NEW YORK — 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 paying 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.
“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.
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.”