A Former McDonald's Chef Revealed How They Come Up With New Menu Items & It Can Take Years
"It is a corporate dance." 🍟
Every month, it seems like McDonald's is cooking up and releasing new menu items that can be good, bad or just plain confusing for some.
And that might get you wondering who is behind these new concoctions coming to McDonald's restaurants regularly.
Well, between the years of 2015 and 2019, that answer would have been Chef Mike Haracz, who was the Manager of Culinary Innovation for new menu items at McDonald's in the United States.
Through his time at McDonald's, he was involved with making, marketing and distributing new menu items to McDonald's locations and, after having left the company, has garnered a massive TikTok following with his behind-the-scenes knowledge of the fast food chain.
How exactly does a new item hit stores these days? Who needs to say yes and what is the process behind it? Well, Haracz has been a part of every step of that process and has the low down to how the new, wild and exciting items are made.
So, how does an idea for a new item get made in the modern era? Well, like so many things these days, it's through the world of marketing.
"Usually, and especially at McDonald's but with many major food manufacturers and other restaurants, it's marketing," explained Haracz.
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"Marketing will come up with some kind of briefs that would explain 'this is what we're looking for, this is why we eat it,'" explained Haracz.
"The fun part is when marketing is pretty loose with the requirements and is like 'Hey, we want something spicy!'" which allows the chefs to have a little more creative liberty with the food.
However, according to Haracz, "A lot of the time, that's not what happens" and the marketing department is usually looking for something more specific.
From there, the chefs and operations specialists dive into making something that fits the requirements laid out by the marketing folks. Their goal is to create a "gold standard" item that can be the template for what the item should, or could, look like across all McDonald's restaurants in the United States.
But, as you would expect with a company of that size, it's not as simple as making a new burger and then it going out to market. There are seemingly a million and one different things that need to be accounted for when rolling things out nationally.
And one of the biggest hurdles and things to contend with is something called operations.
Along with food preparation, "operation would be anything from, is the product showing up at the restaurant's door? what do we do with it? How do you handle it? What does the case look like?" and more, explained Haracz.
Think of it as all the practical parts of introducing a new item. Do restaurants have room for it in their fridges and freezers? Can it be made with the items currently in stock, or does there need to be a new shipment?
All of these things go into figuring out if an item is viable.
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To put it into perspective, Haracz explains that if you have a new sauce for an item with a different viscosity, can it have a massive ripple effect across the roughly 14,000 McDonald's locations in the United States?
"[A] single restaurant that's not a McDonald's might go, 'We'll just cut the little tip of the squeeze bottle a little bigger and then it'll come out.' [However, at a McDonald's, if you do that] if you're using that squeeze bottle for something else now, it's not going to be portioned right," said Haracz.
"That squeeze bottle is now only for that sauce [and] you need to buy another bottle for this one. 14,000 squeeze bottles cost a lot of money," the former McDonald's employee explained.
So, any new food innovations must be highly thought over before they get to the store level.
Okay, after the operations, food and marketing people are happy, what next?
"Let's put it in a couple of restaurants and test it out," he shared.
Interestingly enough, for the United States, these test locations for new menu items are apparently often in the state of Ohio, the chef said. While it might seem a bit random to an outsider, there is a reason. It's because Ohio is highly diverse from a customer standpoint.
"It has a melting pot of consumers," said Haracz. "Race, income level, single versus couples, all those kinds of things so that McDonald's could get reads from different kinds of consumers."
These new menu items will then sit and be fully orderable by customers in these locations to see how they do.
And you might be thinking that if the new item does well in these test markets, it can then be launched nationally. Well, you'd be wrong!
The next step is for the company to run the "business case" by the owner and operators, local McDonald's franchisees, who will then vote on whether or not they want the product in their stores.
The final vote
"The owner-operators and franchisees have a lot of influence," said Haracz.
McDonald's corporate will lay out the details, the low-end and high-end sales and the operational aspects of the new menu item. What happens next is up to the people running local McDonald's locations.
"So then all the work I just did [developing a menu item], owner-operators don't want to put it in restaurants, so then it does not get on the menu," said Haracz.
"Even though our data might say customers want it, owner-operators have their own plans and ideas of how things should be and what they should have on the menu," he said.
"It is a corporate dance of trying to make everybody happy," explained Haracz.
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Okay, you must be thinking that if the owner-operators and franchisees like an item and want to carry it, it must finally be coming out now, right?
With a restaurant chain as big as McDonald's, you need to make sure you have the supply to make the new item, which can take a long time, depending on the item.
"If we want to make a change to something that's chicken-related, now we're going to sell more chicken," said Haracz.
"We need more chickens grown and into our infrastructure, so we need to wait for chickens to hatch and grow, be processed, frozen and put in storage," they explained.
Or if they wanted to introduce something like blueberries into the menu, they might have to wait a full year until the next growing season to make sure they have enough supply to make it happen.
And then, once all that is secured and, sometimes, years of work have gone into it, you might finally be able to enjoy that new menu item from McDonald's.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.