From McMuffins to McLattes

McDonald's now sells more than 500 million cups of coffee a year.


WHEATON, Ill., March 31, 2008— -- The restaurant that brought us fast food is now telling us to slow down. We once turned to McDonald's for McNuggets, McMuffins, and Big Macs, but now the franchise wants us to associate them with McCoffee.

Americans spend big money on beverages every year, says Jan Fields, chief operating officer for all 14,000 McDonald's restaurants nationwide.

"Drinks overall, beverages are a huge growing part of the business and from an industry standpoint, beverages make up $60 billion," Fields said.

They're already selling more than 500 million cups of coffee a year: one in every 10 cups of regular coffee consumed outside the home comes from a McDonald's. But Fields says they looked around a few years ago and realized they were losing big in the gourmet coffee market.

"Five years ago we put in place a 'plan to win,'" she said. "We really wanted to make sure that we were the customers' destination of choice. And along with that came ... convenience, comfortable seating, great locations, along with value and the right offerings."

By the middle of next year, McDonald's will upgrade most of its 14,000 U.S. restaurants. Even though two-thirds of its business comes from its drive-thrus, the interiors are getting an overhaul. New decor, comfier seating, and plasma TVs. Some will even have fireplaces and Wi-Fi.

The McCafe menu includes lattes, cappuccinos, smoothies, iced coffee and sweet tea. They're roughly half the price of coffee bars and you don't have to know a foreign language to order them.

There are no ventes or grandes. Instead, it's small, medium, and large. And the person taking your order will be a "crew member" not a "barrista."

This move pits the fast food, in-and-out giant against the high-tech, sip-and-savor culture of the specialty coffee movement. It's just the latest in the well-established tradition of McMakeovers. In a way, you could say that the McDonald's menu has always been a kind of mirror of the way Americans live, decade after decade.

At Hamburger University outside of Chicago — honest, it's right there on the sign — you can follow the company's timeline, including Ray Kroc buying into the original hamburger business owned by the McDonald brothers in 1955.

"Ray Kroc said we were going to have quality, service, and cleanliness, and that permeated the system," recalled Michael Bullington, the Hamburger University archives manager.

Not to mention efficiency. After all, Campbell's introduced its ready-made soups, and Betty Crocker introduced cake from a mix that was just as reliably tasty as the ones American moms used to make from scratch.

Back then, McDonald's burgers cost 15 cents and coffee was a dime. Bullington pointed out that McDonald's has always prided itself on its coffee. He also showed us the very first McDonald's training manual.

"Every McDonald's operator should know the importance of a good cup of coffee," Bullington read.

Kroc saw American culture evolving, and made sure the company kept up. In the 1960s, Americans wanted religious preferences catered to, and McDonald's obliged.

"You think about the 60s ... that's when we came in 1965, that's when we introduced the filet-o-fish. Our customers wanted a different product on Fridays, so an operator came up with the filet-o-fish sandwich," Bullington said.

America the prosperous also started its love affair with supersized everything: bigger cars, bigger houses, and bigger sandwiches.

In 1968, McDonald's operator Jim Deligadi developed the Big Mac sandwich, which just celebrated its 40th anniversary. In the 70s, McDonald's introduced the Happy Meal right around the time more mothers started trying to "have it all," trying to juggle career and family.

Mom could maybe take a day a week out of the kitchen, and with suburban husbands commuting longer distances to work, the leisurely family breakfast was a thing of the past.

In 1975, McDonald's introduced its full breakfast line, including the Egg McMuffin.

Today, McDonald's is banking on the coffee spot as a living room/home office trend. This plays right into an era when commuting in cars is giving way to telecommuting via laptop, and coffee at Starbucks has replaced the old kitchen table coffee klatch.

But so far, it's hard to tell whether this is what Americans really want from their number one fast food place.

Maybe it's just that the word's not out yet, but business was pretty slow the day we visited. No one was taking advantage of the free Wi-Fi. We did, however, find regulars Sandy and John Weber, who come for coffee five days a week.

"It's not as good as Dunkin' Donuts, but ... it's close," John said.

Sandy likes the cappuccino, and the new interior design. "It's just more comfortable," she said.

As for comparing McDonald's and Starbucks? "Don't care for Starbucks," John said. He says the coffee there is too strong for his taste, and it's much more expensive.

There's a saying in the fast food business: don't take your eyes off the fries. So, don't be surprised if you order a large non-fat cappuccino and they ask if you'd like fries with that.

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