MONEY Fast Food

McDonald’s Wants to Replace the Drive-Thru with Drones

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Roger Kisby/Getty Images

That's the kind of revolutionary idea McDonald's wants to hear about at SXSW, the hipster festival where the fast food chain will be a big presence in the hopes of winning over millennials.

How’s this for an odd, arguably desperate pairing? McDonald’s, which just celebrated its 60th anniversary, and which has struggled mightily to gain favor with trendy millennial consumers, is serving as a “Super Sponsor” at this year’s South by Southwest (SXSW), the annual music, movies, and ideas festival in Austin that’s a magnet for everything young, hip, and forward-thinking.

Not only will the McDonald’s logo be splashed throughout Austin during the mid-March festival, the fast food giant will be handing out food free of charge to attendees and will welcome startups to pitch ideas that could change how the company does business. “We want to be in the flow of ideas, offering our scale to interesting partners, with the intent to make the lives of millions of people who use McDonald’s a bit simpler and even more enjoyable,” McDonald’s explains of its decision to be a part of SXSW.

There will be three separate days for pitch sessions, each focused on a different topic, such as “Reinventing the Restaurant Experience” and “Mobilizing the Transportation and Delivery Revolution.” For the latter, startups are supposed to take the fact that “our existing idea of door-to-door delivery and drive-thru will soon be obsolete” into consideration when pitching innovations. Those with the best pitches could get a chance to win a trip to McDonald’s Illinois headquarters to explain their concepts to company leaders, and potentially become partners.

Apparently, McDonald’s really wants to hear about so-called “moon shots,” i.e. big ideas that stretch the imagination and may at first seem impossible, but which could prove ground-breaking and transformative if they ultimately come to fruition. Like so:

Imagine a world where drones could deliver you food while you’re driving down the highway. Seems crazy now, but technology is increasingly revolutionizing our everyday lives.

This kind of thinking is quite a step up for a company whose most recent “Big Idea” was bringing back Chicken Selects to the menu.

Gathering solid business ideas is probably not the primary reason McDonald’s is invading SXSW, however. More likely, the company is hoping to make inroads with influential hipsters and millennials, the generation that shows far greater preference for Starbucks and fast casual restaurants like Panera and Chipotle than it does for McDonald’s and other fast food players.

Yet millennials are famously difficult to win over with advertising, and the McDonald’s brand is often polarizing, attracting haters and critics no matter what move it makes. So the company’s supersized presence at the youth-dominated festival seems puzzling to some.

“The usual SXSW crowd is not the [McDonald’s] crowd. [Attendees are] usually edgier, healthier, more techy, definitely more millennial,” Wendy Liebmann, CEO of the WSL Strategic Retail consultant firm, told MarketWatch. “McDonald’s may see this as an opportunity to show it’s become hipper, trendier and [be] using SXSW as a platform to be seen differently.”

In which case, look out Burning Man festival goers. McDonald’s may be coming after you next.

TIME food industry

McDonald’s Is Making a Huge Change to Its Chicken

McDonald's golden arches signs
Kristoffer Tripplaar—Alamy

The fast food giant is changing its sourcing policies

McDonald’s new CEO, Steve Easterbrook, has pledged to reform the world’s largest restaurant chain into a “modern, progressive burger company.” He has taken a major step in that direction with today’s announcement that McDonald’s will stop selling chicken treated with antibiotics that are also used in drugs prescribed to humans. The overuse of those antibiotics is likely a major cause of the rise of “super bugs” that increasingly resist such drugs. Public-health advocates are hailing McDonald’s announcement as a major victory.

The phase-out will occur over the next two years, as McDonald’s works with its suppliers, which include the meatpacking giant Tyson Foods. Chickens used by McDonald’s will still be treated with antibiotics that aren’t used in medicine for humans.

Easterbrook started his new job just three days ago. This move is clearly intended to set the tone for his tenure as he takes on the massive challenges McDonald’s is facing.

A big part of that challenge is to revamp the company’s image. Mainly thanks to its size, McDonald’s is often made the whipping-boy for the ills of corporate America, and particularly the food industry. In any discussion of our unhealthy diets or our growing wealth disparities, it’s a safe bet that McDonald’s will come up, often along with Wal-Mart.

The decision on antibiotics, though, shows that McDonald’s still enjoys formidable industrial power. Few institutions can dictate terms to the powerful meatpacking industry, but that’s essentially what McDonald’s is doing here. And it means that other meat buyers will likely follow suit.

When it comes to chicken in particular, Chik-fil-A, as the country’s largest buyer of chicken, has even more clout. It announced a year ago that over the following five years, it would stop buying chicken raised with antibiotics of any kind.

The number of bacterial infections that resist antibiotics has leaped in recent years, with more than 2 million reported each year. About 23,000 people die from the infections. Public-health experts have long warned that the use of antibiotics in livestock is the main culprit.

Read next: 5 Reasons Why McDonald’s Will Win in 2015

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME Fast Food

People in These Cities Can Now Order Burger King Online

A Burger King Whopper hamburger is arranged with french fries for a photograph in Tiskilwa, Illinois, U.S., on Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2013.
Daniel Acker/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Uber, but for ordering a Whopper without putting pants on

The lifelong dream of ordering, receiving and consuming a Whopper without putting on pants can now become a reality for residents of the United Kingdom.

Burger King is expanding its online delivery service to select U.K. locations in the cities of Northampton, Romford, Truro, Hornchurch, Gants Hill, Hull, Skegness and Hayes. Lucky fast food fans in those places can order off a full-featured online menu that even features some delivery-specific deals.

Burger King first began experimenting with online ordering and deliveries in 2012 in Washington, D.C. and has since expanded to other U.S. locations such as New York.

[Engadget]

TIME Bizarre

Pizza Hut Just Released a Very Exclusive Line of Nail Polish

The dream we never knew we had

Pizza Hut Australia has proved to be the best Valentine in the southern hemisphere if not, well, the entire universe.

As a part of a holiday promotion, the chain created limited-edition pizza-themed nail polish to bestow upon 30 people who wrote the best pizza-themed poetry. It’s the dream you never knew you had.

Colors include “Meat Me After Midnight,” “Dough You Need Me” and more pedestrian options like “Say Cheese.” Combined, these colors can create incredible nail art like this:

The only thing that could make this better was if the polish was scented. And, you know, available for purchase by the general public. Pizza Hut announced winners — and their cheesy poems — Monday:

 

TIME Fast Food

Teen Found a Chicken Organ in His KFC Order

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Johannes Eisele—AFP/Getty Images Two people walk past a KFC fast food restaurant in Shanghai on July 23, 2014.

He thought it was a chicken brain at first

A California teenager thought he found a chicken brain in his KFC order—and all he wants is his money back.

Manuel Cobarubies of Stockton was digging into an order of chicken and corn when he says he found the unusual organ earlier this month, the local Fox affiliate reports. He sent messages to KFC’s Twitter account requesting a refund.

Cobarubies says he eventually heard from a KFC official, who said that the organ was probably a gizzard or kidney and was completely edible. Still, the episode may deter the teen from visiting KFC again soon. “I’m probably just going to have to start packing my own meals, making my own sandwiches,” he said.

[Fox40]

MONEY gifts

5 Valentine’s Day Gifts If You Want Her to Break Up With You

Vermont Fifty Shades of Grey Teddy Bear
John Goodman Vermont Fifty Shades of Grey Teddy Bear

These five gift ideas could be exactly what your very special someone wants for Valentine's Day. More likely, however, is that they'll come across as creepy, tacky, or otherwise ill-advised.

We’ve seen all of the ideas below promoted in earnestness as good gift options for your sweetheart on Valentine’s Day this year. And sure, for the right recipient, these gifts could be seen as hilarious, romantic, charming, and perhaps even deeply thoughtful. But you better be 100% sure you know your significant other well enough to foresee her reaction, because these oddball ideas also come with the serous risk of misfiring, to put it mildly.

S&M Teddy Bear
Falling somewhere along the spectrum of amusing to downright creepy, the Vermont Teddy Bear Company is selling a bear with “smoldering gray eyes, a suit and satin tie, mask – even mini handcuffs,” based on the erotic novel and movie Fifty Shades of Grey. “She can’t help but submit to loving him,” gushed the company’s description of the limited-edition bear, which retails for $89.99.

A warning at the bottom of the bear’s web page states “Contains small parts. Not suitable for children.” And, well, to state the obvious, the fact that it contains small parts is hardly the only reason this bear, made with “the silkiest fur we can get our paws on,” isn’t a good idea for kids.

Clearance Sale Lingerie
According to a survey conducted on the behalf of Offers.com, the top two items that women DON’T want to receive from their sweethearts are stuffed animals (presumably, especially not stuffed animals that come with handcuffs) and lingerie. In a separate survey, from BeFrugal.com, nearly 90% of women (and 79% of men) said it was OK to look for ways to save on Valentine’s Day gifts.

Still, buying lingerie is a risky proposition for guys, seeing as the recipient could be insulted if the article in question is deemed too slutty, too prudish, or the wrong size. And if the main reason the buyer decided to go with a certain article of lingerie is that it was 80% off, then you’ll certainly give the impression you’re too cheap. So let’s hope the only folks following the advice to buy deeply discounted lingerie for Valentine’s Day are women making the decisions for themselves.

Candle-Lit White Castle
In what has become an annual tradition, the blue-collar mini-burger chain White Castle is welcoming customers to “enjoy a romantic evening with tableside service” at select locations around the country on February 14. Reservations are required. Dozens of Waffle House locations are doing the same, with special Valentine’s Day dinners including normally unheard-of amenities such as candlelight and tablecloths.

On the one hand, with the right dinner partner it could be an absolute hoot to mock-celebrate Valentine’s Day at a down-and-dirty fast food joint, or perhaps a so-called “breastaurant” like Tilted Kilt. On the other, bringing an unsuspecting date expecting a fancy romantic Valentine’s dinner to such an establishment could be a recipe for getting a drink thrown in your face.

Animal Sex Lecture & Dinner
On February 14, the Detroit Zoo is hosting the fourth annual “Love Gone Wild,” a three-and-a-half-hour long adult-only event that includes a champagne welcome drink, passed hors d’oeuvres, a sit-down dinner, a commemorative gift, and, most interestingly, “a candid and entertaining look at how zoo animals do the ‘wild thing,'” according to promotional materials.

Yes, the $85 event’s focus is animal sex at the zoo, which ranges from “prolonged public bouts of coitus to brief clandestine assignations,” a press release explained. And yes, the lecture is quite detailed and graphic. “We not only talk about [sex], we name names, show pictures and critique performance.”

Vacant Lot in Newark, N.J.
Let’s just say it’s probably unwise to buy a vacant lot in Newark and promise to live on the property for five years without consulting your significant other. That goes even if the property is being sold for a mere $1,000, which is the special “lovebirds” Valentine’s Day offer on the table on February 14. Couples who are interested in any of the 1,000 available vacant lots should go to Newark City Hall on Saturday morning with a $500 down payment, as well as proof you and your partner can cover construction costs needed to make the property inhabitable within 18 months of closing.

TIME Fast Food

Why Cinnabon Is Proud to Employ Saul Goodman

ÒLocalÓ: The After-School All-Stars Atlanta program extended its services to City of Refuge, a transitional living center for previously homeless women and children.Walt ThompsonElgin
Meg Buscema—Georgia State University/Chanell Kat Cole has been President of Cinnabon since 2010 (Photo courtesy of Kat Cole)

The pastry chain is embracing its star turn on the new Breaking Bad spin-off Better Call Saul

In the penultimate episode of Breaking Bad, bus-bench lawyer Saul Goodman, in fear for his life, prepares to change his identity and go into hiding. “If I’m lucky, a month from now, best-case scenario, I’m managing a Cinnabon in Omaha,” he says, dejectedly.

And that’s exactly what happened, as revealed by last night’s premiere episode of the spin-off, Better Call Saul. Given that this is supposed to be a depressing development for Saul, and is meant to reveal how low he’s sunk (even lower than chasing ambulances), you might think Cinnabon would try to distance itself from the show as much as possible. Instead, it’s doing the opposite.

The chain is giving away one free “mini-bon” per person, packaged in boxes depicting the pathetic Saul, on Monday between 5 p.m. and 9 p.m. at all 704 of its stores. Also, starting Monday, customers who tweet in-store selfies with the hashstag #SaulSelfie will have a chance to win a year’s worth of Cinnabon treats. (Who wants to lay odds that the winner will be an Omaha resident?)

Cinnabon had already proved itself more than willing leverage unflattering mentions of itself. Back when Saul first uttered what was a throwaway line on Breaking Bad, sixteen months ago, a Cinnabon manager in Omaha, with the backing of corporate HQ, hung a sign bearing the quote in his store window. And Cinnabon published a tweet directing Bob Odenkirk, who plays Saul, to its careers page.

Kate Cole, the president of Focus Brands, the affiliate of Roark Capital Group that owns Cinnabon and several other chains including Schlotzsky’s and Carvel, spent part of her Monday morning retweeting mentions of Cinnabon and Saul. The impressively young Cole (she’s 36), who was elevated in December from her position as Cinnabon president, clearly didn’t care that some of those tweets didn’t necessarily put Cinnabon in the best light. “You really need to screen your employees better” one tweeter advised Cinnabon, attaching a picture of a sinister-looking Saul Goodman manhandling a fistful of dough behind the counter.

MONEY freebies

Free Coffee at Chick-fil-A for Entire Month of February

Chick-fil-A restaurant, Naples, Florida.
Jeff G—Alamy Chick-fil-A restaurant, Naples, Florida.

Restaurants are pouring free coffee for the whole month, no purchase required.

The new year kicked off with dueling free coffee promotions from McDonald’s and Dunkin’ Donuts in some parts of the country, and now another fast food player is entering the coffee wars with an even bigger, broader, no-strings-attached giveaway.

On Friday, Chick-fil-A announced that throughout February, restaurants nationwide will pour customers free cups of hot or iced THRIVE Farmers Coffee—all day long, no purchase required.

Chick-fil-A launched a partnership with THRIVE, a Georgia-based company that networks with family-owned coffee producers in Central America and reportedly allows them to earn up to 10 times the norm, in August 2014. Now the push is on to win over customers by giving the coffee away, with only a very little amount of fine print to worry about:

This offer includes 12 ounce hot or 16 ounce iced sizes and is available while supplies last. The offer is available anytime during regular restaurant hours and is limited to one cup of coffee per customer, per visit. No additional purchase is necessary and no substitutions are available.

The coffee giveaway especially makes sense in light of how important breakfast has become to fast food restaurants. Breakfast is the only meal of the day that has experienced consistent growth in sales in recent years, which explains why more competitors are entering or expanding into the space—notably Taco Bell. Another factor explaining the fresh coffee push: Consumers are more prone to grabbing a cup of Joe at Dunkin’ Donuts, Starbucks, McDonald’s, or at convenience stores such as Cumberland Farms and 7-Eleven, not just for breakfast but at any hour of the day. Chick-fil-A clearly wants to be thought of as a great spot for a quick anytime coffee as well.

In all cases, the hope is that when folks swing by for coffee, they’ll also pick up a scone, donut, hot dog, Egg McMuffin, Slim Jim, chicken biscuit, or some other specialty of the house.

MONEY Fast Food

5 Problems That’ll Challenge McDonald’s No Matter Who’s CEO

A McDonald's restaurant in Encinitas, California.
Mike Blake—Reuters

The McDonald's McFamily will have a new head honcho in early 2015, and he has his work cut out for him.

Amid slumping sales and years of losing customers to Chipotle and other fast casual contenders, McDonald’s CEO Donald Thompson announced this week that he would be retiring in March. “It’s tough to say goodbye to the McFamily, but there is a time and season for everything,” Thompson said in a press release.

His replacement, current chief brand officer Steve Easterbrook, will take over a McFamily with many problems to address—problems that, given McDonald’s muddled sense of mission of late and overarching changes in demographics and the marketplace, have seemed difficult if not impossible to solve. Among the issues that need attention:

Millennials
Generally speaking, millennials love food and dining out, and yet their preferences—customizable options, transparency, and fare that’s healthier, more sustainable, and altogether superior compared to any cheap cookie-cutter fast food joint—are the exact opposite of what McDonald’s is known for. McDonald’s has made some moves clearly aimed at winning over millennials, including ventures into personalized, make-your-own burgers and potentially adding brunch menu items (brunch is a Gen Y obsession). McDonald’s has also dramatically expanded the menu over the years with the hopes of drawing in more young customers. Yet many of these initiatives have proven to be costly, and they’ve failed to make McDonald’s a top choice among millennials—who tend to favor Starbucks, Chipotle, and other more upscale fast casual contenders over McDonald’s or any old-fashioned fast food establishment.

No Hot New Product
Around this time last year, business reporters were proclaiming that McDonald’s desperately needed to add a “miracle” product to the menu like Wendy’s did with its Pretzel Bacon Cheeseburger. That once-limited-time-only burger proved such a hit that Wendy’s added it to the permanent menu last summer. Other recent monumental successes in the fast food world include Taco Bell’s Doritos Locos line of tacos.

Of course, McDonald’s has regularly rolled out plenty of new menu items with the hope of them breaking out as phenomenal best-sellers. But new contenders like fish nuggets and habanero Quarter Pounders have come up way short of being runaway successes, and another recent menu addition, overpriced chicken wings, was a huge flop. The Wall Street Journal has reported that McDonald’s most recent “bona fide blockbuster” new product, which stayed on the menu and impacted sales in a significant way, was the McGriddle pancake breakfast sandwich, introduced back in 2003.

Pricing
McDonald’s decades-long value pitch is that it’s a quick and inexpensive place to eat, and that reputation has hurt the fast food giant lately in two ways: 1) It’s difficult to raise prices and offer “premium” items like the doomed Angus burger because the customer base, accustomed to cheaper prices, won’t pay up; and 2) because McDonald’s food is fast and cheap, the assumption is that the quality must be low. As one fast food franchise consultant told the Associated Press, “It’s the whole perception people get when you sell something cheaply.”

McDonald’s needs its coffee giveaways and low-price value menu to pull in diners even though these items result in little to no profits. Yet to increase profits and better compete with the likes of Starbucks, Panera Bread, and Chipotle, McDonald’s is constantly trying to entice customers into spending more on “gourmet” and “premium” options like espressos and McWraps. As a result, service has slowed, lowering the value proposition at the same time, and McDonald’s pricing doesn’t make sense to many customers. When there are a bunch of burgers for under $2 in the Dollar Menu & More section, it’s puzzling why anyone would pay $5 or so for what seems like a very similar burger on the regular menu.

Focus
This problem is closely related to how McDonald’s pricing is all over the map. That, along with the fact that the McDonald’s menu has expanded to the point of being unwieldy and slowing down operations, has left franchisee owners angry and deeply concerned that the company has lost its sense of focus. McDonald’s recently announced intentions to scale back the menu and put some items on the chopping block. But such a measure could create its own problems. After all, some of the items likely to be downsized or cut, including espressos and McWraps, were added to menus to woo millennials and consumers who otherwise probably wouldn’t dine at McDonald’s.

Haters
During the Golden Globes, McDonald’s aired a “Signs” commercial campaign showing how different restaurant locations posted messages in support of local causes, the troops, and 9/11. Loads of people took to social media to say how much they hated the ad. Last year, McDonald’s introduced a new Happy Meal mascot and Ronald McDonald got a makeover. Both efforts were declared “terrifying,” while the former was also categorized as “nightmarish” and the latter was described as the face of the “saddest place on Earth.”

Heck, even when McDonald’s launches a broad “transparency” campaign answering questions about where its food comes from and how it is processed, the company is bashed for admitting to unhealthy practices and because of skepticism about other things still being hid.

The point is: People love to hate McDonald’s. In a story I wrote about the reaction on social media to the new Happy Meal mascot, Steve Connelly, of the Boston ad agency Connelly Partners, put things in perspective by explaining there are legions of opinionated consumers out there who consider McDonald’s “a piñata” rather than simply just another brand or place to eat. Many people will “keep bashing the hell out of them every chance you get because they stand for evil and are making the nation fat. Sometimes I think if McDonald’s came up with a cure for cancer they would get bashed for it.”

Surely, McDonald’s hates how much hate it attracts. And it’s up to the new leadership to figure out how to change perceptions that have built up over generations in the U.S. and abroad. They have to find a way to convince the haters to stop hating.

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