyances. Now there is no queueing at a counter to order and watch the staff select a prepared burger from the shelf, no it's all made to order. Your choices now are myriad. You can use one of the kiosks, giant touch screens in a range of languages, that allow you to select your meals and make whatever personalisation you wish, don’t like pesky pickles, hold the tomato, you betcha. You can use the mobile phone app to get your order ready and scan the QR code at the door to let the kitchen know you've arrived and they'll get cracking. You can also sit at the table and order from there on the app.
Not all of these features will be available at all the restaurants yet, but this is the way of the future, so if your local McDonald's doesn't do this yet, it will soon! Until then (and even in the new restaurants you get the option if you want to do it the old fashioned way) you can still head to the counter and order from one of the friendly staff.
Then you can wait for your meal to be handed to you, like the old days, or better still to your seat. The restaurant is split into zones which you use when you order and the food is served at the table. Imagine when you are trying to corral a heap of children, remember orders, juggle straws, well no more. Place the little cherubs in front of one of the tablets, place the order from the comfort of your chair and wait. The server will take care of everything bringing condiments, napkins the whole kit and caboodle over to you. To quote one of the McDonald's team “if you have to get up from your seat we'd see that as a fail.” To me, as far as front of house service goes, in what is still a value orientated market, that's a winner. I can pay nearly twenty quid for a burger in some places and still have to stand in a queue, so digitally enabled full on table service for a 99p cheeseburger is definitely a surprise.
There were more surprises lying ahead, for as we crossed the threshold, through the ‘staff only’ emblazoned door and entered uncharted territory, there was a table with hats and aprons and a personalised name badge waiting for us! Whilst we were preparing ourselves for the trip to the kitchen, lots of hair net kerfuffling took place, I appreciated the neat and tidy staff (crew) room, the iron (so the staff can look their best) and best of all the dozens of photos of the team on a range of nights out, team building and fun days that gave the impression that looking after their staff was high up on management's priorities.
Once suitably attired we scrubbed up, passed food hygiene inspection and were let loose into the kitchen proper. Two things were immediately apparent. Firstly it was very clean. This is a kitchen at the end of the lunch rush, I'm expecting a certain degree of carnage, maybe not a pile of dirty pots and pans, but some sign that a couple of hundred people have just passed through, but no, everything appeared to be pristine. Which leads us onto the second observation, it was very methodical. A place for everything and everything in its place, there was some very clever process planning in place, that produced optimum efficiency, so we get tasty burgers quickly. It's the little details like the bespoke toaster that can grill the top, bottom and both sides of the middle of a Big Mac bun at the same time. Bet you'd never given it a second thought before, but there is a special bit of kit to do just that task. The double sided hot plates cook the burgers for just the right time and they have an illustration to remind you that the order you put the patties on is the order you need to take them off, so they are all on the heat for the same amount of time. And when you cook a burger at home and you do that thing with the spatula to push the meat down, yup these have an automatic function to push down and release when cooking, just to add a little tenderness… The patty is pure beef, 100%, from British and Irish cows. Yes, its flank and forequarter, but it's being minced and shaped into a tasty burger, not served on a plate with a Diane sauce so that shouldn't worry you. Once cooked a no doubt carefully calibrated grind of salt and pepper is added and the burgers placed into hot storage.
Because no fully prepared burgers are sitting waiting, everything is prepared to order, so this may take a little longer than simply handing you a lukewarm one that was prepared earlier. But, you know what, I'll wait thirty seconds longer for the freshness of a bespoke burger, thank you very much, and McDonald's believe that I'm not the only one. The patties may be grilled and kept hot, but when that order for a Big Mac hits the screens, (there's no shouting, not bits of paper, just a monitor detailing the personalised order), that's when the magic happens, and not a second before. A bun is toasted, onion, lettuce,two skooshes of special sauce, cheese, pickles added in just the correct quantities, before the meat is added, the two halves joined and voila your freshly made burger appears.
And then it was my turn… After observing a slick professional turn one out in twenty seconds I had to bring my A game, and I'd like to think I didn't let myself down too badly. I managed to toast the right side of the bun, but then skimped too much on the lettuce and doubled up on the pickles.
When I turned it over and opened the box there was a vaguely Big Mac-esque creation inside. Admittedly it also took three times as long as my McDonald's Yoda to demonstrate the correct technique, but not a bad first try I thought, certainly tasted pretty darn good to me!
And with that I was shown back out of the kitchen and into the by now slightly quieter restaurant. I polished off my handy work and thought about what had just happened and reconciled it with my initial thoughts. First off the old adage of “you get what you pay for” remains true enough. For the price of even the most expensive McDonald’s Signature meal, you wouldn't realistically expect hand ground wagyu in an artisan brioche bun, liberally dusted with unicorn tears, so guess what, you don't get that. What you do get is a freshly prepared, pure beef burger. If anything it makes the price of some of the ‘gourmet’ burger establishments look frankly ridiculous. Table service, easy ways to order freshly made food at a family friendly price, what's not to like?
Brave, not really. Daft, definitely not. Supremely confident, I guess so.
Because I could find no faults. It is not a kitchen - it’s a machine, a well orchestrated, minutely detailed series of processes that makes the act of preparing a burger appear effortlessly efficient. Sure what you have is more paint-by-numbers than Picasso. In all the kitchens I've ever worked each dish is unique, a splash of cream here, a variable spoon of butter there, a random sprinkle of spice, using my skill and judgement to create a meal. McDonald's don't want that variation, they want you to enjoy a Big Mac that is the same from Berwick to Motherwell and that's what you will get. Consistent, uniform, predictable, no surprises…
Guess McDonald’s is perfect for me then.
SPONSORED POST - Whilst I was invited to try out the new McDonald's, the opinions within the post are still very much my own. Can't you tell...