Culture Features

October 22, 2014 at 8:00 am

When Fast Food Slows Down

You know the market for artisinal, craft foods is booming when some of the world’s biggest food companies try to cash in on the action. Fast food and soda have been scrambling to stay relevant with that key group of consumers you hear so much about – millennials. Sales of cheap, sweet sodas, burgers, fries, tacos, and more have been slowing for a decade or more.


Per capita soda consumption in the United States has been in decline since 1998 according to industry magazine Beverage Digest. And it’s not just the United States that’s turning away from sodas. Mexico, which recently became the most obese country in the world, passed a soda tax in January 2014. Until recently, the average resident consumed half a liter of soda every day. Adding a one-peso tax (approximately $0.07) per liter may have slowed consumption by as much as 10 percent according to preliminary public health studies.

per capita soft drink consumption food politic

The food industry has to keep innovating if they want to succeed. These days, that innovation involves two buzzwords: artisanal and fast casual. Large food companies like Coca-Cola and General Mills have been buying up successful natural and organics brands for years. Most recently, General Mills paid an astonishing $820 million for Annie’s—the boxed Mac and Cheese for those who don’t think Kraft is what’s for dinner. During a 2012 trade show, Coca-Cola’s chief procurement officer Ron Lewis said that their company’s growth targets required some “disruptive innovation.” They’re not alone in adopting a start-up mentality. McDonald’s, the first fast food company to use an assembly line system, has been quietly remodeling their restaurants to look more cultured than cheap.

You may have already seen the evidence of the interior makeovers that will cost McDonald’s more than $1 million. They involve replacing the ketchup-and-mustard color scheme with more earth tones and glass, free wi-fi, and an atmosphere that invites customers to have a burger and relax. After the success of fast-casual chains like Panera and Chipotle, McDonald’s is willing to reinvent if it means remaining the MVP of fast food. McDonald’s even gave their mascot a millennial makeover in early 2014.

ronald mcdonald makeover

Now McDonald’s is even experimenting with build-a-burger kiosks. A few locations in Southern California were the first to try the DIY approach which is now expanding to Australia. The Create Your Taste kiosks allow customers to choose from various buns, toppings, and sauces. If you want to eat your food in the new adult-friendly McDonald’s, a server will bring the made to order creation to your table in a wire basket. It’s a far cry from the assembly line production that made McDonald’s a household name. Predictably, not everyone is a fan. As one customer wrote on Yelp, “If I want to build a burger I will cook one at home.” Yet others praise the chain’s efforts to bring themselves into the twenty-first century where “have it your way” is more than just a Burger King slogan. What’s more, the company will be able to track popular orders, potentially showing them the combinations that could make McDonald’s next big hit.

Menu changes at large food corporations like McDonald’s can often take years of market research and product testing. One major research project of the fast food chain focused on their Australian market combined “two-hour, one-on-one interviews with 35 people” and “telephone interviews with 2,602 people” according to a case study by the Australian Financial Review. Conducting studies like that requires time and money. Tracking customers’ orders from Create Your Taste kiosks will give McDonald’s an accurate picture of what consumers want in real time.

Like another Yelper who visited Laguna Niguel’s McDonald’s said, “If this location is the future of the chain, then the future is looking good.”

The food giants are remodeling and diversifying – trying to cash in on the growing market for sustainable, hand-crafted foods. The days of being content to simply purchase companies like Zico coconut water, Odwalla, or Honest Tea are over. Now soda companies are creating “artisanal” products of their own. It’s a practice beer giants like MillerCoors have been using for decades. Blue Moon, a “craft” beer from Colorado is actually made by MillerCoors and has been since its inception in 1995. Its parent company is conveniently left out of marketing materials, leading to accusations of consumer fraud from the Brewers Association.

calebs kola

Earlier this month, Pepsi released Caleb’s Kola to select CostCo locations on the East Coast. Named after Caleb Bradham, the pharmacist who created the Pepsi formula in the 1890s, Caleb’s Kola is an industrial artisanal beverage positioned to appeal precisely to the millennial market soda is losing. The drink comes in glass bottles and plays on as many buzzwords and food trends as Pepsi’s advertising agency could think of. The About page of the Caleb’s Kola website reads, “Our kola recipe is comprised of a blend of sustainable Fair Trade cane sugar, kola nuts from Africa, a special blend of spices from around the world, and a hint of citrus.” They even list suggested tags for customers to use on social media: #honorincraft, #obsessed, #food, #mixology, #craft, #art, #music. It’s basically a hashtag summary of life in Brooklyn.

The strangest part of this is that marketing often portrays products being used by the type of person we aspire to be. Advertising that shows fashionable, successful, beautiful young people with their friends is selling it to everyone who wishes they were those things. What this means is that Pepsi has determined a segment of us wants to become someone straight out of the television show “Girls”. An even more uncomfortable realization? I’m not sure that they’re wrong.

As a twenty-five-year-old resident of Brooklyn, it’s odd to know that I’m the target of every single one of these campaigns. In my college years, I regularly stocked up on Annie’s at the grocery store. Had I been five years younger, that mac and cheese money would have been going directly to General Mills.

Craft sodas? If I find an intriguing one on a restaurant menu, I have to try it. (I most recently succumbed to a strawberry shrub soda at a restaurant in my neighborhood.) I don’t eat at McDonald’s but do frequent Bareburger, a New York-based franchise that lists elk and ostrich meat among their burger patty offerings. Tables in their restaurants are often made from reclaimed wood and they put those biodegradable paper straws in their sodas that tend to fall apart half-way through your drink. Though they have suggested combinations, you can always build your own burger from scratch.

As much as I’d like to, it’s hard to fault these companies for finding ways to appeal to people like me and getting it right. But, a build-your-own-burger kiosk is very different from a faux-artisinal soda. When you use one of McDonald’s Create Your Taste kiosks, you’re still standing in a McDonald’s. It’s still the same fast food patty – there are just more options. Pepsi might be fooling someone with their glass bottles and their “Kola” with a K but they’re not fooling me.

On its own, I would welcome a Fair Trade, sugar cane-sweetened soda. “Pepsi Fair Trade” has a nice (albeit greenwashed) tone to it. Some people like diet sodas, others want theirs made with real sugar. They’d be remiss not to provide people with that option. But why do these companies feel the need to masquerade their products as something they’re not? Once again, they’re missing the whole point of why artisanal products appeal to someone like me. There’s a story behind them and a person – and both of those things are real. Craft is more than just ad-copy. I keep hoping big food companies will remember that before sliding the next “hand-crafted” food product onto an assembly line.

-Tove K. Danovich