The 'Fresh' Quarter Pounder Shows That McDonald's Still Doesn't Get It

The 'Fresh' Quarter Pounder Shows That McDonald's Still Doesn't Get It
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It’s always interesting to read 21st century commentary about hamburgers, along with rankings of the top hamburger chains.  It is because those lucky enough to have experienced McDonald’s in the 1970s and 80s know it had all the modern contenders beat. By far. 

It used to be a thrill just to ride or walk past a McDonald’s.  The beautiful scent of their French fries was overpowering, and a powerful lure inside.  If the McDonald’s of the past existed today, overly emotional economists like George Akerlof and Robert Shiller would need extra doses of whatever calms people down to calm them about the chain’s power over consumers.  Figure that the two Nobel Laureates once made the laughable claim that the scent of Cinnabons manipulated people into parting with their cash…It’s hard to stop laughing, but the old McDonald’s were many, many Cinnabons from an olfactory-excitement standpoint. 

Thinking about what’s in the past, the French fries were fried in beef tallow oil, and the flavor was amazing.  Describing his first taste of French fries cooked the old way, commentator Malcolm Gladwell wrote in 2017 of how “Right then and there I gave my heart to McDonald's." 

Before 1992 it wasn’t uncommon just to go to McDonald’s for the French fries, so good were they.  And quite unlike today, there was no need for McDonald’s nostalgists to quite literally “time” their visits.  French fries cooked the old way were brilliant whether just out of the fryer, or after having sat in a bag (or under a heat lamp) for an extended period.  Nostalgists, desperate to achieve a faint taste of the past, time their trips to McDonald’s today simply because the fries are only passably good if just removed from the fryer.  All of what’s been said can also be said about the chain’s hash browns too.

Which brings us to breakfast at McDonald’s. It’s not just that the hash browns are cooked in the same, limp outcome oil that the French fries are.  It’s how the scrambled eggs are cooked too.  Though McDonald’s claims fresh eggs, the scrambled ones can rather easily be cut into very exact squares so hardened are they.  As for the sausage, forget about it.  It’s good at times, but McDonald’s used to be great.  Which brings us to the hamburgers; the Quarter Pounder in particular.

McDonald’s recent move to “fresh” beef is a non sequitur born of denial.  The problem was never that the meat was frozen.  Back when McDonald’s was brilliant the Quarter Pounder meat dripped literally and figuratively with flavor.  As anyone who has cooked at home knows well, the taste of hamburgers isn’t reduced by how the meat is stored as much as it is by the fat content of the meat. 

That’s why there’s no discernable difference between the “fresh” Quarter Pounder made with beef that’s never been frozen, and the Quarter Pounders that preceded the recently rolled out version.  In each instance the hamburger meat is dry, and very much devoid of flavor.  Meet the overhyped new Quarter Pounder, same as the old one…Pre and post fresh and unfrozen, the Quarter Pounder is still a Quarter Pounder. Overly lean meat quite simply lacks taste.  Easily the biggest victims of McDonald’s decades-long pretense about serving healthy food are the hamburgers and French fries that initially gave the chain international renown.   

Missed by modern McDonald’s management is that good hamburgers stand on their own.  While some request cheese and other toppings, they’re not necessary.  This was certainly true of the Quarter Pounders (and McDonald’s hamburgers broadly) of old: they once again dripped with flavor, literally and figuratively.  That the meat had been frozen was of no consequence.  Lest readers and McDonald’s management forget, McDonald’s became one of the world’s most recognizable, admired and mouth-watering brands while serving hamburgers that reached the grill frozen.  What wrecked them wasn’t how they were stored, but the meat itself, along with how the meat was cooked.  What’s obvious to nostalgists who yearn for McDonald’s “Classic” is that the meat and cooking processes are different, and so by extension is the taste. 

McDonald’s is no longer a reliable go-to fast food chain.  Arguably what it most has going for it is time, global economic liberalization, and global worship of all things American.  What’s meant by time is that nostalgists still return on occasion, hoping against reason for a taste of the past.  Very occasionally the French fries are hot enough, and the cheeseburgers (Quarter pounders, new and old, arguably taste the worst post-1980s) moist enough to remind nostalgists of what very poorly run McDonald’s pre-1990 tasted like.  As for economic liberalization and worship of all things American, as the rest of the world adapts free markets, so do the world’s people express their life-affirming excitement about brands built in the U.S.  McDonald’s still represents a taste of freedom, yet that’s what’s so unfortunate about the present.  Those who remember the McDonald’s of old hate that the young and modernly flush have no idea of just how good McDonald’s used to be.  “Freedom has never tasted so good” doesn’t mean as much in consideration of McDonald’s decline. 

Along the lines of the above, the series finale of The Americans crucially took place in 1987.  If the Jennings were escaping the U.S. today, McDonald’s almost certainly wouldn’t be their final meal.  And that’s sad.

Trying to fix what’s wrong, McDonald’s is in the midst of its pointless attempt to serve Quarter Pounders “fresh,” plus it’s moving its headquarters into Chicago from the Chicago suburbs.  Supposedly the latter will make the business more attractive to talented Millennials and the generation that follows.  Wrong on all counts.  If anything McDonald’s is too young.  Management quite simply isn’t old enough to remember how great it once was. 

McDonald’s is in denial. The company’s management can’t see that the problem for the chain was and is taste.  This once again isn’t a frozen thing, it’s a thing about McDonald’s trying to be all things to all people instead of the greatest hamburger chain the world has ever known. 

John Tamny is a speechwriter and writer of opinion pieces for clients, he's editor of RealClearMarkets, Director of the Center for Economic Freedom at FreedomWorks, and a senior economic adviser to Toreador Research and Trading (www.trtadvisors.com). His new book is The End of Work, about the exciting explosion of remunerative jobs that don't feel at all like work.  He's also the author of Who Needs the Fed? and Popular Economics. He can be reached at jtamny@realclearmarkets.com.  

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