The Short, Strange Life of McDonald's Pizza

CollectingCandy // Chloe Effron
CollectingCandy // Chloe Effron

In the 1980s, McDonald’s was as dominant as any fast food chain could hope to be. Possibly the world’s most-recognized brand, McDonald's was double the size of its closest competitor, owning nearly 40% of the $48 billion burger market. It had successfully branched out from cow-and-potato menu standards with the introduction of the Chicken McNugget. Before long, Happy Meals were being used everywhere to soothe the siren wails of hungry, manipulative children.

There was just one asterisk. McDonald's didn’t do dinner.

Specifically, its customers didn’t do dinner. Not there. Sacks of burgers were perceived as a lunchtime treat, something to be grabbed while speeding to or from the responsibilities of the day. When families got together in the evenings, they preferred to sit down, relax, and eat at a table rather than slumped over a steering wheel.

McDonald’s had been forced to break the mold before: In 1973, they attracted early-morning traffic by introducing the Egg McMuffin. Critics scoffed, but the sandwich was a breakfast phenomenon that led to an entire menu of a.m. options. There were millions—billions, even—to be earned in duplicating that success after 4 p.m.

It did not go unnoticed that the most sensational restaurant category in recent memory was pizza. Big chains like Pizza Hut and independent parlors were growing by 10 percent each year. Americans loved their pies. They also loved McDonald’s.

In 1986, word began to spread: McDonald's had secret plans to take a bite out of the ever-growing pizza industry.

It was not, for any real length of time, actually called "McPizza." 

That name was used for a calzone-style product that was tested briefly in the 1980s, presumably so drivers would be able to eat without being distracted by molten cheese in their lap. It was also not the only prototype: In Utah, one consumer, Jeff Terry, recalls picking up a cardboard pouch stuffed with a mini pie that had an expiration date embossed on the dough. Local parlors, he says, advertised that their pizza didn’t need to be dated for freshness.

None of these McPizzas evolved beyond regional testing, making it clear that the pizza itself could not be easily re-imagined to conform to the McDonald’s template. Instead, McDonald’s would have to conform to the pizza, upending their preparation model to accommodate the saucer-shaped dinner.

The company spent years developing a quick-cook oven (which was later patented) that used superheated air to take dough from frozen to crispy in under six minutes. Speed was a crucial component of the rollout—early commercials promised consumers had never had pizza "so good, so fast"—so diners wouldn't be tempted to stick with established chains or local pizzerias.

The oven made a solid pie, but it came at the expense of kitchen real estate: franchisees were going to have to remodel their restaurants to make room for the new equipment, including a warming bin.

Next came the problem of drive-thru orders. While McDonald’s planned to offer table service for family-sized pizzas indoors, a large box could not fit through many older drive-thru windows, which had to be expanded in order to accommodate the new menu selection. Executives also wanted a window that could show people near the cashier how their pies were being prepared. This, too, required more renovation, with stores stretching and contorting to handle the corporate strategy.

Expanded testing of the pizza began in 1989. Roughly 24 restaurants in or near Evansville, Indiana and Owensboro, Kentucky were selected to participate. After spending much of the decade tinkering, McDonald’s was ready to see if they could become the country’s biggest supplier of pizza. Unfortunately, not everyone shared that ambition.

"Don’t make a McStake," urged an advertisement for an Illinois-area Pizza Hut. As the world’s largest pizza chain, the idea that McDonald’s could use their sizeable footprint to muscle in on their business was unthinkable.

''Every place you see a McDonald's pizza, you're going to see a war,'' ad man Jack Levy told the New York Times in 1989.

Pizza Hut lobbed grenades, referring to the competition’s "McFrozen" dough and offering two-for-one pie deals. Even without their pressure, McDonald’s was having problems. Fast food was virtually their reason for existing, but the pizza service was glacial. Pizza insiders speculated their vaunted 5-minute prep time could wind up being 10 minutes or more once restaurants got busy. Sure enough, employees had to tell customers to park their car and wait for pizzas; patrons inside watched their hamburgers grow cold while politely waiting for a friend’s pie to finish baking. (It didn’t help that the company's own advertising featured a man reading a newspaper while waiting for his order.) McDonald’s sole advantage over the competition—expedited food—wasn’t happening.

There was also the matter of cost: at $5.99 to $8.99 a pie, consumers were being asked to spend far more than they had come to expect. Two pies for a family, plus drinks, could easily top $15.  

Still, the company refused to believe McDonald's-endorsed pizza could miss. By some estimates, pies expanded to nearly 40 percent of their restaurants in the early 1990s but disappeared just as quickly. They survived a little longer in Canada, with Howie Mandel hustling for the company in ads. In 2012, McDonald’s Canada came as close as the corporation ever has to publicly offering a reason for their pizza’s demise. In a response to a question posted on their web site:

“Although it was a popular menu item in Canada, the preparation time was about 11 minutes—which was way too long for us. Every McDonald's has a busy kitchen and the pizza slowed down our game. And since speed of service is a top priority and expected by our customers, we thought it best to remove this menu item. For now, our pizzas will have to remain a tasty bit of history.”

Jason Meredith, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Junk food nostalgia works in mysterious ways.

Although McDonald’s pizza failed to meet the company’s expectations, its brief life made for some happy memories. In early 2015, a story on Canada.com went viral when it reported that two restaurants—one in Pomeroy, Ohio and one in Spencer, West Virginia—were still offering pizza to customers.  

Both locations are owned by the same franchisee, Greg Mills, who has ignored repeated requests by media for comment. But he’s likely not acting autonomously: menu items are screened by corporate headquarters. In order for McDonald’s pizza to still be served (even if it's not exactly the same recipe as before), the company must be offering approval on some level, possibly with an eye on revitalizing pizza. (In 2000, the company flirted with the idea of putting personal-sized pies into Happy Meals.)

If they do ever bring back the dish, it will still require some patience. Billy Wolfe, a reporter from the Charleston Daily Mail, wanted to try the now-mythological food and waited 10 minutes at the West Virginia location for his order to arrive. He brought the pies back to his office for a consensus, and while everyone fancied themselves a food critic (some said it was "bland" and the sauce was "a little too sweet," while Wolfe's take was that it "wasn’t offensive, but it wasn’t great"), all of the pieces were devoured, and one co-worker offered some apt perspective: "It's as good as McDonald's pizza could be."


13 Salty Facts About Mr. Peanut

Mr. Peanut attends the 90th annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City.
Mr. Peanut attends the 90th annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City.
Noam Galai/Getty Images

On January 22, 2020, in a morbid bit of pre-Super Bowl marketing, Planters took to the internet to announce that Mr. Peanut—the dapper little legume who has been peddling Planters peanuts for more than a century—has died at the ripe old age of 104. In order to pay tribute to the literal face of America's peanut industry, we’ve assembled some facts and history about this shell of a man.

1. Mr. Peanut was created by a 14-year-old.

Mr. Peanut wasn’t hatched from a cynical ad firm brainstorming session. His adorable visage was the product of a 14-year-old from Suffolk, Virginia named Antonio Gentile. Gentile entered a contest held by the Planters Chocolate and Nut Company in 1916 to crown a new peanut mascot. The aspiring Don Draper sketched out a doodle of a “Mr. P. Nut” strutting with a cane. After getting freshened up by a graphic designer—including donning his trademark spats and monocle—Gentile’s design was picked up and he was awarded $5.

(Postscript: The Gentile family became friendly with the Obici family, owners of the Planters empire, and Gentile’s nephews once suggested that the Obicis helped put him through medical school; he became a surgeon.)

2. Mr. Peanut has a full name.

According to Planters, Mr. Peanut is something of an informal moniker. The full name given to him by Gentile was Bartholomew Richard Fitzgerald-Smythe.

3. Mr. Peanut once weighed more than 300 pounds.

Although peanuts can be a highly sensible snack, full of healthy fats and protein, they can also be a source of too many calories. Case in point: the 300-pound cast iron Mr. Peanut, a display item made in the 1920s and 1930s. Planters would use the heavyset mascot on top of a fence post at their Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania factory.

4. Mr. Peanut survived the Great Depression.

During the economic downturn of the 1930s, things like “snacks” and “nutrition” suddenly became optional rather than expected. Though many food products struggled to cope with slimmed-down wallets, Planters plastered Mr. Peanut on bags of peanuts that sold for just five cents each. Declaring it a “nickel lunch,” the company was able to use the affordability of peanuts as a selling point.

5. Mr. Peanut went to war.


Getty Images

Specifically, World War II. When the U.S. entered the conflict, Mr. Peanut volunteered for service as a character featured on stamps and propaganda posters.

6. Mr. Peanut is a monocle enthusiast.

Food mascots rarely take sides on hot-button issues, but Mr. Peanut made an exception in 2014 when a fashion movement threatened the return of the monocle. After getting wind of men wearing the single-lens reading accessory, Mr. P issued a press release stating that he took notice of the “hipsters” following in his “stylish footsteps” and implied few could pull it off. The monocle has yet to fully re-emerge.

7. Mr. Peanut's Nutmobile predates the Wienermobile.


Planters

Though the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile usually takes most of the engine-driven PR credit, Planters actually introduced the NUTMobile, a shell-shaped portable advertising car, in 1935—a year prior to the Wienermobile’s introduction. A Planters salesman designed and drove the car, adding a decorative Mr. Peanut passenger behind him. (Mr. Peanut did not operate the vehicle because Mr. Peanut is not real.)

8. Mr. Peanut is in the Smithsonian.

How influential has Mr. Peanut been to the food industry? In 2013, the Smithsonian admitted his cast-iron incarnation into its National Museum of American History. The statue was exhibited as part of a series on marketing for the institution’s American Enterprise series; Antonio Gentile’s family also donated his original sketches for posterity.

9. Fans didn't want Mr. Peanut to change.


Planters

For the company's 100th anniversary in 2006, Planters held an online vote to see whether peanut aficionados wanted to see Mr. Peanut experiment with a sartorial change: Fans could vote for adding cufflinks, a bow tie, or a pocket watch. In the end, the ballot determined they wanted to keep him just the way he is.

10. Mr. Peanut has a fan club.

Mr. Peanut has appeared in so many different licensed products in an effort to expand his popularity—clocks, peanut butter grinders, and coloring books among them—that a collector was having trouble keeping track of them all. In 1978, Judith Walthall founded Peanut Pals, a Mr. Peanut appreciation club that circulates a newsletter and holds conventions. You can join for $20—practically peanuts.

11. Mr. Peanut has remained mostly silent.


mazmedia via YouTube

Mr. Peanut was already a few decades old when television came into prominence, which afforded him an opportunity to jump off packaging and magazine pages. Despite the new medium, Planters decided they liked him best when he didn’t talk—at all. The mascot was silent all the way up until 2010, when Robert Downey Jr. was commissioned to deliver his first lines. Bill Hader took over voicing duties from Downey in 2013.

12. Mr. Peanut found a buddy.

When Planters unveiled an updated Mr. Peanut for contemporary audiences in 2010, he was sporting a grey flannel suit as well as a new sidekick—Benson, a shorter, single-peanut tagalong. A Planters spokesman clarified to The New York Times that the two are “just friends” and live in separate residences.

13. In the 1970s, Mr. Peanut ran for Mayor of Vancouver.

Amid a burgeoning alternative art scene in 1970s Vancouver, a performance artist named Vincent Trasov decided it would be interesting to run for mayor of the city while in the guise of Mr. Peanut. Hailing from the “Peanut Party” and meant to be a commentary of the Nixon-era absurdities of politics, he was endorsed by novelist William S. Burroughs and received 2685 ballots—3.4 percent of the vote.

Here's Why the Coke at McDonald's Is So Good

Mario Tama, iStock via Getty Images
Mario Tama, iStock via Getty Images

Not every cup of Coke is created equal. If you're a McDonald's customer who can't resist ordering a large Coke with your Big Mac and fries, you may suspect that the soda from the fast food chain is superior to versions found elsewhere. It's not childhood nostalgia warping your taste buds: McDonald's takes steps to ensure their Coke really does taste better than the competitor's.

Coca-Cola is serious about preserving its secret formula, and the drink you get at McDonald's is made from the same ingredients that you'd get in a can from a vending machine. The difference lies in the way McDonald's treats those ingredients right up to the moment they fill your cup.

Most Coke syrup is shipped to restaurants in plastic bags, but for McDonald's, one of the company's most profitable partners, Coca-Cola sends the product in stainless steel drums. This material is better at preserving the ingredients and keeping them fresh by the time they arrive at their destination.

The second reason the Coke at McDonald's tastes so good has to do with temperature. Instead of storing water for the soda in the soda fountain like many restaurants do, the chain uses insulated tubes to transport it from the fridge directly to the dispenser when it's ready to be poured. In addition to tasting great, colder liquid is also better at trapping CO2 bubbles and keeping drinks fizzy for longer.

A major difference between the Coke you have at McDonald's and a Coke you might have at home is that the McDonald's soda is nearly always enjoyed with ice and a straw. These are the final elements that make its Coke special. McDonald's knows that Coke will eventually get watered down in a cup filled with ice, and it's tweaked its syrup-to-water ratio to account for this. That means the best sip of Coke may come after your ice has had a few minutes to melt.

Even the straws at McDonald's were engineered to maximize your soda enjoyment. They're slightly wider than regular straws, so that first flavor-packed sip is able to hit more of your tongue at once.

Not everything McDonald's puts out has been as well-received as its Coke. Some of the biggest failures from the company's history include the McD.L.T., the Arch Deluxe, and broccoli-flavored bubblegum.

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