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Totally Not Delusional Fast Food Company Wants to Become a San Francisco Foodie Destination

Testing the new burger bar at a Sutter Street McDonald's.

 

McDonald’s is a great American paradox; it’s one of the most successful business ventures in the history of the world, but seems to specialize in just being terrible at everything. With the ambiance of a Greyhound station and cuisine that’s the culinary equivalent of a hand grenade, you’d be forgiven for assuming that the 17 McDonald’s locations in San Francisco stay in business through luck, guile, and possibly some sort of deal with the devil.

Now the world’s biggest but least appealing dining institution is trying to reinvent itself for modern, cosmopolitan, dare we say San Franciscan tastes via its Create Your Taste campaign. At some locations, like the recently opened Sutter Street cafe (the first new McDonald’s built in the city in 18 years), you can customize a burger with distinctly un-McDonald’s ingredients, like cucumbers, grilled mushrooms, garlic aioli spread, and guacamole.

The crux of the program is personalization: You can stack a burger up with any combination of these new, would-be gourmand fixings. (A guy at a Create Your Taste McDonald's in Chicago ordered 10 of every ingredient, building a monstrosity that weighed nearly four pounds and cost $25.) Though management here doesn’t seem to like the F-word, it’s clear that the concept is McDonald’s for Foodies. 

Scott Rodrick, owner of the Sutter Street McDonald's as well as and 11 other San Francisco locations, understands whatever skepticism you're currently feeling. In fact, he’s quite frank about his own unvarnished view of the company after 26 years as a franchisee. When we stopped in for a bite yesterday, he went so far as to say he wants to provide “a very un-McDonald’s like experience” with his new venture. “The way people eat has changed, and we’ve been slow to keep up," he admits.

Rodrick, a Dartmouth graduate who walked away from a job in banking to become a franchise owner, is actually a second-generation McDonald's boss: His father was one of the very first East Coast McDonald's franchisees in the early '60s. “Ketchup flows in my veins, [but] I know that we’ve got to fix our core business," he says. Times are bad for the whole brand, but Rodrick is convinced he can turn it around here.

We know what you're thinking: Talk is cheap, but what about the food? We decided to take one for the team and try it. Our order: A quarter-pound burger on ciabatta bread, with grilled onions, grilled mushrooms, white cheddar, and barbecue sauce. We eyed our creation cautiously when it arrived. (Yes, they do table service.) Fancy trappings or not, we don’t trust a McDonald’s patty any more than you do. Rodrick and one of his VPs were right there with us, looking at the burger like proud papas. We regarded it more like the gun you play Russian Roulette with.

Summoning up all of our journalistic courage, we took a bite. And, God help us, reader, it wasn’t bad. In fact, we’d dare even call it good. The fixings were savory, the sauce slightly tangy, and the beef had some life to it, unlike the drab gray foam of a Big Mac. It's no KronnerBurger, but we dug it. A lot depends on your palate, but we will say: 1) It is far, far better than you’d anticipate; 2) it’s objectively better than any McDonald’s burger served to date; and 3) we would eat one again, something we've never said about anything served under the golden arches before.

Rodrick admits that the whole thing is a gamble, calling for expensive remodeling and doubling the size of his kitchen crew in hopes of bucking a worldwide exodus away from the company name. But his flagship endeavor is definitely a leg up on the status quo. “Tell me that isn’t the best burger you’ve ever had for $5.99?” asked a member of the team when we were done. You’ve got us: It probably was. That’s one McDonald's down, and a whole city to go.

 

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