Will Americans wait longer for fresh fast food?

McDonald's Corporation is in the midst of a consumer experiment that, if successful, will alter the 60-year-old company's way of selling food to its customers.

In the early decades of its operation, McDonald's, along with its main rivals Burger King and Wendy's, would prepare their all beef hamburger patties using fresh ground beef.  But over the years, in order to maintain uniformity and keep costs down, McDonald's and Burger King switched to frozen beef patties.  This change was unloved by consumers, and when more fast food choices emerged – especially Taco Bell and specialty burger outlets like In-N-Out and Whataburger – McDonald's began to bleed customers and revenue.

So McDonald's decided to go old school.  They have reintroduced their signature menu choice – the Quarter Pounder – using fresh beef.

But as this Reuters article points out, the extra seconds it takes to prepare the fresh meat might doom the experiment and contribute to the chain store giant's loss of market share.

The tradeoff between time and taste looms large for McDonald's Corp as it works to win back business lost to rivals. The introduction of cooked-to-order, quarter-pound burgers made with fresh beef is part of the chain's attempt to improve food quality. Announced in March, the new sandwiches are already in selected test markets and are expected to be served in all U.S. stores by mid-2018.

But the success of the initiative may well hinge on satisfying important customers like Moore: speed-minded drive-through patrons who account for 70 percent of the firm's U.S. revenue.

An on-demand Quarter Pounder takes about a minute longer to land in a customer's hands than does the original sandwich, according to restaurant managers and analysts, even though fresh beef fries up faster than frozen patties. That's because grilling begins only after a patron orders. Traditional Quarter Pounders were often cooked up in batches ahead of time.

Every second counts in the fast-food business. McDonald's drive-through speeds already lag those of some major competitors, according to one widely watched survey. McDonald's does not share such data, but company representatives told Reuters earlier this year that service times have slowed.

Still, company executives are bullish on prospects for the popular Quarter Pounder, which accounts for about one-fourth of McDonald's U.S. burger sales. At an investor conference last month, Chief Executive Steve Easterbrook said the changeover has created fewer complications than expected and that restaurant operators are on board.

Some industry veterans, however, are skeptical. Richard Adams, a former Southern California McDonald's franchisee-turned-consultant, says convenience is paramount for the chain's patrons, who may go elsewhere if speed deteriorates.

"Any time the cooking process begins after the customer orders, the service time will be slower," Adams said.

The fresh-beef initiative comes as pressure builds on McDonald's kitchens.

Adams says restaurant crews already are juggling trickier menu items thanks to the recent national launch of McDonald's new "Signature Crafted" sandwich line, which allows customers to pick their own meat, buns and toppings. "Signature Crafted" quarter-pound burgers also will use fresh beef as it becomes available nationwide.

McDonald's cooks could be further strained by the chain's embrace of self-service kiosks and mobile ordering. The technology shaves ordering times, but can create new bottlenecks by swamping kitchens at peak hours, as companies such as Starbucks Corp have learned.

McDonald's is already lagging in service time compared to its competitors. 

The average service time at a McDonald's drive-through last year was 208.2 seconds, according to a study published by QSR magazine, an industry publication, using data from SeeLevel HX, an Atlanta-based business intelligence firm. That's well behind industry leader Wendy's at 169.1 seconds, according to the survey. Burger King, Dunkin' Donuts and KFC all beat McDonald's too.

McDonald's narrowed the gap with Wendy's by one-third from 2012 to 2016 by adding more drive-through lanes at some stores and by scrapping products such as "snack wraps," tortilla-wrapped sandwiches that proved time-consuming to prepare. Still, its average drive-through service time last year was almost 20 seconds slower than it was in 2012, according to SeeLevel HX data.

I'm old enough to remember when franchise burger outlets served relatively tasty meals at a reasonable price using mostly fresh ingredients.  Those days are long gone, as industrial methods of food prep made most fast food either virtually tasteless or actually repellant.  But at least you got your order quickly.

But America's changing taste buds and demand for fresher ingredients with fewer additives have revolutionized the industry.  If there is a marginal improvement in the taste of the Quarter Pounder, I doubt that a significant number of customers will notice.  But if they have to wait significantly longer to have their order filled, it may make a huge difference in McDonald's bottom line.

McDonald's Corporation is in the midst of a consumer experiment that, if successful, will alter the 60-year-old company's way of selling food to its customers.

In the early decades of its operation, McDonald's, along with its main rivals Burger King and Wendy's, would prepare their all beef hamburger patties using fresh ground beef.  But over the years, in order to maintain uniformity and keep costs down, McDonald's and Burger King switched to frozen beef patties.  This change was unloved by consumers, and when more fast food choices emerged – especially Taco Bell and specialty burger outlets like In-N-Out and Whataburger – McDonald's began to bleed customers and revenue.

So McDonald's decided to go old school.  They have reintroduced their signature menu choice – the Quarter Pounder – using fresh beef.

But as this Reuters article points out, the extra seconds it takes to prepare the fresh meat might doom the experiment and contribute to the chain store giant's loss of market share.

The tradeoff between time and taste looms large for McDonald's Corp as it works to win back business lost to rivals. The introduction of cooked-to-order, quarter-pound burgers made with fresh beef is part of the chain's attempt to improve food quality. Announced in March, the new sandwiches are already in selected test markets and are expected to be served in all U.S. stores by mid-2018.

But the success of the initiative may well hinge on satisfying important customers like Moore: speed-minded drive-through patrons who account for 70 percent of the firm's U.S. revenue.

An on-demand Quarter Pounder takes about a minute longer to land in a customer's hands than does the original sandwich, according to restaurant managers and analysts, even though fresh beef fries up faster than frozen patties. That's because grilling begins only after a patron orders. Traditional Quarter Pounders were often cooked up in batches ahead of time.

Every second counts in the fast-food business. McDonald's drive-through speeds already lag those of some major competitors, according to one widely watched survey. McDonald's does not share such data, but company representatives told Reuters earlier this year that service times have slowed.

Still, company executives are bullish on prospects for the popular Quarter Pounder, which accounts for about one-fourth of McDonald's U.S. burger sales. At an investor conference last month, Chief Executive Steve Easterbrook said the changeover has created fewer complications than expected and that restaurant operators are on board.

Some industry veterans, however, are skeptical. Richard Adams, a former Southern California McDonald's franchisee-turned-consultant, says convenience is paramount for the chain's patrons, who may go elsewhere if speed deteriorates.

"Any time the cooking process begins after the customer orders, the service time will be slower," Adams said.

The fresh-beef initiative comes as pressure builds on McDonald's kitchens.

Adams says restaurant crews already are juggling trickier menu items thanks to the recent national launch of McDonald's new "Signature Crafted" sandwich line, which allows customers to pick their own meat, buns and toppings. "Signature Crafted" quarter-pound burgers also will use fresh beef as it becomes available nationwide.

McDonald's cooks could be further strained by the chain's embrace of self-service kiosks and mobile ordering. The technology shaves ordering times, but can create new bottlenecks by swamping kitchens at peak hours, as companies such as Starbucks Corp have learned.

McDonald's is already lagging in service time compared to its competitors. 

The average service time at a McDonald's drive-through last year was 208.2 seconds, according to a study published by QSR magazine, an industry publication, using data from SeeLevel HX, an Atlanta-based business intelligence firm. That's well behind industry leader Wendy's at 169.1 seconds, according to the survey. Burger King, Dunkin' Donuts and KFC all beat McDonald's too.

McDonald's narrowed the gap with Wendy's by one-third from 2012 to 2016 by adding more drive-through lanes at some stores and by scrapping products such as "snack wraps," tortilla-wrapped sandwiches that proved time-consuming to prepare. Still, its average drive-through service time last year was almost 20 seconds slower than it was in 2012, according to SeeLevel HX data.

I'm old enough to remember when franchise burger outlets served relatively tasty meals at a reasonable price using mostly fresh ingredients.  Those days are long gone, as industrial methods of food prep made most fast food either virtually tasteless or actually repellant.  But at least you got your order quickly.

But America's changing taste buds and demand for fresher ingredients with fewer additives have revolutionized the industry.  If there is a marginal improvement in the taste of the Quarter Pounder, I doubt that a significant number of customers will notice.  But if they have to wait significantly longer to have their order filled, it may make a huge difference in McDonald's bottom line.

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