Why is the McRib Only Offered Occasionally and Why so Randomly?
The McRib is a food with both a devout following and many detractors. But what is the genesis of the world’s most popular fast food chain’s most mysterious menu item? And why, oh why, is it not available all the time like the majority of the rest of the McDonald’s menu?
Cooking ribs in the Americas predates the colonial period. But the earliest records of Europeans cooking foods near what we would call barbeque were in colonial Virginia. Settlers observed a native way to cook meat, and they adapted it to their tastes. Later, as slaves were brought in from Caribbean plantations, the food genre we know as barbeque developed.
In fact, the word barbeque is a loan word from the Taino language of the Caribbean. It was originally called barbacoa. It is unclear whether the name comes from the native islander’s method of cutting the meat or the wooden frame on which the food was smoked. In any case, after it arrived in the North American colonies, it spread wherever pork was plentiful.
Important here to the story of the McRib is that barbeque, in the proper sense, is any meat that is slow-cooked over indirect heat, usually wood, and not merely meat with barbeque sauce on it. It can take up to eighteen hours to turn raw meat into barbeque for it to reach perfection. If brined first, it can take an additional day.
That is part of what makes the McRib a surprise. Rib joints usually slow-cook. Many places brine it before smoking. Additionally, cooking with a wood fire is inherently messy. Barbeque meat is also often hand butchered. None of this lends itself to a fast food chain that in 2011 had to abandon the idea of using celery root in one of its food items because to offer the item, McDonald’s would have had to buy all of the world’s celery root supply, and there still would not have been enough celery to meet the projected demand. A frequent problem for the restaurant chain that annually serves 1/27th of all restaurant food consumed in the world, and caters to about 1 percent of the world’s population on any given day.
This brings us to the McRib- a confluence of several people’s work and an accident of history. To wit, it exists because McDonald’s underestimated the demand for Chicken McNuggets and needed an additional item to offer to balance things out a bit.
The goal of a restaurant like McDonald’s, when adding a menu item, is either to bring in new customers that would not have eaten at a McDonald’s or to get existing customers to choose a higher margin item than they would have otherwise ordered. To do this, McDonald’s will test and then roll out new foods.
When a menu item is successful, like the Big Mac or Chicken McNuggets, McDonald’s needs a steady stream of ingredients to support the demand. It must also be at a price that leaves them a large enough margin to justify the work involved.
Enter the Chicken McNugget, which was a hit, but they couldn’t source enough chicken to meet demand. To the extent that new patrons were lost because they were turned away when they didn’t want a burger, McDonald’s was facing an opportunity cost. It needed to find an alternative dish that this new group liked or loved as well. To solve this, they turned to their new Executive Chef Rene’ Arend.
Rene’ Arend was from Luxembourg but trained as a chef in France. Graduating first in his class from College Technique Hotelier de Strasbourg, he was already a noted chef before joining McDonald’s. He had cooked in the world’s luxury hotels in Europe and the United States, serving movie stars such as Cary Grant or heads of state such as Queen Elizabeth.
In addition to the McRib, he helped introduce the Chicken McNugget, breakfast biscuits, salads, and the McChicken Sandwich. He joined McDonald’s because Ray Kroc was a patron at the restaurant he worked at. And Kroc pursued him until he left haute cuisine to join the business and improve the offerings.
In attempting to replace Southern Barbeque, he had to make a difficult to prepare food and generate something that would be similar enough to attract that crowd, but without all the time consuming issues. Although nobody at McDonald’s will talk about how he solved the problems, some things can be observed to unravel the mystery.
First, traditional southern barbeque is messy. It wouldn’t take too many children or teens eating traditional barbeque to make cleaning a frequent chore at the restaurant. The problem, of course, appears to have been solved by the bun. A little mess might sneak out, but no more than one would get from spilling ketchup from the side of a burger. This also helps ensure that the food item, like so many others at the chain, can be eaten while on the go.
The next problem to solve is how to take the one to two-day task of preparing the food that a rib shack might use and make it nearly instantly ready. This appears to be solved by making it something a little different- specifically observe that the McRib is closer to sausage in concept than a rib.
Chef Arend was from Luxembourg, which was once part of the German Confederation and the Holy Roman Empire before that. Sausages are a staple in Germany and in German cooking. Indeed, in addition to the traditional hot dog, bratwurst and knackwurst, well known in the Americas, German cuisine includes over two dozen other types of sausage.
The McRib isn’t a sausage but isn’t that far from one in concept. Sausages are a cured food made of a mixture of ground meat and spices combined with preservatives. They also tend to be slightly irregular in shape. The general description used is not as sausage but as a restructured meat product. While that sounds dreadfully industrial, it comes from work by the U.S. Army in its need to feed hundreds of thousands to, in some cases, millions of soldiers every day.
The original process was developed at what is now called the U.S. Army Natick Soldier System’s Center in Natick, Massachusetts. Natick’s Army labs are responsible for creating the military’s food, clothing, shelters, airdrop systems, and soldier support items.
The Army had already solved the problem of mass-producing a uniformly shaped, shelf-stable meat product. That process was adapted by Dr. Roger Mandigo, a meat scientist working for the Army, for McDonald’s.
The result is a mixture of pork shoulder and parts that might otherwise be discarded, such as pig hearts. Salt is used to extract the proteins, and that process allows the meat to be reshaped into anything. No meat from the ribs is used, although the McRib has seventy listed ingredients.
The process of taking fresh pork and turning it into a McRib patty takes about forty-five minutes. Processing plants butcher the hogs, the meat is chopped up, seasoned, and then transformed into the shape of ribs. It is then flash-frozen to keep it safe. A one to two-day process is turned into a less than one hour process when cooking at the restaurant is included.
Add in Chef Rene’s secret barbeque sauce, and you have a pork sandwich unlike any other. Nonetheless, many dishes could be on McDonald’s menu that are not, such as escargot. It doesn’t just have to taste good; it has to accomplish McDonald’s corporate goals.
In its most recent annual report to its shareholders, McDonald’s states that its goals are to:
- retain existing customers,
- regain customers that visit less often than they used to, and
- to convert casual customers to committed customers.
Its report says it does so by competing on the basis of price, convenience, service, experience, menu variety, and product quality.
Those disclosures provide us with the next clue as to why the McRib appears and then disappears in the American market but is a constant staple in, for example, the German market.
Economists classify markets in a variety of ways. One of those is by measuring how much power a firm has, or at least potentially has, over the price of the goods it sells. To use the phrasing of Warren Buffett, all firms would like to put a moat around their value creation process so that nobody can plunder their customers.
Pirates don’t just sail on ships; they also live throughout the corporate world. McDonald’s leading role in the restaurant industry is secure only to the extent it can continue to outcompete its peers who often are capable of being much more nimble given they don’t have the supply chain problems a behemoth like McDonald’s has. So, McDonald’s is never secure unless it makes itself so.
When McDonald’s entered the chicken fast food market in 1979 with the Chicken McNugget, there was little competition. Although the food had been developed during the ’50s and was similar to a schnitzel, it changed that market when McDonald’s added it. Now, chicken tenders and various forms of chicken nuggets are not only sold in a huge percentage of restaurants, but they can be purchased at the grocery store.
To retain value, McDonald’s usually engages in the form of competition that economists call monopolistic competition. The term was coined in 1933 by the economist Edward Chamberlin. His book was published at about the same time a book describing the same phenomenon was published by Joan Robinson. Both books study the idea of firms working in markets with imperfect competition.
At the two extremes in economics are firms that are in perfect competition and at the opposite end when only one firm produces a good. Firms like McDonald’s sit in that precarious middle ground.
Firms that find themselves in markets with perfect competition compete on price only. They cannot do things to keep new firms out of their markets. Customers are willing to walk away at any time.
Suppose that for some reason, customers are suddenly willing to pay more. In that case, excess profits are made only so long as nobody notices that they could fill the gap by entering into competition with existing firms. Generally, the business world is so competitive that such opportunities to earn excess profits are grabbed quickly.
Because of this, firms in perfectly competitive markets often attempt to create value-added opportunities to escape downright cutthroat competition. For example, dairy farms produce an entirely uniform set of products such as whole milk, skim milk, and so forth. Milk from one farm will more or less taste like milk from another farm, with the caveat that diet can affect the taste. But in practice, price alone tends to determine which milk is bought.
Some dairy farmers escape this trap by turning their milk into ice cream for the local market- farm-fresh, homemade, preservative-free ice cream.
As long as other local farmers do not enter that market, that farmer will have a monopoly on farm-fresh, homemade ice cream, but not on ice cream itself. That creates a situation where a farmer is able to charge a premium for ice cream that, by nature of being local, typically will also contain fewer costly chemicals than their competitors and cutting out just as costly long-distance shipping.
While McDonald’s would love to become a monopolist, it is probably impossible to count the number of restaurants in the world that sell hamburgers. McDonald’s could compete on price, but it would have to sacrifice any excess profits it could earn if it did.
Thus, like the local dairy farmer making ice cream and selling it in a local ice cream stand, McDonald’s wants to add value to the customer’s experience of their burger. McDonald’s would be a fool to compete on price alone and, if anything has been shown, McDonald’s management is not made up of fools.
Instead, McDonald’s creates innovations to give its patrons things that other firms can’t, or in some cases simply don’t. For example, McDonald’s is the largest toy distributor in the world, outstripping Hasbro and Mattel. It distributes over 1.5 billion toys per year with the Happy Meal, starting the world’s population young on getting accustomed to eating at McDonald’s.
For example, in 1997, McDonald’s sold 100 million Happy Meals in one week when they introduced the Teenie Beanie Baby. McDonald’s wants you to want to pay it more money than you would for a generic offering and they use every trick in the book to accomplish this.
Indeed, that the McRib has a cult-like following is a clue why it appears and disappears. There used to be a web tracker of McDonald’s restaurants offering the McRib so that McRib aficionados could travel to find the sandwich when not locally available. This allowed families a way to plan a family trip to find and eat McRibs, even if quite a distance away.
All producers want that type of fierce loyalty to their products.
But here’s the thing, the McRib was first introduced in 1981 and 1982. It had been test-marketed in the midwest and was a hit. However, as it rolled out nationally, sales were unspectacular and disappointing in general.
Most people would expect that a product with disappointing sales would never be seen again, but that ignores a monopolist’s goal: to sell something that nobody else has. Instead of looking at the sandwich as a failure, it may have been that the marketing that was a failure. After all, the McRib wasn’t really built to explode onto the market, but to fill the void created by inadequate chicken supplies and cater to the same customer so they had an alternative.
In 1985 it was taken off the menu, but it reappeared again in 1989, this time with a new marketing campaign. It would appear and disappear roughly annually, each time with a new way to market it.
Each time it reintroduced the McRib, McDonald’s management learned new things about the patrons that liked and, eventually, loved their sandwich.
And so it was that McDonald’s next move was to expand its market by creative product placement.
In the summer of 1994, the Flintstones movie came out. Based on the beloved television cartoon, the movie gave McDonald’s a way to get the McRib in front of a new generation of possible future customers.
By the time the movie came out, two generations had watched the Flinstones either when it first aired or in syndication. When the Flintstones first came out, there were only three television networks. The Internet did not exist yet. There was nothing similar to a streaming service. It meant that things that happened on television were a nationally shared experience.
The Flintstones, the brainchild of William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, was not a kids’ show. It was a show made for adults and a parody of the television of the day. No animated show was watched more until The Simpsons came out.
In the credits for the original series, the Flintstones family goes to a drive-in theater during the opening credits after Fred gets off work. Drive-ins, now almost extinct, were all over the U.S. in the early ’60s. The family goes to a small drive-in restaurant that sells brontosaurus burgers and ribs in the ending credits.
Ordering the ribs, the family waits with a small tray attached to their car. They are brought an order of Bronto ribs that is larger than their vehicle. The waitress, setting the ribs on the tiny tray, ultimately causes the car to tip over, and the show closes until next week.
McDonald’s teamed up with the movie and turned McDonald’s into Roc Donalds. It brought back the McRib and temporarily offered the Grand Poobah Meal. It sold Flintstones toys and glass mugs.
Once this promotion ended, McDonald’s went back to offering it intermittently and regionally until 2005. Still, it had introduced the meal to kids.
In November 2005, McDonald’s announced that it would no longer be carrying the McRib and started the McRib Farewell Tour. McDonald’s created a petition to save the McRib under the assumed name as the “Boneless Pig Farmer’s Association of America.”
The Farewell Tour was so successful that McDonald’s decided to cancel the sandwich again in 2006 and have a second Farewell Tour. Its success led to a third and finally a fourth Farewell tour, after which it was returned to regional menus for intermittent release.
The McRib was reintroduced nationally in 2010, but only for six weeks, beginning with the Legends of the McRibs campaign.
Since then, the McRib has continued with limited reintroductions for what appear to be scheduled amounts of time in specific markets. It arrives with fanfare and is suddenly gone again. Everyone that wants the McRib knows the clock is ticking once it is there.
So what is McDonald’s doing? It is controlling its profit equation.
Psychologists have studied reward schedules, and random rewards produce higher response rates. Steady, stable rewards deliver lower rates. For example, hourly pay results in less work than commissioned income, especially if the commissions arrive at uneven points in time.
By artificially restricting the supply and making location and timing uncertain, McDonald’s is priming the pump to get more people in its doors. On the other side of the equation, McDonald’s has been noted as releasing the McRib when pork prices are near their bottom.
It is important to remember than when McDonald’s decides to sell a pork item nationally, it may be buying up pretty much all the pork available, and it does not want to drive up the cost of its breakfast items such as the Sausage McMuffin.
The McRib is no longer needed as an emergency substitute for chicken. McDonald’s chicken supplies are now ample and stable, but the McRib still plays a role in bringing in patrons and their families that will come for the sandwich and nothing else. The amount of time it remains on the market is likely dependent on how much pork can be purchased at a profitable price.
Unlike some regional foods, such as the McLobster roll or its Peaches and Mango Pie, the McRib has an international following, and the world’s pork supply is not diminishing. It is always available in Germany and Luxembourg for the obvious reason, it is profitable, and McDonald’s is paid a premium to continuously offer it. To be continuously offered in the United States, either people’s tastes would have to change, or the price of pork relative to other foods would have to change. In the meantime, McDonald’s has found a way to use an otherwise unpopular, but relatively unique, product in the fast food world to bring in more consumers and maximize profits overall, both on that product itself, and others at their restaurants.
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