McDonald’s CEO Chris Kempczinski on Changing Consumer Behavior and the Future of Those Ball Pits

19 minute read

(Miss this week’s The Leadership Brief? This interview above was delivered to the inbox of Leadership Brief subscribers on Sunday morning, Aug. 2; to receive weekly emails of conversations with the world’s top CEOs and business decisionmakers, click here.)

When Chris Kempczinski was appointed CEO of McDonald’s last November, he was replacing a successful but flawed leader. His predecessor, Steve Easterbrook, was credited with revitalizing the global fast-food behemoth; during Easterbrook’s nearly five-year tenure, annual net income grew 33%, to more than $6 billion in 2019, and the company’s stock price doubled. But Easterbrook was fired for having a consensual affair with an employee, a violation of company policies. As if stepping into the top job unexpectedly—Kempczinski had been running McDonald’s USA at the time of his promotion—weren’t challenging enough, he’s spent the bulk of his first year as CEO managing through a global pandemic. While McDonald’s in the U.S. has remained open since COVID-19 hit, the accompanying economic turmoil has taken a toll on business. In addition, some McDonald’s workers have recently gone on strike, protesting the company’s safety procedures, benefits and pay policies.

Just hours after McDonald’s had released what Kempczinski, 51, called possibly the “worst” quarterly results in the history of the company—sales dropped 24%—the CEO joined TIME for a video conversation from his Chicago home. One of the factors that impacted the company’s bottom line for the quarter was 12 million free meals it donated to frontline workers during the pandemic, at a cost of $30 million to $40 million. Kempczinski discussed with TIME how consumer behavior is changing as a result of the pandemic, allegations of sexual harassment at McDonald’s restaurants, and de-escalation training for employees who encounter customers who won’t wear masks.

Subscribe to The Leadership Brief by clicking here.

This interview with McDonald’s CEO Chris Kempczinski has been edited and condensed for clarity.

What’s your outlook for the public-health picture going forward?

One of the things that we’ve been saying to our team is that until there’s a vaccine that’s been widely distributed, we’re going to be in this period of regional hot spots that keep flaring up. Everything that we’re seeing right now suggests that that is going to be the pattern for probably the next year.

What is the status of your U.S. outlets?

They never shut down. One of the things that happened early on is that the government at the federal level basically denoted which businesses they viewed as essential businesses. McDonald’s and restaurants were deemed an essential business, and as a result, we were allowed to stay open, albeit in most cases with drive-throughs only. So with 95% of our restaurants in the U.S. have a drive-through, the vast, vast majority of our restaurants stay opened.

How has the pandemic affected your breakfast business?

Breakfast has definitely been the most impacted day part. If you think about breakfast, lunch and dinner, breakfast is most susceptible to people not going to work. We did some work, looking at cell-phone data and tracking mobility: what we saw in the mobility data was consistent with what we saw in the restaurant, which is essentially that people moving around was down dramatically in the mornings.

I was surprised to learn how extensive your delivery business is, approaching $4 billion in revenues.

We have a very robust and fast-growing delivery business. Over the last several years, it’s been a significant growth driver for us.

Going forward, will delivery play an increasingly large role in your business?

I think it will. What we’ve seen is, even in markets that kind of get back to quote-unquote a more normal situation, delivery usage tends to stay elevated. And it’s not just unique to restaurants. There’s kind of a macro trend that customers like the convenience of getting delivery at home.

Any other consumer behavior shifts?

The other thing that we’re seeing is the whole notion of contactless is going to be one of the enduring things that stays with us after this pandemic. Whether that is mobile-app usage or using kiosks to do ordering or doing delivery, customers seem to be increasingly preferring service channels that minimize contact with other people. I think that that is something that is going to be enduring.

What do you see the McDonald’s experience looking like in five years?

I think in the U.S., you’re going to continue to see drive-through and delivery be important parts of it. But I don’t think dine-in is going away. I think there’s still this kind of fundamental human need to socialize over food with other people, and so I think that behavior will still exist. It won’t be as pronounced as it was, but it will still be there.

Will you ever build a ball pit again?

[Laughs.] I don’t know if we’ve got ball pits in our future. There’s probably some good public-health reasons not for us to be doing a lot of ball pits.

There’s probably some good public-health reasons not for us to be doing a lot of ball pits.
- Array

You’re requiring masks starting Aug. 1. What are the consequences for not wearing masks? Recently, an employee was assaulted in Oakland, Calif., after asking a customer to put on a mask.

We’re trying to strike a balance here. There’s certainly a public-health need for people to wear masks. There’s also situations out there, [where employees are] having to police the wearing of the mask. We’ve trained all of our restaurants how to handle or de-escalate those types of situations. But ultimately if a customer is not willing to wear a mask, that is where we encourage our crew to call law enforcement and let them deal with it. We don’t want to have our crew being put in a situation where their safety is somehow being put at risk by policing this. But I think the vast, vast majority of the customers out there recognize the importance of wearing masks.

TIME for Learning partnered with Columbia Business School to offer a series of online, on-demand classes on topics like effective leadership, negotiation and customer-centric marketing. To sign up or learn more, click here.

But what does it say about our society that restaurant workers, many of them teenagers, have to be taught de-escalation training?

For a long time, McDonald’s has in our communities played a larger role beyond just serving food. In many cases, we’re the town square. We’re the community center. We’re less comfortable or excited to be a policing entity. We have different times and different places that we get put into situations like that, whether it’s homeless who are trying to use our restaurant as a place to wash up or whatever. Or we have incidences that periodically occur where people have drug overdoses.

The whole parade of humanity.

When you serve 70 million people a day, which is what we do globally, what you tend to see in McDonald’s is what is happening in society at large. And so, we do the best we can with our crew to make sure that they’re able to serve our customers, but ultimately we have to make sure our crew are safe and so we don’t want to be putting them in situations where they’re in harm’s way.

Has the pandemic led to any supply shortages?

One of the things that’s been remarkable for us is through this whole pandemic, we haven’t had a single supply break on food, packaging, cleaning materials, etc., which is pretty extraordinary. In the U.S. in particular, there were some issues, about six weeks ago or two months ago, with beef shortages being of particular concern. I’m happy to tell you, those never impacted us. They impacted some of our competitors. There were industry supply pressures earlier around proteins. Those have let up, and throughout McDonald’s didn’t have any problems with it.

I’m guessing if you’re a McDonald’s supplier you are going to make sure that is one order that gets filled without fail.

We have made a point similar to that on a few different occasions.

Subscribe to The Leadership Brief by clicking here.

Has there been one menu item that has gained in popularity in recent months?

The surprising thing is that in the pandemic, consumers are gravitating back to our core menu. You’re seeing it in grocery-shopping behavior where these brands that in some cases people have viewed as, years ago I used to eat soup, and now all of a sudden people are eating soup again. You’re seeing a similar desire for trusted favorites … Big Mac, Quarter Pounder, french fries. They’re less willing to be trying new things. They’re less likely to go out there and try some fancy new burger at McDonald’s.

Are you happy with your menu offerings?

Our menu is a very democratic process; whatever the customer wants is what I want on that menu. If it’s not something that the customer wants, it’s not on our menu. I get asked quite often, Why isn’t this on the menu? Why isn’t that on the menu? And my short answer to all of those is because it didn’t sell enough. We are completely agnostic. We will put on whatever sells.

Beyond a hankering for the old favorites, any shifting tastes?

I do think one thing that is a global trend that we’re also seeing in the U.S. is protein consumption is shifting from beef to chicken. We’re paying attention to that in a number of markets again because consumption patterns are changing.

Last year, in fast food, it was the year of the chicken sandwich. But the Washington Post declared you late to the game and was pretty harsh about your offering, calling it “an amalgamation of various spare parts, lying around the company garage.” Snap!

That’s the great thing about working at McDonald’s, you never lack for attention. We always will get different perspectives. But we’re certainly working on ways that we can update and upgrade our chicken offering in the U.S. Suffice to say we will continue to be competing and innovating in chicken. And I’m sure we’ll continue to be getting critiques about how we’re doing.

You’re still working on your chicken-sandwich formulation?

Well, I don’t want to get too into revealing competitive secrets, but I think we are feeling good about where we’re at, and we look forward to bringing the customers some more innovation in chicken.

Given the environmental impact, should people even be eating meat at all?

Well, that’s a larger question that I think is not for McDonald’s to answer. That’s for consumers to answer. If consumers decide they don’t want to eat meat and they want to eat something else, we’ll serve that. It’s not our job to tell people what they should or shouldn’t be eating.

It’s not our job to tell people what they should or shouldn’t be eating.
- Array

I understand you’re a marathon runner. How much McDonald’s food is part of your diet?

I eat it five days a week, twice a day. I have it every breakfast and lunch five days a week. I eat a fair bit of McDonald’s. I know my way around the menu pretty well. So I have my days that I’m going to eat healthy, and then I have my cheat days. And the great thing about our menu is you can do both.

What is your healthy go-to order?

If you’re talking breakfast, my healthy go-to order would be getting an Egg McMuffin sandwich with no bacon on it. And I might with that get either a cup of coffee or a small Diet Coke. And that’s typically all I’ll eat for breakfast. Lunch, it could be a salad. It could be our filet of fish with no tartar sauce on it. Double ketchup. Or it could be, if it’s a cheat day, it could be the Quarter Pounder.

The CDC says one-third of Americans are obese and frequent fast-food consumption has been shown to contribute to weight gain. You talk a lot about values. And I know you’re serving customers what they want. But how do you reconcile that with the fact that a Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese and a large chocolate shake account for more than three-quarters of total recommended daily caloric intake, heavy on the sodium and saturated fat?

Our philosophy is that it’s ultimately the customer’s choice. We do disclose all of our nutritionals, and so it is prominently featured on the menu. It’s prominently featured on the app if you were to order. Essentially any of our order channels, you can see what the nutritionals are. And then a customer will make those choices that they need. For us, our obligation is to make sure we’re giving the customer all the information that they need, and ultimately they’ll decide what they want to do.

I understand that it’s not an urban myth, that there are specific reasons why Coke does taste better at McDonald’s. Can you tick off a few?

We have a very tight and special relationship with Coke. And it’s in our mutual best interest for us to have the best-tasting Coke in McDonald’s. One of the things that is helpful and why we have such a great-tasting Coke product is because of our volumes. We have in the back of our restaurants these tanks that essentially allow us to have a better mixing process in our restaurants between the syrup and the carbonated water than what someone else is able to do.

And there’s some adjustment of the sweetness to compensate for melting ice?

We have a process with Coke, where we have what we would call a gold-standard product. And we work with Coke to make sure that what is ultimately coming out of the fountain machine and into a customer’s cup reflects the gold standard. And that does entail tweaking, when needed, the sweetness.

Could you talk about how you follow a talented leader who was also very human? How do you approach that? At the town hall after you were named CEO, you talked about how emotional that was for you.

Part of what I tried to do is just to start with being honest with people and authentic. And I didn’t try to wrap it in any kind of corporate speak or euphemisms or anything like that. I mean I tried to just speak pretty openly about how I felt, which was conflicted because on the one hand, I considered Steve a friend. He brought me into the company. He supported me. But on the other hand, Steve made a mistake, and he made a mistake that CEOs shouldn’t be making. So have that trove of emotions that you do in any situation where someone does things that surprise you, disappoint you. Steve was at the company for 20 years. So there were a lot of friendships that were built, but also by the same token, I know there were a lot of people very upset and disappointed.

The Nation just published a detailed article describing a culture of sexual harassment at many McDonald’s outlets. Does McDonald’s have a sexual-harassment problem in the restaurants?

Anytime I hear about one of those situations, it’s disappointing to me because it flies totally in the face of what we stand for as a business. We stand for diversity, inclusion. We want to be a place that everybody feels welcome and that they’re treated based on their abilities and their contribution. Not for anything else.

What’s management’s role in responding?

It’s our job to take action and make sure that whatever were the conditions for the situation that led to that, that we deal with it very quickly. And also part of my obligation as CEO is to set the tone at the top. And I’m spending a lot of time just making sure that people understand my expectations around values. People understand my expectations about speaking up if they see anyone deviating from those values and giving them the confidence that if they do that, they’re going to be protected and that we’re also going to deal with it swiftly. And that’s what I think we have done, and that’s certainly what I’m going to continue to do as CEO.

Can you address the recent employee strikes over sick days, health care, personal protective gear and wages?

I think all of those in light of the pandemic make a ton of sense in that people are very worried about their health. They want to make sure that when they go to work that they’re going to be protected. I don’t think any of us—myself included—want to be in a situation where you’re having to decide between your health and going and getting a paycheck. One of the misconceptions is that somehow or another through this pandemic, McDonald’s workers haven’t been able to get sick pay. The vast, vast majority of our restaurants are offering sick pay to crew working in the restaurants right now. In the vast, vast majority of restaurants, people aren’t having to make that trade-off between safety and getting a paycheck.

And personal protective equipment? Do you feel the company is doing a good job in supplying that to workers?

Yes. We have global safety standards, and one of those is that crew are required to wear PPE in the restaurants. So that’s a face mask, that’s gloves. We ask the crew, and there’s a whole set of procedures around washing hands every hour. And if you look at the infection rate in our restaurants relative to the general population, we typically are better than the general population. So it doesn’t mean that we’re complacent about it. But I think we’re doing a nice job of keeping our crew safe.

One of the first things you did as CEO was change advertising agencies to Wieden + Kennedy. How involved are you in the advertising?

Let me put it this way, my team hopes I’m never involved in the advertising piece. When I’m involved in the advertising, it usually means there’s a problem. Or that something is not maybe as good as it needs to be. So I would say like most things in my job, I’m usually not involved until there’s a problem, and then I get heavily involved.

I’m Interested in those 15-second spots that focus on ingredients with the wonderful Scottish actor Brian Cox from Succession. He doesn’t seem like the most obvious choice for McDonald’s voice-over work.

You’re always trying to find something that is arresting or grabs your attention. That’s always a challenge in advertising. How do you get someone to pay attention? And in many cases, it’s that little bit of that odd juxtaposition that creates interest. To have his voice, which people either unconsciously or consciously know who he is, juxtaposed with the ingredient—there’s something unique and kind of makes you pay attention to that, and that’s why I think it worked.

Your mother was a kindergarten teacher. Do you ever have a bad day and go home and think I basically have the same job?

[Laughs.] That feels like a very dangerous question for me to answer. I would just say that I feel like I have an opportunity to build the future in a very good way for the company. So like my mother as a kindergarten teacher, she’s looking at the future, I feel like my job is to look at the future as well.


BUSINESS BOOK: Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

AUTHOR: I do love Philip Roth on the serious side. He was a phenomenal, phenomenal writer. My guilty pleasure is tabloid journalism: TMZ, the Daily Mail, Page Six. I can give you the latest and greatest on all the happenings.

EXERCISE: I like sports. I’m good at none of them, but I love all of them.

APP: Outside of the ESPN app, Google Maps is a phenomenal app. I use that one for everything.

Subscribe to The Leadership Brief by clicking here.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at