The McDonald's we've known for more than half a century is changing. Whether due to shifting market trends or a mid-life identity crisis, the Golden Arches has decided to completely reinvent itself as an upmarket restaurant chain. It's a bold new direction for the company with a focus on premium ingredients, dine-in perks and customer creation via "Build-A-Burger" touch screens. Yesterday, we tested the fancy new service at its maiden store in Castle Hill, NSW. The results exceeded our wildest expectations.
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Study the above photo. It doesn't look like your typical Macca's fare, does it? Remove the tell-tale cup and it could almost be a burger from a glitzy steak house or high-end pub. What you're looking at is a bespoke burger packed with an Angus beef patty, lettuce, tomato, egg, smoked Applewood bacon, red onion rings, jalapenos, grilled mushrooms, chilli jam and no less than four types of cheeses. (Yep, I went all in and I don't regret a thing — but more on that later.)
This is what McDonald's wants to become in Australia and it's pulling out all the stops to make it happen. While the service is currently only available in a single Castle Hill outlet, the company is embarking on a nation-wide roll out over the next two years. Consider it the final step in McDonald's hipster gentrification (hipsterfication?) — a process that arguably started with the Angus and M Selection range.
So how does it work? If you just want to grab a quick 'n' dirty Big Mac, McDonald's will still cater to you via the usual ordering process. However, there's also a touch screen kiosk where customers can get a whole lot fancier. There are several ready-built deluxe burgers to choose from, although the emphasis is firmly on customer creation.
There are more than 30 ingredients to choose from, including two types of buns, four kinds of cheese, two types of bacon and a range of specialty toppings including grilled pineapple, guacamole, beetroot, grilled mushrooms and a range of gourmet sauces. Handily, the display automatically tallies the kilojoule count of your order after you've added all the toppings.
The touch screen interface has been built to impress: it's large, responsive and easy to navigate with visual representations of all the available ingredients. With the possible exception of geriatric Luddites, the UI shouldn't give customers any trouble. (Trained staff are hovering nearby just in case you have any questions.) You can also order standard menu items from the touch screen, which means you don't have to split from your lunch partner if they just want a Quarter Pounder.
Once you've made your selection you can pay for it instantly via an inbuilt credit card terminal. You're then presented with a receipt and invited to sit down as your meal is freshly prepared. It will then be served to you on a dinky wooden platter. (Plastic trays are for bogans, dontcha know.)
If you add a side of fries to your order, it comes in one of those miniature metal frying baskets favoured by swanky cafes. Unfortunately, soft drinks are still served in the usual paper cup which does spoil the aesthetic somewhat. Next time I'm bringing a Riedel Coke glass.
As you'd expect, the service commands a pretty hefty premium compared to McDonald's regular menu. Adding every single ingredient to your burger will set you back close to $30 and will probably kill you into the bargain. However, the average bespoke burger works out to a more reasonable $12 to $15.
Our own aforementioned creation came with fifteen ingredients and cost $12.49. Adding chips and a Coke brought the total to $15.90. This might seem pricey for a McDonald's meal, but this is around what you'd pay for a similar lunch down the pub.
The new menu doesn't look like fast food and it doesn't act like it either: waiting times are significantly longer than McDonald's customers are accustomed to. It took close to 15 minutes for my order to arrive by which point I was completely famished. Mind you, this is fairly typical for a non-fast-food burger so I won't begrudge them too much.
Just be aware that you might be in for an even lengthier wait during peak meal times. The manager I spoke to admitted that things can slow to a crawl when lots of bespoke orders come in at once. If your time is limited, our advice is to show up at least an hour before the lunch/dinner crowd.
When my burger finally arrived, I was immediately impressed with the size and construction. If the ready-made options are anything like this, we may have the first perfect Takeaway Truth score on our hands. But looks can be deceiving. For as long as anyone can remember, McDonald's has been synonymous with cheap, bland food. Would this be more of the same with a higher price tag?
The answer is an emphatic no. Without a shadow of a doubt, this is the best McDonald's burger I've tasted by a significant margin. It may even be my favourite fast food burger, period. The combination of familiar Macca's meat and gourmet toppings went together wonderfully. My only reservation is that it was a bit hard to eat due to its massive size. Annoyingly, McDonald's doesn't include plastic cutlery with orders unless you ask.
Apart from that tiny caveat, I really don't have anything mean to say about this burger or the upscale service that spawned it. Would I pay $30 for a version with the lot? Of course not. But for $15 or so, this is a perfectly acceptable meal — attractive, delicious and so very filling.
In conclusion, McDonald's has clearly realised it needs to adapt with the times and it is moving confidently in the right direction. Fast food just got a serious upgrade. Colour us excited.