The company line for the new McDonald’s range is pretty swish. Super glossy burgers recline upon their sweaty accoutrements inside a mirror-like bun. All on a sexy black background. This is the Signature Collection - Ronald and Co’s high end burger concept that has been rolled out to some 26 branches across the country, mostly in the South.
No doubt this upmarket swing is a tip of the curly red wig to the changing burger landscape in the UK, nay the world, most notably of the rise in popularity of fast-casual dining encapsulated by Byron and Five Guys spreading across the Isles like spilt milkshake across a gingham tablecloth, as well as smaller independent burger restaurants. It was only a matter of time before the country’s biggest burger chain conceptualised the shit out of a fancy offering to entice the shifting masses who are now much happier to spend way more than the McDonald's AoV.
And that price point is striking. £4.69. Around two pounds more than any of its staples. Firmly nestled in the reassuringly expensive (but still cheaper than it’s competitors) realm, they would have to go some to produce something worthy of the extra conga - bring on their thickest patty *ever* and the premium food zeitgeist, a brioche 'style' bun. Embossed lettering on a thicker-than-the-bog-standard cardboard container too, Ronald you are spoiling us.
The brioche-style bun is as impossibly shiny as the promo pictures suggest. Seductive in the deep-bronzed allure. It is the best thing about the burger, as the rest is, sadly, a car crash. The thick patty, that looks exactly like their quarter pounder stretched out in a funhouse mirror, has that very familiar sweet meat McDonald's taste and is as dry as a fucking bone - the compacted nature of the pre-frozen, weirdly cooked McDonald's patty just doesn't work scaled up in size.
The 'beechwood smoked' bacon is weirdly rubbery, looking like it is cooked but oddly floppy, and tasteless which are exactly the faults in the cheddar below it. And they are both under the patty, with the huge chunks of red onion and lettuce, which doesn't work at all especially for the cheese. The pretty decent wholegrain mustard mayo on top and ketchup on bottom are plentiful, but can do very little to counter the welcome mat texture of the beef.
Even with the inflated price tag the sandwiches still suffer from the same slapdashery of construction as all their other offerings: In our case they couldn't even be bothered to use the advertised batavia lettuce, instead just lopping some floppy offshoots of iceberg on. And unless they can cook a patty in one minute, the 'crafted from the moment you order' boasts refer to construction rather than grilling. If you want you regular burgers made to order, you can just ask for a double cheeseburger with Big Mac sauce (try it, it is good).
It is their True Detective Season 2.
The Golden Arches appear to be working through a sexagenarian-life crisis, indiscriminately throwing trends against the wall and seeing if anything sticks.
And they are coming from all angles: Branches like our local one has undergone a deep-camo-green and muted pastel transformation - pictures of everyday people (models) embracing their (constructed) everyday lives plaster the walls and tables have bolted down tablets to keep kids entertained, all to a soundtrack of classical music. The 'hip' cafe look interlocks with digital touch ordering screens and a collection point, an odd touch that turns the restaurant into more of an Argos canteen than a comfortable dining experience. While more places are embracing table service, even McDonald's in California, it is a strange decision for UK branches to transition to a human-free experience. It makes you wonder how long it will be before they can automate the back-of-house prep too.
As the Signature Collection shows, in attempting to reinvigorate their food McDonald's falls short too. The Tastes of America line is an shamefully uninventive attempt at showcasing flavours of different US regions, and the festive menu contains fewer festive ingredients than a cheese and pickle sandwich. The Festive Feast even looks suspiciously like the Signature Classic. It is clear they only have a finite number of ingredients with which to 'invent' new sandwiches.
And whilst they are desperately trying to convince us of the legitimacy of the food they serve, saying '100% Irish and British beef' just doesn't cut it anymore in a landscape where restaurants can identify the provenance of their meat down to the exact hedge in Northern Spain that the Galician cows they serve scratched their arses on. The same goes for their push on coffee, Dexter Fletcher endlessly repeating 'Arabica beans' will surely become the new replacement of water torture.
These rapid shifts to target new custom are despite McDonald's UK turnover in 2014 increasing by £67.5m to £1.4bn. So what is going on? Why the scramble to change everything? We assume it is the fear that they will suddenly become unfashionable in the New Burger World Order. Or perhaps they are looking over the Atlantic at the growing misfortune of the US operation, which has seen quarterly sales fall in 2014 and are planning to close more locations in 2016 than they are opening for the first time in over 30 years. Over the pond they are trialling everything from all day breakfast to build-your-own to 'chef crafted' burgers, eager to lure every Todd, Zack and Harry in. The struggle is real.
But the saddest part of all is, in amongst all the noise and distraction, that the food technologists coming up with this stuff seem to have forgotten how to make a Good Burger. They have become distracted with wacky McFlurry flavours, how to slice and bag apples and those fucking cheese bites that taste like breaded snot. In fact, arguably the only decent thing they've come up with this side of the millennium is the Chicken Select.
More reinvention is inevitable as Ronald's minions struggle to grasp the market they are yet to comprehend. But as long as we can still get our late night last train home Double Cheeseburger and six-pack of nuggets, we'll still be lovin' it.
- Si & Rob