McDonald's Kitchen Lab Puts New Products to Test

Fast food franchise subjects new menu items to taste tests, speed trials.

August 20, 2010, 11:14 AM

Aug. 20, 2010— -- McDonald's Angus snack wrap seems like a simple idea. Just take their popular, juicy Angus Third Pounder burgers, slice them up and stick them in a soft flour tortilla, right? Well, this "simple" idea took a year to develop, plan, taste test and become the appetizing product it is today.

So how do items on the fast food chain's menu get the Golden Arches' seal of approval?

From kitchens, to sample centers to warehouse laboratories, new products are poked and prodded for months as they travel through several pit stops to ensure that they meet McDonald's standards.

The journey begins with McDonald's executive chef Dan Coudreaut in the franchise's Oak Brook, Ill., headquarters. Whenever a new idea is introduced, he gets to play with the recipe.

"There is no bad idea in this kitchen ... nothing is really off limits," Coudreaut said.

Formally a chef at the Four Seasons, Coudreaut said his current job is obviously very different. He's working with different food prices and cooking for a much bigger crowd.

"Twenty-seven million people a day," Coudreaut said proudly. "And that's just in the U.S."

Given the massive quantity of food needed to serve McDonald's customers, Coudreaut's decisions on which ingredients stay and which ones go can make or break the food chain.

Selling 4.4 million pounds of beef and 8.5 million pounds of potatoes every day, the chef says he's always conscious of which food products are readily available. Such was the case when he experimented with using figs in a smoothie.

"Somebody's got to have them. We have to be able to grow them," Coudreaut explained. "We can't deplete the world's supply of figs."

Another major contributing factor in approving new products: speed. It is a fast food chain after all, and McDonald's employees have to be able to throw together everything on the menu in a matter of seconds.

The new Angus wrap, for example, calls for 40 seconds of assembly.

Once new recipes are locked down, the latest dishes are sent off for focus grouping and taste testing, which are constantly being conducted at headquarters, as well as at other tasting centers around the country.

McDonald's Puts Their Food Though Taste and Speed Tests

The somewhat Orwellian named "Department of Sensory Evaluations" not only makes sure the franchise's food tastes good, but also consistent, down to choosing the right supplier for the oatmeal.

From there, recipes are taken into the headquarters' "Innovation Center" for yet another round of fine-tuning. This is where full-scale working mock-ups of McDonald's restaurants are built and employees can practice racing against the clock to put these new recipes to the "fast food" test.

People are also paid to pose as customers, which means coming into the center, ordering off the menu and eating McDonald's for the day.

In a business that's built on good food made right and made quickly, every second counts and McDonald's has made numerous improvements over the years. For example, the latest cash register models allow employees to be 50 percent more efficient at processing orders than the old ones.

"It improves our capacity," said McDonald's Executive Vice President Jeff Stratton.

Stratton said he has shaved off "thousands of seconds" from his company's food production process over his 37 years with McDonald's, often just from introducing faster operating platforms.

From something as simple as adding a second drink mixing machine to installing more efficient bun toasters, every little bit helps. For example, switching over to new bun steamers will save an employee 12 seconds, which may not seem like a lot, but over the course of a work day, those seconds become minutes of extra time. More time means more products to the consumer.

"Seconds always matter. Seconds beget volume. The faster we go, the greater the volume," Stratton explained. "That's very, very important to us."

He acknowledges that caring about every precious second might come off as a little strange to some people, but at the end of the day it's about churning out as many products as possible.

"Our focus is execution. We have to be able to execute every day." Stratton said. "We serve 60 million customers a day around the globe in 117 countries. That's a big responsibility."

A Global Enterprise

That responsibility also includes catering to and tailoring various dishes to meet other cultures' food standards. McDonald's restaurant owners and managers from around the world can train and experiment with the franchise's new equipment and new products at this Innovation Center.

Isabelle Kuster and her staff came from France to see how they will manage rolling out a new burger product they call the "McFarmer."

"It's a product made with salad, tomatoes, and we're looking into the kitchen to see if we have the capacity to do that on top of existing products," Kuster explained.

Just like in McDonald's in the United States, timing is everything at their French restaurants. Kuster and her staff have to make sure this new burger product won't interfere with the process of making everything else on the menu so they came to the Innovation Center in Illinois to test it out.

The mock restaurant was built to exactly mirror a French McDonald's, which have larger kitchens because they often have huge lunch crowds come in with larger orders.

"In [the] U.S., they have three producers per order. In France, we have between 10 and 12," Kuster said.

To meet the demand, French McDonald's also use self-ordering kiosks and extra drive-through lanes -- all which have to be tested first in the mock setup. Kuster has to make sure that the McFarmer will be able to be successfully added to the menu before she can sign off on it.

"We have more than a thousand restaurants in France, so we don't want to take the risk. That's impossible," she said.