Would you like some Israeli couscous with that?
With slowing sales and fickle consumers, fast food restaurants are trying just about anything to keep diners happy.
Even McDonald’s, the king of the drive-through, is trying to branch into hipster territory with the Corner by McCafé in Sidney, Australia. The one-off experiment, with whole-grain salads and sleek and modern décor, looks and tastes nothing like McDonald’s.
Kelly Weikel, a food trends researcher at Technomic Inc., believes the makeover is a reaction to pains felt throughout the fast-food industry, which has watched sales stagnate.
More and more, she said, people are choosing to dine at “fast-casual” restaurants like Chipotle and Panera Bread, which feature better service and higher quality food at a low price.
Fast food sales in the U.S. have grown only slightly, by about 13 per cent in the past six years, according to data provided by Technomic. In the same period, however, business at “fast casual” restaurants grew by 58 per cent.
McDonald’s has been hit especially hard, with yearly sales dropping by $800 million, according to a statement issued by the company on Friday.
“(Fast-casual restaurants are) doing so well because the quality perception, the health perception and the unique perception,” she said. “Those are all things that fast-food and megachains like McDonald’s have to counteract.”
Weikel said many chains and fast-food restaurants are trying to appeal to foodie culture by offering consumers more choice. Pizza Hut streamlined its logo and added gourmet pizzas to the menu like Sweet Siracha Dynamite. While Tim Hortons introduced dark roast coffee.
“I think a lot of brands are really working very hard to revamp their image ... I think it’s something that a lot of places are in the process of doing right now,” she said. “But they’re finding a lot of challenges.”
One of the biggest hurdles for a chain trying to make it as an indie restaurant is the burden of authenticity. Since opening up shop, the Corner has become something of the anti-McDonald’s in Sydney.
The branding is subtle: a small McCafé logo appears at the bottom of the sign. Even the minimalist colour palette of yellow, white and black sets it aside from its corporate owner. And forget plastic forks and trays: the Corner’s takeout utensils are enviro-chic bamboo, with wooden trays and kraft paper wrappings.
Basically, it’s a takeout joint worthy of Instagram.
But at the end of the day, even without the golden arches, consumers can figure out who’s behind their kale and pumpkin tahini salad.
“I think it’s hard because consumers are pretty savvy today,” Weikel said. “In the U.S., it might not get too far.”