McDonald’s. We all know it’s not good for us. But when we see a pic of a juicy Big Mac and some fresh, hot fries, we’ve got to admit—we get hungry.
The famous chain started as a small hamburger stand in San Bernardino, California, in 1948. Brothers Dick and Mac McDonald (yes, one brother was really named Mac McDonald) did well with their little stand by focusing on a small menu with quick service. Ray Kroc, a failed salesman still looking for a break at 52, visited the original McDonald’s and was blown away by their efficiency.
Kroc thought the McDonalds were onto something, and in 1955, he created McDonald’s System Inc. (soon to be McDonald’s Corporation) and took the hamburger stand national. By 2016, the chain had 36,899 restaurants worldwide and $6.03 billion in revenue.
Though McDonald’s might have “billions and billions served,” there’s still a lot of surprises going on behind the counter. Is any of the food made fresh? Are their nuggets full of pink slime? Is there any magic behind those salty fries? Here, we’ll reveal all of the secrets of the Golden Arches.
McDonald’s wants customers to know they use real food.
The word “McDonald’s” usually doesn’t conjure up images of fresh, healthy food. It’s typical to think of a bunch of frozen mystery meat getting grilled up by disgruntled teens. And this used to be true.
Eve Esquire, a writer and stylist in Los Angeles, once worked a short stint at McDonald’s in 1998. At the time, everything on the menu came in frozen and was heated up later: even the pies. “It’s why they are like molten lava when served,” says Esquire.
But McDonald’s is really trying to change their image. Their revenue has been on the decline for years.
One way they seem to be fighting back is by changing the freshness of their food. On their site, McDonald’s claims over and over again that they serve “real” food. They now use fresh eggs in Egg McMuffins, 100 percent beef in burgers, chicken with no artificial ingredients, and real buttermilk in the chicken tenders. In fact, their new food philosophy is “The Simpler the Better.”
What about “pink slime?” Remember that gross goo made of mashed up chicken and ammonia? Well, McDonald’s used to use pink slime, which is technically called mechanically separated meat (yum), in their McNuggets. But in 2003, the chain got rid of mechanically separated meat and switched to white meat chicken, according to Snopes.
Still, that doesn’t mean the cooks in the kitchen are preparing fresh patties for every order. The chain admits that the hamburger patties are made from 100 percent ground beef…then quick frozen for delivery. Those frozen patties go into franchises’ freezers to be cooked on the grill whenever someone gets a Quarter Pounder craving.
The ‘Secret Sauce’ isn’t so secret.
What’s the secret behind the Big Mac’s secret sauce? Relish. Yeah, a little disappointing, we know.
Though the secret sauce recipe was thought to be, well, secret, McDonald’s shares the complete ingredient list right on their site. Sure, it doesn’t have exact measurements, and you might have to make some adjustments if you want to make it at home (unless you have a lot of propylene glycol alginate sitting around).
But the basic recipe is soybean oil, relish, sugar, vinegar, salt, egg yolk, salt, garlic powder, turmeric, and paprika. Mayonnaise could replace the soybean oil and egg yolk, and just a tiny pinch of turmeric is needed since its main purpose is giving the sauce that mysterious orange glow we’ve all come to love.
The McRib requires more than just pork.
After the spread of the viral photo of an unsauced, frozen McRib patty, it’s easy to guess that there are no actual ribs in the popular sandwich. In fact, it’s a ground pork shoulder patty that’s put into a special mold to look like ribs. Like the hamburger patties, they’re made off-site, frozen, and cooked as needed at a McDonald’s franchise.
So, all that’s really needed to make a personal McRib is some ground pork, a rib-shaped cookie cutter, and a grill! Imagine all the fun possibilities of making any kind of meat into a delightful rib shape. Just be sure to drown them in barbecue sauce so people aren’t appalled by the artificial look.
Those “limited time” items don’t really need to be limited.
While we’re on the subject, you might reasonably wonder why you can’t get a McRib year-round. It’s one of the chain’s few seasonal menu items; others include the Shamrock Shake and Baked Holiday Pie. Seasonal items don’t need to be seasonal (although we doubt anyone would order the Holiday Pie in the middle of June), but they elicit a Pavlovian response from consumers.
“When you have these exclusive products, which exist for a short period of time, it gives people a reason to come to the store,” Alexander Chernev, a professor of marketing at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, told Fox 17. “You need consistency, because that’s the brand mantra. But no matter how much you like something, consuming something different … increases the enjoyment of what you consumed before.”
Okay, the professor’s word choice is slightly strange, but the point stands: Seasonal menu items get people to think about McDonald’s when they might not otherwise give the restaurant any attention.
They also remind people that they like the basic items—many chains see an influx in customers when offering seasonal products, regardless of whether or not the customers actually purchase those products.
McDonald’s isn’t the only company that does this, by the way. The most famous seasonal item is probably Starbucks’ Pumpkin Spice Latte. The coffee chain has sold roughly 424 million of the beverages worldwide, and we’d bet that the social media fervor over the PSL would be much less significant if it was available year-round.
There’s not just potatoes in the fries.
Sure, burgers have taken center stage at McDonald’s over the years, but the real star is the french fries. And though the winning recipe seems to taste the same after all these years, they’ve changed the cooking process a bit.
As reported by Wired, McDonald’s fried their fries in beef tallow (the bovine equivalent of lard) until 1990. The chain wanted to reduce their saturated fat levels, so they switched over to vegetable oil when New Kids on the Block were all the rage. Since then, McDonald’s has switched its oil twice more—each time to reduce trans fats, until they settled on a blend that was completely trans fat-free in 2008.
Since they got rid of the tallow, the fries would seem to be completely meat free. No such luck. Before the fry gets to McDonald’s, their suppliers partially fry the potatoes with beef flavoring to give them that addictive McDonald’s taste. Though that bit of beef may not seem like that big of a deal, it upset quite a few non-meat eaters. In fact, two Hindu vegetarians from Seattle sued the chain for their french fry deception in May 2001, according to ABC. McDonald’s said they never claimed the french fries were vegetarian friendly, though they eventually apologized for the hidden beef and settled the suit for $10 million.
There’s a specific technique to salting the fries.
Esquire worked at McDonald’s for less than a month, but she learned a special trick during her time there. When employees salt the fries, they’re instructed to do it in the shape of the golden arches. It’s not just to incorporate more McDonald’s branding into the lives of their employees, but by salting in that “M” shape, it covers all the golden fries in the perfect amount of salt. And by perfect, we mean an insane amount.
One medium french fry order contains 10 percent of the ideal sodium intake for the day. But add a Big Mac to that meal, and now it’s at nearly 50 percent of the recommended daily sodium intake, since we needed to worry about something besides calories for our fast food visits.
There’s an app for McFlurry access.
Okay, the food is full of sodium, dipped in beef, and fried in fat. But most of the time we don’t go to McDonald’s for a healthy treat. More often, it’s a last minute decision based on cravings and late night activities. Yes, fries and burgers are first on our mind on those late night trips, but sometimes we want something a little more special: the McFlurry.
The concrete treat is mysteriously delicious, but the ice cream machines at McDonald’s seem to be down about 95 percent of the time. Okay, that might be an exaggeration, but we’ve shown up with cash in hand to sate the McFlurry rumblies and gone home empty-handed quite a few times because the machine was down. But now there’s an app that lets users know which McDonald’s have working ice cream machines, so we’ll never have to go McFlurry-less again.
But why are the machines so moody? Some employees claim that they close the ice cream machine down early for cleaning, according to The Wall Street Journal. Since they don’t feel like sticking around after closing to clean the machine for one McFlurry order, they’ll shut all the ice cream down so they can close on time.
Now, this might sound a little lazy, but cleaning the McFlurry machine is no easy process: The Wall Street Journal also reported that the ice cream cleaning process took almost four hours! It had to go through an 11-part sterilization process, so it’s no wonder that the employees would want to shut it down early—who wants to spend the wee hours of the morning cleaning ice cream valves?
Luckily, McDonald’s announced that they’d be getting new ice cream machines for US and UK restaurants starting in March of 2017. Maybe they can get these down to at least a 10-part cleaning process so we can get a McFlurry at midnight with ease.
The McFlurry spoon is actually genius.
Now that we know why it’s so hard to get a McFlurry, there’s still one ice cream mystery left. Why is the spoon so weird? The McFlurry spoon is super thick, almost like a straw. But it’s closed at the end like a spoon. What’s up with that?
Well, the straw is a vital part of how the McFlurry is made. Workers put the soft serve ice cream in the cup, add the topping, then put spoon into the ice cream. The spoon is then attached to the stirring machine, giving you that glorious McFlurry swirl. The long straw-looking hole in the spoon the stirring device itself. So, it’s not just weird: It’s the most practical spoon ever.
They work hard for good Coke.
McDonald’s takes their Coke seriously. Actually, a lot of fans say that they have the best Coke around. The chain doesn’t change the Coca Cola recipe, but they are very careful with all the necessary ingredients.
Each restaurant uses extra filtered water for the soda and stores the cola in stainless steel containers. Since most places store their Coke syrup in plastic containers, that stainless steel might make a big difference. Caleb Backe, certified personal trainer and food, health, and wellness expert for Maple Holistics, says “Plastic has a tendency to rob Coca-Cola of its unique flavor—this is due to carbon dioxide issues, primarily.”
Stainless steel containers seal out carbon dioxide more effectively, so it doesn’t get a chance to alter the flavor of the soda. In the end, you really do get a stronger “Coke” flavor, according to Backe.
Even the straw is designed for ultimate Coke flavor. The drinking straw is wider than average, which allows the soda to hit more of your tongue at once for an extra dose of sugary soda with every sip. Who knew there was such a science behind sugar and bubbles?
Employees really wish you wouldn’t ask for your fries with “no salt.”
To be clear, if you actually prefer your McDonald’s french fries without salt, go ahead and order them that way. If, on the other hand, you’re ordering salt-free fries to try to “hack” the restaurant into giving you fresh fries, please rethink your decision.
The thinking behind the hack is that McDonald’s employees regularly salt all of their fries, so if you want the freshest possible spuds, you can ask for them without salt, then add the salt yourself. The employees will be forced to cook up a new batch, and you’ll walk away happy. Unfortunately, it’s also a pretty rude thing to do.
Salt-free fries actually require much more effort, since workers need to clean all of the salt off of the area where the fries sit before making your batch. If all you want are fresh fries, simply ask for them, and your servers will be happy to accommodate you.
When they ask you to pull forward and park, it’s for a good reason.
You’re making your way through the drive-thru, and your mouth is watering. The order window opens up…and the server tells you to pull to the front of the restaurant. What gives?
“From the moment you pull up to the menu, a bell dings and a timer starts in the kitchen,” wrote one Reddit user in an AskReddit thread on the subject. “You might notice it, [it’s a] black rectangle with red digital numbers.”
“The longer you take to order, the longer that timer runs. At the end of a shift, the managers check the time average on the computer. The longer the timer runs, the worse the average is, the more corporate breathes down the store’s neck.”
So, does that mean that the McDonald’s employees are trying to game the system by artificially improving their service times? Yes and no. They certainly want to cut their times down to a manageable figure, but remember, they’re graded based on averages—and if you ordered something that will take a few extra minutes, you’ll add to the times of every single customer in the line.
Most fast food workers say that they only tell customers to “pull forward and park” during lunch rushes and other peak periods. The goal isn’t to shave seconds off of the clock on a single order; it’s to keep the line moving and keep customers happy.
It can be depressing to work there, but not for the reasons you think.
No one sees a teenager sweating over a fryer for minimum wage and thinks “Gee, I wish I had that job.” Most people don’t have a lot of great things to say about working at any fast food establishment, and McDonald’s is no exception.
In fact, Esquire, even as a teenager, couldn’t stand working at the restaurant for more than a few weeks. But it wasn’t the grease, frozen patties, or four hour ice cream cleaning that got her down. Honestly, it was just too sad to work there.
Esquire says that every employee (at her McDonald’s in Idaho) got a free meal every day they worked. She’d usually turn it down, not being a huge fan of fast food. But one day, a family of six came to the counter. They ordered a No. 2 Value Meal (two cheeseburgers, a large fry, and a drink) and five waters. An entire family had to share one value meal—and it may have been their only meal of the day.
After seeing that struggling family, Esquire felt guilty.
“I was refusing food from a company that a family was scraping to share—it broke me,” she says. Just a few days after that order, she quit.
It’s easy to make fun of McDonald’s, but for some people, it’s all they have. Esquire saw extreme poverty every day on the job. Sure, she could deal with nuclear hot apple pies and smelling like fry oil—but seeing families try to survive on the Dollar Menu was just too heartbreaking.
In the end, McDonald’s is a strangely conflicting place. The food’s not necessarily good for you, but the company boasts about their fresh ingredients. The ice cream machines often act up, but we’ll create technology to curb our McFlurry cravings. And while the Ray Kroc and McDonald’s story is a classic tale of the American Dream, the restaurants now feed the poor with unhealthy food. Just like a greasy burger, McDonald’s is great at first, but after you sit with it for a few hours, it’s always not so pleasant.