Mcdonald's Skinny Burger Is A Hard Sell

Sorry, McLean Deluxe. Mega Mac is here.

The reduced-fat McLean, hailed by McDonald's Corp. as the "healthy" hamburger to revolutionize eating on the run, has bombed. Wags call it the McFlopper.

But as Bill Clinton rolled into Washington, so did a sandwich better suited to his fill-me-up appetite: the Mega Mac. It's the biggest, fattest burger ever to come off a McDonald's grill - a half-pound monument of ground beef slathered with pickled sauce, sprinkled with lettuce and onions and stuffed into the same three-piece bun that holds its puny patriarch, the Big Mac.

Today's fast-food menus increasingly read like the revenge of the couch potatoes. Burger King features hefty slabs of meatloaf and fried pork. Hardee's piles meat on thick sourdough bread. Pizza Hut delivers double pizzas, complete with cookies, for dinner. KFC, which once fiddled with skinless chicken, now pushes extra crispy, while Wendy's founder Dave Thomas pitches burgers with bacon and cheese.

Many people seem to be putting good taste before good nutrition again, and that means f-a-t. Supermarket freezer cases feature large-portion dinners, and "hearty" has replaced "healthy" as the hot word on new foods. Bacon sales rose 4 percent last year. Meanwhile, the flurry of fake fats designed to slim down the national waistline has quietly faded.

"Consumers have had their fill of healthier fare," says Barry Gibbons, chairman and chief executive officer of Burger King Corp., a unit of Grand Metropolitan PLC. "They're saying, `Thanks for the choice, thanks for the (nutrition) info. Whopper and fries, please."'

What better image of the change than a beefy president stoking up at McDonald's? Basking in that unsolicited endorsement, the company is pressing ahead with several extra-big burgers. The Mickey D, containing one-third pound of ground beef, is being tested in some restaurants as a dinnertime item. The even bigger Mega Mac being featured in some Washington, D.C.-area outlets is a promotional item, but could go nationwide if justified by sales. Chicago-area McDonald's are featuring triple cheeseburgers. Patrons "seem more interested than ever in our substantial hamburgers," a spokesman says.

And what of McLean Deluxe, the sandwich of the future? Though it was rolled out with full-page ads and TV commercials, the McLean gets no publicity now. McDonald's won't disclose figures, but some franchisees want to get the sandwich removed from the menu and industry analysts believe it accounts for less than 2 percent of sales. A McDonald's spokesman says the company might decide to make the sandwich an optional item - each restaurant could decide whether to offer it - but adds that "the jury is still out."

How things change in just a few years. When McDonald's introduced the McLean Deluxe in 1991, it was national news. "A healthy breakthrough for the American public," cheered a New York Times editorial. The National Basketball Association made the McLean its official sandwich.

Expectations ran so high that the beef industry commissioned a study to determine whether it could meet demand for the slimmer meat. (It could.) Hundreds of supermarkets began stocking extra-lean ground beef. In the Philippines, where the McLean's seaweed-based additive is big business, there were predictions it would spur the economy.

The McLean seemed perfectly suited for fast-food's future. Critics had accused McDonald's and other chains of contributing to heart disease and other ailments, particularly among children. A retired Nebraska businessman named Phil Sokolof, who had suffered a near-fatal heart attack, crusaded against what he called "the poisoning of America." In newspaper ads, Sokolof, now 70, berated corporate food titans for their products' high cholesterol and fat, and in 1990 he blasted McDonald's specifically with a headline that read: "Your Hamburgers Have Too Much Fat!"

"Irresponsible," was the immediate response of McDonald's U.S. President Edward H. Rensi, and he wasted no time in fighting back. By day's end, the Oak Brook, Ill.-based company had announced it was switching to lower-fat shakes and testing tallowless frying fat.

In the meantime, the chain had been quietly developing for months what would become the McLean Deluxe, which evolved from research at Alabama's Auburn University to develop leaner cuts of meat. While most McDonald's hamburgers contain 20 percent fat by weight, this new one would have only 9 percent. (That 9 percent balloons to 28 percent fat when based on calories rather than weight, but still squeaks under a recommendation by the Department of Health and Human Services that consumers get no more than 30 percent of their calories from fat. Add cheese and the McLean exceeds the guideline.)

So what happened? As those who tried the low-fat McLean Deluxe soon learned, less grease may be good for the arteries, but not for flavor, and it can leave the stomach feeling less filled. Moreover, McDonald's, like many others, may have overestimated the nation's embrace of fitness. A recent survey by Louis Harris & Associates found that while 33 percent of the American adults queried exercise regularly, that was down from 37 percent in 1991.

Not only have public habits changed, but in its eagerness to deliver the McLean, McDonald's violated some of its operating tenets. Usually the company tests potential menu additions for years; the search for the right pizza product already is more than five years old. The McLean was rushed out after only four months testing in restaurants.

More extensive research might have exposed flaws - and there were several. The biggest was taste. After a bite or two, consumers realized something was missing. By wringing out half the fat, McDonald's also eliminated much of its burgers' familiar flavor and "mouth feel."

Because of how they are made, sometimes McLeans also taste drier. To make up for lost fat, the patties contain seasoned water, which can steam off rapidly during cooking. The company acknowledges that preparation tolerances are "a little tighter."

That means the sandwich won't always taste the same. One may be juicy, the next rubbery and dry. "I eat 'em a lot, and six out of 10 aren't satisfactory," says Bill O'Neill, marketing vice president at Fairbank Farms, and Ashville, N.Y., company that supplies lean beef to supermarkets. For McDonald's, a name synonymous with predictable food, that's a nightmare. (Quality control is so important at McDonald's that technicians check the hues of sauce batches against master color chips.)

Moreover, once off the griddle, McLeans dry out quickly and don't "hold" well. So while other burgers can wait in warming chutes, McLeans usually are made to order That may mean a two-minute wait, an eternity in fast-food time. Many customers won't put up with it.

Then there is the seaweed factor. McDonald's uses carregeenan powder to bind the water and flavor enhancers with the meat. Derived from a seaweed, carrageenan is a common food additive. It jells puddings and keeps the chocolate in milk from settling, and also is used in cosmetics and toothpaste.

Though the McLean patty is 90 percent meat, 9 percent water and only 1 percent carrageenan, rivals pounced on a burger held together with seaweed. Commercials for Hardee's Food Systems Inc.'s all-beef lean hamburger promised it would never contain any "seaweed additive." (It bombed too.) The McLean even inspired jokes from Johnny Carson on the "Tonight" show.

Another deterrent: price. Generally the most expensive burger on the menu, a McLean without cheese in downtown Chicago costs $2.09, compared with $1.95 for a Big Mac and $1.99 for a Quarter Pounder.

Even the NBA benched the McLean before long. McDonald's soon saw the burger was in trouble and tried to salvage it. The McLean has "played to mixed opening reviews," the company's 1991 annual report said. But "it's being made more flavorful and juicier with some ingredient enhancements."

Competitors watched closely. "McDonald's helped us to make our decision" to drop a lean burger after several months, a Hardee's spokesman says. "We know how much money they'd spent. If it wasn't working out for McDonald's there was a very slim chance for it to work out for us." Carl's Jr., a California-based hamburger chain, tested a ground-beef sandwich with carrageenan for several months and came to the same conclusion.

"The McLean launch was a symptom of what a number of us in the industry were doing," says Gibbons of Burger King. His chain sought to lighten its menu by adding a grilled chicken sandwich, which took off, and Weight Watchers meals, which didn't.

Burger King also experimented with a sandwich made of what its inventors call "restructured meat" - bite-sized pieces of lean beef bound together with alginate, another product of the sea. It was sold as "steak," but Burger King recently dropped this sandwich from its diner menu and replaced it with with a meatloaf special.

About the only place extra-lean burgers sell really well is at Walt Disney theme parks and hotels. But then, that's the only kind they offer.

To some in the burger business, McDonald's pitch for McLean was treason. "We and everyone else have invested billions of dollars in advertising and marketing creating a specific image of a hamburger. . . no fillers, no additives, none of that stuff," says a spokesman for Wendy's International Inc. "It should have some fat because that's what makes a hamburger good."

Even some of McDonald's franchisees have trouble embracing the McLean. "As long as it's a national product we're going to support it," says Steve Sullins, who operates five McDonald's restaurants in the Dallas area. Asked if he would prefer it be optional, Sullins replies, "You can read between the lines."

Nonetheless, there is one important arena in which the McLean Deluxe has been a big success: public relations. In muzzling critics, it took a big step toward what Thomas W. Glasgow Jr., executive vice president and chief operations office, calls a "perceptual change" in the company's image. The sandwich gave McDonalds's a "halo," said one analyst. Another, Michael Mueller of Montgomery Securities, says the burger "delivers the health message; otherwise there'd be no reason to have it."

If McDonald's does decide to make the McLean Deluxe an optional menu item, it is likely to do so quietly. A formal announcement would invite new attacks - this time that the chain really wasn't serious about serving "healthier" food.

In some ways that would be a bad rap. As the company that feeds more people than any other private food server - some 20 million daily by its own count - McDonald's has been at the forefront of nutrition enhancements in the fast-food business. It was among the first chains to go with reduced-fat shakes. It replace salad cheese with shredded carrots, squeezed fat from sauces and buns, and skinned the chicken made into McNuggets. Salads have been a staple since 1986.

The company's famed French fries now sizzle in oil containing no beef tallow. The tallow gave the potatoes some of their flavor, but added saturated fat. To shrink the amount of shortening required, company engineers even redesigned fry baskets. McDonald's also was a pioneer in posting information on how many calories items contained.

Still, at a nutrition conference he sponsored last hear, Rensi, the McDonald's president, expressed frustration about the company's nutritional reputation. "We've had a very difficult time communicating nutrition to customer," he said. "There's just no way to put it on TV and make it meaningful."

At Auburn University these days, the meat researchers who pioneered lean beef are now trying to develop low-fat pork sausage. But don't expect to see it on the menu at President Clinton's McDonald's anytime soon.

(Reprinted with permission of Wall Street Journal, Copyright, 1993, Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.)