By Chris Dunn
Earlier this year, McDonald’s introduced a new item to its breakfast menu, Fruit and Maple Oatmeal, which has been designated by San Antonio’s Healthy Restaurants Coalition as an official ¡Por Vida! menu choice. The honor is awarded to dishes that suggest a balanced diet consisting of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low fat dairy and lean protein.
We spoke with McDonald’s chef Dan Coudreaut, director of culinary innovation, about the product:
How did the idea to add oatmeal to the McDonald’s breakfast menu come about?
When I looked at our breakfast menu, I stood back and I said, “Where’s our gap? What do we need at breakfast?” Back when I worked at a hotel or a restaurant, oatmeal was always on the menu. So, I saw that as a gap.
So how did you develop the idea?
Very collaboratively. … I work with a lot of chefs … the chefs I’m talking about are the supplier community within McDonald’s that support McDonald’s, such as Price’s, McCormick, GFS (Gordon Food Services), Cargill, Fresh Express, Marilyn Farms. They have culinary resources that are available to us, and a large part of my job is to make sure I’m networking with them.
What happens when you and the other chefs get together?
It’s a very dynamic environment … as we’re working shoulder to shoulder, banter back and forth, ideas only get better.
What were the results that you came up with?
The apples on top were very visually appealing and pleasantly unexpected; the maple brown sugar had a familiar and very comforting flavor profile. And then we had to go and test it in our restaurants.
So, how do you test market a new item?
What we’ll do is … we’re asking our guest what he thinks: What do you think of the size? What do you think of the value? What do you think of the appearance? What do you think of the taste? We do that at focus groups, we do it at operation tests (which means four restaurants). Then it might get into an advertised sales test — that’s about 500 restaurants, where you’re actually producing a commercial for it and spending a million dollars on that …
(After further studies are made on profitability and to make sure the item is not taking away from sales of other items, then) if everything feels right, we’re in business.
So how long did this menu item take to develop?
It was probably about three years. The Smoothie took even longer, 4-5 years, because we had to custom build a machine for McDonald’s.
What is the most important aspect of a new item?
Taste is always going to have to be king. You want to put something healthy on the menu, but if people don’t eat it and it goes in the garbage, it’s not doing anybody any good. … So, the challenge I have is how to make it balanced and have good nutrients but also taste good.
Have you ever had an idea for a new item that didn’t work out?
When I was trying to figure out the idea for the Snack Wrap, one of the ideas all the chefs were very excited about was the Tacodilla. We made a quesadilla, and then we put a piece of chicken in it, then we added some sauce, and we wrapped it up so that you had quesadilla in a taco. And the guests didn’t get it. They hated it.
But I don’t look at them as failures — you build upon them to get you to an answer that you might not have known.
Chris Dunn is a San Antonio-based food writer.