25 June, 2011

Back of House at McDonald's

Longtime readers here at Dave's Cupboard know that I'm a fan of McDonald's breakfast offerings. I don't think any fast-food company even comes close to Mickey D's when it comes to breakfast sandwiches. If I were King of the World, I'd give a knighthood to the dude who invented the Sausage McMuffin with Egg.

So, when I was invited to a "behind-the-scenes" blog event to tour a local McDonald's restaurant at breakfast time to see for myself what's involved with getting an Egg McMuffin from the griddle to the customer, I jumped at the chance.  

Before I start though, there's a few things you should know.  We were invited to the tour by Charlene Durham, an account supervisor with Cronin & Company LLC, the PR firm for the Connecticut and Western Massachusetts McDonald's Owner/Operator Association.  And at the end of the tour and presentation, Lynnafred and I were each given a tote bag containing McSwag like promotional t-shirts, a notepad and pen, coupons for Mickey D's oatmeal, and a $10 Arch Card. (The tote bags in particular are very cool - the "fabrics" they're made of are former McDonald's advertising banners, a great way to recycle that tough and durable material.)

Okay.  Now that the disclaimer is out of the way, on with the tour, which we attended with fellow bloggers Julie Kieras who writes A Year With Mom And Dad, and Cheryl Budge, whose eponymous blog can be found at cherylbudge.com.

There were two purposes to the tour: One was to highlight the nutritional features of breakfast at McDonald's, and the other was to show via a "backstage tour" how a typical McDonald's operates.  To make this post a little more manageable, I'll break it up into two sections as well. We'll start with breakfast part and move on later to the tour.

As I've said before, a McDonald's breakfast sandwich seems to me to be a perfectly reasonable way to start the day.  When I eat breakfast at home (usually on the weekend) it's normally two eggs, toast or an English muffin, and a few slices of bacon or a couple of sausages. That's basically the same thing that you'd find in an Egg McMuffin or a Sausage McMuffin with Egg.

What I didn't know was that a standard Egg McMuffin only has 300 calories and 12g of fat. And if you leave off the cheese like I do (because I'm not all that crazy about the taste of eggs and cheese together) you can trim that down to 250 calories and 8.5g of fat. Seriously, that's a pretty light breakfast.

My beloved Sausage McMuffin Wtih Egg comes out a little less trim, though, with 450 calories and 27g of fat in it's full, cheesy form (400 calories and 24 g fat with the cheese omitted.) Still, that compares favorably with the homemade breakfast I outlined.

As part of our tour, nutritionist Nancy Dell pointed out other McDonald's breakfast offerings that are light and reasonably healthy, like the Fruit 'n' Yogurt Parfait at 160 calories, and the Fruit & Maple Oatmeal with 290 calories.

All of my reviews of McDonald's stuff have focused on how they taste and not their nutritional profile.  I don't really see that changing significantly in the future, but it was interesting to find out that the only fast food breakfasts I really like aren't as horrible for you as the shrill looneys like to claim.

So on to the tour.

Lynnafred and I had never been behind the scenes at a McDonald's restaurant before, so we were both looking forward to this. We were there as much for the curiosity factor as anything else, but as it turned out the tour was both interesting and fun - interesting because we found out a lot about what makes a typical McDonald's franchise tick, and fun because we were encouraged to go hands-on with some of the equipment.

We started off by meeting Keith Santacroce, the owner/operator of the McDonald's restaurant in New Britain where we met - one of several franchises he owns and which he operates with the help of his family.  He takes a great deal of pride in both his own restaurants and the McDonald's organization in general and his enthusiasm is pretty infectious.
One of the goals of the tour was to show off new products like their Strawberry-Banana and Wild Berry Smoothies, and the smoothie machine was the first stop on our tour.  I'd actually reviewed them back in September 2010, but it was very cool to see the process up close and personal. The equipment itself is pretty bad-assed. The top part houses the control panel, a niche for the blender, and a water spout upon which the used blender cup is inverted; the spout then jets hot water into the cup to clean it and ready it for the next smoothie.  The bottom part, which you can see in the picture to the left, has compartment holding various ingredients - one slot for the yogurt, for example, and others for the fruit ingredients like the berry mixture, banana puree, and strawberries. It's all quite efficient - the machine automatically measures the portions and dispenses them.  All the operator has to do is push a few buttons to select the product and the size.  The machine drops the ingredients and the ice into the blender container and whips everything into frozen deliciousness, and the machine operator just pours it into a cup and hands it over to the customer.  It takes just seconds to whip up a perfect smoothie, and the results are absolutely consistent every time.

It's so easy even a middle-aged
food blogger can do it!
Each of us on the tour had the opportunity to make a smoothie or a frozen strawberry lemonade for ourselves, and there was a lot of laughter as we fumbled with the simple controls of the machine.  The smoothies are every bit as delicious as they were when I first tasted them, but they're still a bit on the sweet side for me, though they're primarily fruit, yogurt and ice with a little sugar added.  (No high-fructose corn syrup here - thanks, McDonald's.)

Naturally, since we were at McDonald's at breakfast time, we were also shown what was involved in making Egg McMuffins.  One of the things that makes Mickey D's stand out above other fast food places at breakfast is their use of freshly cooked whole eggs - there aren't any pre-sliced, pre-cooked slices of "egg product" like you find at Dunkin' Donuts. 

Fresh whole eggs  are cooked eight at a time in specially-made egg rings.  After the eggs are cracked into the rings, they're covered with a rectangular lid and a small amount of water is added. Steam cooks the tops of the eggs while the griddle fries the bottom, so they fully cook without having to be turned.

I asked Keith how his crew knows how much food to prepare at any given time, since the cooked eggs are held warm in anticipation of an order for a very limited time before being discarded. He explained that they reduce waste by using a continual analysis of food sales. Every day, a chart is printed for each cooking station showing a cooking schedule - in this case, what time of the morning any number of eggs should get started on the griddle. The appropriate charts (one of which is barely visible in the picture here at the top center) are posted at each cooking station.  "It's not a flawless solution," Keith told me, "There will always be some waste.  But this system holds it down to a minimum."

The cooked eggs are held in a warming cabinet for just 12 minutes before being tossed (you can see the importance of "just-in-time" production here) along with the sliced Canadian bacon and lightly toasted English muffins. Everything is ready to assemble at the time a customer places an order.  The standard deadline for preparing an Egg McMuffin, from the time the order is posted to the time it's sent to the front to the customer, is 35 seconds. Lynnafred volunteered to put together a couple of McMuffins for us.

Uniform tomato slices
We also had a tour of the restaurant's walk-in refrigerator/freezer unit. The extraordinary part about a McDonald's walk-in is its ordinariness.  I was astounded by the volume of fresh ingredients on hand - the turnover must be incredible - but when it comes right down to it, the Mickey D's walk-in is like just about every other restaurant's walk-in.  Fresh stuff is brought in semi-prepared - the salads, for example, are pre-cut and pre-mixed and packed in food-service sized bags and tomato slices for the burgers are all a uniform size because they are shipped pre-sliced in long trays of similar-gauge slices - and this is no different from the way many other restaurants buy vegetables.  The boxes in which the bags are shipped are also clearly and prominently marked with sell-by dates to be sure that the stock is always fresh.

In the freezer section, we found boxes of french fries, hash browns, and meat patties. McDonald's ships all of their patties frozen, saying that they are better able to maintain quality that way.  But like the eggs in the Egg McMuffins, burgers are cooked in the restaurant and held for a few minutes warm so sandwiches can be assembled to order.  Back when I was a kid, the local McDonald's would have big piles of burgers waiting under heat lamps, pre-cooked in anticipation of a lunchtime rush, but those days are gone forever.

By the end of the tour, Lynnafred and I were fairly impressed by the efficiency of the operation and by the quality of the ingredients. I'm more convinced than ever that the best fast food breakfast is found under the Golden Arches. And while they're still not my top choice for a cheeseburger (sorry, Ronald) I give them credit for living up to their promise of fast, fresh service using top-quality ingredients.


Alan said...

Nicely done, non biased review, Dave. I learned some things here about our iconic McDonalds. I grew up around the chain and have always loved what they offer us. Fast food or not, I have a nostalgic feel for the old drive-in. They can start thier newest ad campaign, saying, "You're grandfather ate here."

EatinistBitch said...

i rarely eat mickey d's anymore (cut out a lot of fast food, plus, it doesn't taste like it used to) but every once and a while i treat myself to a bacon/egg/cheese biscuit from there. they're SO TASTY. i especially like to put one of their hashbrowns inside. decadent nom.

Anonymous said...

If you're like me and you like your sausage biscuits a little more meaty, order two of them, remove the sausage from one of them and place on the other one. You now have a "double sausage biscuit" sandwich. I always order a couple of packs of strawberry jam and butter (both free) and put them on the leftover biscuits to eat. Still waiting for McDonald's to start offering a "Double Sausage Biscuit" on their breakfast menu.