McDonald's Cozies Up to Foodies to Prove Its Food Is 'Real'

But can plying food writers with gnocchi made from french fries turn the chain's fortunes?

(Photo: Brett Stevens/Getty Images)

Aug 19, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

What’s it going to take to get McDonald’s out of its slump? How about gnocchi? Or beignets? Or a pumpkin-spiced cronut knockoff dubbed the “biznut”—part biscuit, part doughnut?

On the off chance that trusting McDonald’s to turn out such gourmet-sounding fare sets your mouth watering, hold your horses. You’re not likely to see any of it on the menu board of your neighborhood Mickey D’s anytime soon. These are just some of the dishes that were served at a series of events for media cognoscenti, billed as “a transforming dining experience of ‘fast food’ to ‘good food served fast,’ ” according to a McDonald’s spokesperson. The menus were devised by celebrity chefs who were invited to concoct Food Network–worthy dishes using some of McDonald’s ingredients, according to the Associated Press.

“We've got to make sure that the food is relevant and that the awareness around McDonald’s as a kitchen and a restaurant that cooks and prepares fresh, high quality food is strong and pronounced," company CEO Don Thompson said last year, according to the AP. Dan Coudreaut, the company’s director of culinary innovation, was even more blunt: “A lot of our guests don’t believe our food is real.”

But it’s a rather bizarre PR strategy to try to convince reporters, bloggers, and other opinion makers that, gosh darn it, the food at McDonald’s is real by serving highbrow versions of dishes that will never grace a dollar menu.

That gnocchi? It was reportedly crafted from McDonald’s fries, served up alongside slow-cooked beef (presumably not from McDonald’s) at one such event in New York’s über-trendy Tribeca neighborhood last fall. As for those “biznuts,” they were made from the chain’s biscuit mix. Attendees began the evening munching on kung pao chicken appetizers fashioned from (no surprise) Chicken McNuggets.

The New York dinner was followed by another “transforming dining experience” in New Orleans, where the Golden Arches had the audacity to dish out grilled-chicken-stuffed beignets sprinkled with sugar and served with packets of honey-mustard sauce.

Whether wooing the media at glitzy events with fancy, newfangled tidbits fashioned in part from McDonald’s cheap, run-of-the-mill fare is going to turn the public's perceptions around is anyone’s guess, but it sure seems like an unwitting way to highlight what’s not exciting about your everyday menu. There’s also a whiff of decadent denial about the whole thing that vaguely calls to mind, say, Kirsten Dunst’s Marie Antoinette nibbling on petits fours, or Nero fiddling while Rome burns.

Indeed, as a global empire itself ($27.5 billion in revenue in 2012), McDonald’s appears to be stumbling under the weight of its own might. If the past month is any indication, there’s nary a glimmer of hope on the horizon.

Same-store sales at McDonald’s in the U.S. fell 1.5 percent in the second quarter, the third straight quarter of decline. “We are moving with a sense of urgency,” Thompson told investors in a conference call after the results were announced, according to USA Today.

The disappointing numbers came amid a swirl of more bad news for the mega-chain: a ruling from the National Labor Relations Board that McDonald’s Corp. could be held responsible for labor and wage violations committed by its franchisees; a meat scandal in China, including video evidence showing workers at a processing plant recycling expired beef and chicken; and a Consumer Reports survey of more than 32,000 subscribers that ranked McDonald’s flagship menu item, its burgers, the worst in the country. A local McDonald's has even been playing a (presumably unwelcome) recurring role in media dispatches from the turmoil in Ferguson, Mo.

Prior to all that, there was the disastrous rollout of Happy, the Happy Meal mascot: a goggle-eyed box with a lunatic smile, complete with all-too-realistic teeth, as unsettling as those videos in which a human mouth is superimposed on a dog or a cat. Grub Street gathered a bunch of kids to gauge their reaction, and the resulting video was pretty hilarious. (“For a second it actually kind of makes me happy, and then for, like, the other second it actually creeps me out,” one girl says, followed by this boy’s take: “It’s like a little box that’s alive that’s like, 'Oh, finally, I found a human I can eat!' ”)

Do biznuts sound addictive? Sure, but they only exist in a McDonald's fantasyland. It seems that these days, in the real world, McDonald’s can’t even get Happy right.