McDonald's Balmoral franchise along Auckland's Dominion Road is currently piloting a new initiative that brings a slightly more gourmet twist to its menu in an attempt to tap into the lucrative market currently occupied by the likes of Burger Fuel and Burger Wisconsin.
The introduction of 'Create your taste' allows customers to customise their burgers via an digital touchscreen kiosk that offers a list of 20 ingredients.
"Customers can order one of three suggested gourmet burgers — a 'Classic Cheeseburger', 'Homestyle' or 'Chipotle', or create their own," says McDonald's spokesperson Kim Bartlett. "There are 25 million possible ingredient combinations. Customers can also order normal McDonald’s menu items through the kiosks."
Should McDonald's successfully manage to tap into the gourmet market, then it could prove profitable. According to Nielsen, 219,000 New Zealanders have bought or eaten Burger Fuel in the last month—and this is just one player in the market. Burger Burger, Ferg Burger and Burger Wisconsin are all also staking their claim in the rapidly growing 'better burger' market.
But a problem with the introduction of gourmet-styled burgers is that they take longer to make (roughly eight to ten minutes in the case of McDonald's). So, in an effort to overcome this issue, McDonald's has introduced something else at the Balmoral franchise: restaurant-styled table service, which features servers bringing meals to tables.
And while these moves are almost irreconcilable with the fast and cheap identity that has come to define the brand over the years, Bartlett believes the changes won't alienate the McDonald's loyalists.
"We don’t see it as a departure, but more as an evolution," she says. "McDonald’s is innovating and changing again to meet the needs of our customers. Whether people want a Big Mac and the fast convenience McDonald’s is famous for, or a gourmet burger in a more relaxed dining environment, customers will have more options than ever before."
This move to attract different kinds of customers comes at a time when droves of consumers are veering away from McDonald's in favour of gourmet burger options, fast casual dining outlets and health food alternatives.
Earlier this week, following five quarters of decline in the United States, McDonald's president and chief executive Don Thompson announced that he would be stepping down from his position, bringing an end to his 25-year stint at the company. As reported on Slate, Thompson has led McDonald's through a particularly difficult patch, which has included PR disasters, a tainted meat scandal in China and striking employees—and all these events have left the company struggling to hold onto its customers.
So given that McDonald's isn't quite as in touch with the likes and wants of consumers as it once was, the company has turned to its customers to find out how to improve what it offers.
"[We've carried out] extensive research over the last six months," says Bartlett. "We also have insights from the ‘Our Food, Your Questions’ initiative, social media and the My Macca’s Review app. We are using customer insight and demand to guide decisions and new innovations like Create Your Taste."
Bartlett compares this new initiative to the introduction of the McCafe 15 years ago.
"Just like we did launching McCafe fifteen years ago, and then offering barista-made coffee at Drive-Thru last year, McDonald’s is innovating again in line with the changing needs and expectations of our customers," she says.
"This is the first of a number of initiatives New Zealanders will see from McDonald’s this year, and over the next five years, based on what they’re telling us they want from our brand."
Bartlett says the plan is to eventually roll out the 'Create your Taste' initiative at selected restaurants across the country over the next 12 months.
"Balmoral is a pilot but we’ve carried out extensive consumer research and product development, so we’re confident New Zealanders will respond to the product in a positive way," says Bartlett.
But will the introduction of automated digital technology at McDonald's outlets across the country threaten the job security of the many employees who rely on McDonald's for work?
"No," says Bartlett. "The kiosks and the new gourmet burgers are at the moment actually adding staff. The machines have hosts/hostesses manning them."