No More Dry Burgers: McDonald’s Overhauls Its Biggest Item

In the heated competition for hamburger dominance, the fast-food chain has spent seven years making over its signature offering, down to the last dehydrated onion.

Heather Haddon (with inputs from The Wall Street Journal)
Published1 Dec 2023, 12:10 AM IST
The newly revamped burgers at a McDonald’s test kitchen in Chicago.
The newly revamped burgers at a McDonald’s test kitchen in Chicago.

McDonald’s decided it’s had enough with dry patties and squishy buns. For the past seven years, the chain that made its name on burgers has been on a quest to improve its signature offering.

The changes are now rolling out in the U.S., including on its Big Mac. The two all-beef patties are cooked in smaller batches for a more uniform sear. There’s more special sauce. The lettuce, cheese and pickles have been rethought to be fresher and meltier, and the bun is now a buttery brioche, with the sesame seeds more randomly scattered for a homemade look.

The more than 50 tweaks on its burgers add up to the Chicago-based company’s biggest upgrades in decades to its core menu. With increased competition in the burger market—especially from higher-end, fast-casual burger chains such as Five Guys—executives decided to revamp some of the industrial-scale techniques that have produced cheap, uniform burgers. In some cases, McDonald’s is reviving practices it scrapped long ago in a push for efficiency.

“We can do it quick, fast and safe, but it doesn’t necessarily taste great. So, we want to incorporate quality into where we’re at,” said Chris Young, McDonald’s senior director of global menu strategy.

McDonald’s is set to run billboards trumpeting “our best burgers ever,” according to an internal message viewed by The Wall Street Journal. The Hamburglar is making a comeback to star in a new ad campaign.

McDonald’s has held on to the sales boom that the Covid-19 pandemic delivered to quick-service restaurants, and is growing faster than its chief rivals. The company’s U.S. same-store sales increased 10.3% in 2022, compared with 2.2% for Burger King and 3.9% for Wendy’s. Last year, the Golden Arches earned $6.2 billion in profit.

The company is pushing to maintain its momentum as the economy threatens to slow and competition grows. The U.S. burger market brings in an estimated $136 billion in annual food-service sales, according to research firm Euromonitor.

Earlier this year, McDonald’s came in 13th among U.S. chains based on the number of recent customers calling their burgers desirable, with only 28% of respondents saying they crave them, according to a survey of about 49,000 consumers by market research firm Technomic. White Castle led the list with 72%, and Burger King followed at 52%.

Sales for higher-end, fast-casual burger chains are growing faster than traditional players, Technomic said. Newer chains like Smashburger, Five Guys and Shake Shack have popularized the smash-burger technique—placing a round wad of beef on a hot grill and mashing it flat with a spatula to produce thin, flavorful patties.

Other outlets revamping their burgers include casual-dining chain Red Robin Gourmet Burgers, which this year subbed in flat-top grills that provided more sear than the conveyor-belt style ovens that cooked its patties for years. Executives added seasoning and tomatoes ripened in-house for improved flavor, and sampled mountains of buns, mayonnaise and pickles.

“I can’t even tell you the ungodly amount of buns that we went through into making our recipe,” said Red Robin Chief Executive G.J. Hart.

With drive-in chain Sonic’s cheeseburger, the cheese now sits between the bottom bun and the patty to improve melting, and the lettuce is chopped, rather than shredded, to increase crispness and reduce browning. Even Arby’s, known for its thinly sliced roast beef sandwiches, last year debuted a burger with a blend of American wagyu and ground beef cooked sous-vide style, at low temperatures for a longer period, to lock in juices.

Burgers last year accounted for around 40% of U.S. fast-food sales, and most chains can’t make it without a strong contender. An estimated 68% of Americans eat burgers at fast-food restaurants at least once a month, according to market research firm Datassential.

Burger King U.S. President Tom Curtis puts it another way: “It’s everything.” His company is replacing underperforming flame broilers in its kitchens. The chain’s parent, Restaurant Brands International, has sunk millions of dollars into new ad campaigns, including a “Whopper, Whopper, Whopper, Whopper” jingle.

‘Kind of dry’

In a McDonald’s test kitchen inside its Chicago headquarters earlier this year, chef Chad Schafer made a double cheeseburger in the chain’s standard fashion—topped with uncooked onions and a slice of cheese pulled from a cooler, with a standard bun.

Schafer then made one the new way. He cooked the beef with the onions on top of the patty, added room-temperature cheese that melted faster and put it all on the shinier brioche-style bun, a moister bread to better hold heat.

“One is hotter,” Schafer said. “It looks meltier. Look at how my fingers sink into the bun. Smell it and you smell a big difference.”

He lifted up the standard double cheeseburger. “This one, it’s kind of dry. It cracks,” he said. “And this is the best-case example at headquarters.”

After testing the new version in Australia, McDonald’s is now bringing the results to its 13,460 locations in the U.S., the chain’s biggest market. It began with West Coast restaurants earlier this year and Midwestern stores over the summer. McDonald’s aims to have all U.S. locations onboard by early 2024.

The company has high hopes for the revamp, which applies to most of the burgers on its core menu. McDonald’s Chief Executive Chris Kempczinski said in an October investor call that its Australia operations reached an all-time high in burger market share after it implemented the Best Burger strategy there. “Great-tasting burger perceptions continue to grow,” he said.

McDonald’s said it didn’t expect the changes to result in cost increases across menus, but that individual franchisees set their own prices.

American innovation

Hamburgers are one of America’s signature contributions to the global culinary canon, with roots in the hand-held beefsteaks favored by German migrants—cheap, portable meals they could munch as they boarded ships in the port of Hamburg.

Newly arrived German Americans in the mid-19th century sold their “Hamburg steak” made out of ground or chopped beef, often served on a plate with potatoes, onions and gravy, said George Motz, a chronicler of American hamburgers in books and documentaries. Vendors at Midwestern fairs eventually put the meat between bread.

Kansas chef Walter Anderson in 1916 started smashing burgers into circular patties and cooking them with onions on a grill, helping to create America’s first hamburger chain, White Castle, in 1921.

In 1948, brothers Richard and Maurice McDonald retooled their original San Bernardino, Calif., restaurant around a slim menu selling burgers for 15 cents.

Their restaurant, called McDonald’s, would go on to provide the blueprint for the fast-food business. They shrunk down the patties to make them more affordable, and served them with ketchup, mustard, onions and two pickles—no substitutes, to keep service fast. The concept was a hit.

Ray Kroc, a onetime milkshake machine salesman, became an early franchisee and later bought out the founding brothers to take over the chain. The company grew to a thousand restaurants by the late 1960s and started expanding internationally.

To produce a consistent burger in minutes across the world, McDonald’s broke down cooking processes into set steps, an early innovation enforced through standards and inspections. The company gradually simplified its grill operations, aiming to deliver orders faster. It switched from fresh to frozen beef around 1968, shifting from local suppliers to bigger meatpackers that could serve its scale.

In the 1980s, as its cooking equipment evolved, McDonald’s abandoned its long-held practice of grilling burgers with onions on top and hand-searing patties. In the 1990s, the company switched to a bun with oat fiber and stopped toasting them, helping cut costs and improve efficiency. Employees put cooked patties in heated cabinets to keep them warm before they were slipped between buns and wrapped.

Timers were set to go off when burgers needed to be discarded, but workers sometimes blew through the deadline. In some cases, former executives said, employees microwaved hamburgers before serving them.

McDonald’s recognized that the drive for efficiency hurt its burger. After the company stopped toasting its buns in 1995, some franchisees complained the burgers didn’t taste as good. McDonald’s senior chairman and chain luminary Fred Turner got back into the company’s kitchens to see for himself. The chain soon reversed the practice.

“Toasting the buns was a huge issue,” said Mike Donahue, a McDonald’s executive from 1987 to 2006.

Through the 2000s, a new form of competitor emerged: so-called better-burger chains, such as Five Guys and Shake Shack, that make fresh beef patties, cooked to order. The basic burger on a Shake Shack menu at a Chicago location costs $6.69, while McDonald’s version goes for $1.99. Smashburger’s burgers start around $7.99.

By 2013, such players had taken a $2.4 billion bite out of the $72 billion U.S. burger market, Technomic said, and were growing roughly 10 times as fast as burger chains generally.

McDonald’s got a bigger wake-up call around 2015. An internal consumer survey showed that the chain’s core U.S. customers deemed its burgers inferior to rivals such as Wendy’s and Burger King, according to former executives.

Running hot

For a chain with tens of thousands of restaurants across the globe, the burger overhaul posed a massive undertaking. Restaurant owners would have to retrain workers to look out for quality measures like when grills were running too hot and drying out patties. McDonald’s needed to ensure bakeries across the world could comply with its new specifications for buns.

“We are making a change across our entire system, which is very, very rare,” Young said.

The plan hit roadblocks. During the first tests in Seattle restaurants in 2017, the team found that many McDonald’s grills weren’t perfectly cooking the burgers. Restaurants also needed to better clean and maintain their toasters.

McDonald’s ran its Australia tests in 2018 and went countrywide in 2019. When Covid-19 hit, McDonald’s focused on maintaining basic operations and keeping its supply chain running.

In preparation for the U.S. launch, the company since last year has pushed franchisees to clean toasters daily, closely monitor their grill’s temperature controls and avoid keeping patties in holding cabinets for too long, according to a company message viewed by the Journal.

“This isn’t one of those ‘hello and you are done’ kind of rollouts,” the company said in an internal video training for owners.

McDonald’s franchise owners said they support the campaign, though some worry about shouldering another company initiative at a time when McDonald’s has introduced more stringent reviews for owners.

McDonald’s declined to say how much the initiative would cost restaurant owners to implement.

Burger King, the third largest U.S. burger chain by sales, has mounted its own burger effort as part of a broader investment plan. The company in the past year has examined the broilers across its more than 7,000 U.S. restaurants and dangled cash to franchisees to replace those that tended to cook burgers unevenly or had other issues hurting taste and quality. Like McDonald’s, Burger King is scrutinizing every component of its burger for possible improvements, according to Curtis, the chain’s U.S. president.

“Is there a way to cut the lettuce better or is there a way to optimize and improve the bun or is it more the beef?” he said.

Young, the McDonald’s menu strategy director, recalls eating juicy McDonald’s cheeseburgers when he was a kid. He hopes the years of work he has put into the revamp will get the company’s patties closer to that nostalgic taste.

“Sometimes you have to look to the past to understand where you are going in the future,” he said.

Write to Heather Haddon at heather.haddon@wsj.com

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First Published:1 Dec 2023, 12:10 AM IST
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