Beefing up your burger

McDonald’s is trialling a new gourmet burger line, Create Your Taste, at its Riccarton and Moorhouse Ave stores, where customers can design their own creations and have them delivered to their tables, so The Star sent two reporters to see what all the fuss is about. Here’s what I thought

It would be no exaggeration to say this is something I’ve been looking forward to for a long time — the chance to eat McDonald’s for work.

I first heard of Create Your Taste when it launched in Auckland at the start of the year, and every time I’ve been up there since, I had always been meaning to give it a go, but just somehow never got around to it.

Then I was sitting in the drive-through at Riccarton at the start of last week when I saw a sign announcing its arrival down south, and I knew my time had come.

A visit was arranged for us to the Riccarton restaurant on Monday at lunchtime, where franchisee Murray Traill met us and gave us the rundown.

Gone from the dining area are two decent chunks of seating, replaced with a series of touchscreens and portable Eftpos machines, a sight that would have been unfathomable when the story of McDonald’s began in 1940.

Brothers Dick and Mac McDonald opened a drive-in Bar-B-Q restaurant in San Bernardino, California. In 1948, they turned it into a self-service burger joint, with the beginnings of the menu we all know today, and in 1955, it was turned into a quickly-expanding franchise by entrepreneur Ray Kroc.

Today, the chain operates more than 36,000 stores spread across 119 countries, including 164 here in New Zealand, from Kaitaia in the north to Invercargill in the south, and I can (not so proudly) say that I’ve been to more than 50 of them.

The touchscreens are easy to operate, filled with bright pictures of the 30 ingredients you pick and choose from in order to design the burger you want.

First you pick your bun, then your cheese, your meat and other savoury fillings, then your salads and finally your sauce, before being given the option to add any sides or make it a combo.

I chose a brioche-style bun, one angus beef patty, crispy bacon, slices of classic and cheddar cheese, tomato, lettuce, caramelised onions and pickles, topped off with tomato sauce; only the bacon ($1.50) added any extra to the base cost of $10.90.

You can either pay at the machine or at the counter, but no matter which you choose, your meal will be brought to your table.

While we waited for ours to arrive, Traill talked us through what it had taken to get the trial up and running.

His family has been in the McDonald’s business going back three decades; as well as Riccarton and Moorhouse, they run the stores by the airport, in Hornby, Hillmorton, Merivale, The Palms, and in Northlands and Riccarton malls. He says the Create Your Taste concept, which is being trialled in four other stores in Auckland and Rotorua, is both the scariest and most exciting new development they’ve been involved with since the breakfast menu was introduced in the early 90s.

Staff at the two restaurants have had to learn new cooking techniques, and how to provide table service, but Traill says the trial’s first two weeks have gone pretty smoothly — and it certainly seemed so to us.

From placing our orders to them arriving at our table took a little less than nine minutes, a wait on par with what you’d find at any gourmet burger joint and better than you would see at many.

For this experiment, McDonald’s has adopted the modern craze of serving food on anything but a plate, in this case a wooden board for the burger, and a miniature frying basket for the chips; the burger looked great, arranged as neat as you can expect, and closer to a promo shot than you would normally see. The nine ingredients I chose was just the right amount, not too few as to be pointless, nor too many so as to overwhelm and create a mess.

Over the weekend, while doing some research, I discovered the story of Chicago resident Moshe Tamssot, who, two weeks ago, took the Create Your Taste concept to its logical conclusion, ordering a burger with the maximum two patties, and 10 of every other ingredient, throwing the ordering system into disarray (it tried to charge him US$8000, it ended up being US$29) and requiring a call to head office in order for the store to proceed with creating his order.

It did — and the end product was more a monster than monstrosity, unable to be constructed properly, as you’d expect, and presented to Tamssot as a tower of fillings, with the salad sitting meekly on the side; he took it home, and after weighing it — 7.6kg — he proceeded to snack on it for the rest of the afternoon.

I share his story now, because it demonstrates that the possibilities offered by Create Your Taste are practically endless.

I really, really enjoyed my burger, and given the number of them I’ve eaten, I believe I know what I’m talking about. It was clearly a step above McDonald’s’ usual fare, and just as good if not better than many of the offerings I’ve had from other gourmet chains — though Big J’s in South Auckland is still my clear No 1 — and I would definitely go again.

But as we sat there, finishing our meals and making small talk with Traill, I was struck by a scary thought, one that’s been gnawing away at me ever since.

McDonald’s is a company built on iconic products such as the Quarter Pounder, the Big Mac, and the Happy Meal, but with the advent of Create Your Taste, it’s easy to imagine a world where all of these become a thing of the past.

Traill told us that the crew preparing the gourmet burgers, with all the extra work that entails, has been kept separate from the crew preparing the cheeseburgers and the like, the ones created by following a set of basic instructions, and that come out looking sloppy more often than not.

And while it would probably be a long time coming, I couldn’t help but think that it might be the gourmet menu, that is the future, slowly devouring the old ones, and leaving us with a McDonald’s where, to borrow another fast-food franchise’s slogan, you can have it your way.