The McDonald’s on San Pablo. The fast food franchise is trying to rebrand itself as a restaurant that offers healthy fare. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel
The McDonald’s on San Pablo. The fast food franchise is trying to rebrand itself as a restaurant that offers healthy fare. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

In an attempt to rebrand its current image as a place that only serves fatty fast food and super-size sodas, McDonald’s Corporation has launched a makeover campaign.

Titled “Rediscover What’s Under the Arches,” the marketing effort includes reaching out to stealth taste-makers like mommy and food bloggers to show them that the menu at the world’s largest fast food franchise (28 million people a day and counting) isn’t just French fries, Chicken McNuggets, Happy Meals, and hamburgers. It now includes more healthy items like oatmeal and fruit and yogurt parfaits.

On May 4, in what may seem like a visit to the lion’s den, the PR campaign came to Berkeley.

Call it a case of reverse marketing. What better way to challenge perceptions than by coming to a city with three farmers’ markets and a population that embraces all things organic, fresh, and local?

“We’re up against a lot,” acknowledged Kiaran Locy, a manager at Golin-Harris, a public relations firm hired by McDonald’s to help them in this effort. “In Berkeley, in particular, there is a lot of feeling about McDonald’s and the negative aspects of fast food. People love to hate it. We are trying to change perspectives, to have an open dialogue.”

So, on a Friday afternoon, long after the lunch rush, representatives from three community websites, Rookie Moms, The Picky Eater: A Healthy Eating Blog, and Berkeleyside, got an insider’s “Behind the Counter” tour of the McDonald’s at 1198 San Pablo Avenue. We were greeted by two executives from the Golin-Harris PR firm, a nutritionist hired by the firm, and Thomas Parker, who owns the San Pablo Avenue McDonald’s franchise as well as Berkeley’s only other one at Shattuck and University.

McDonald’s may believe its special sauce is its secret ingredient, but it may in fact be Parker. An energetic 54-year old former Navy pilot, Parker is a former transportation executive and founder of Brothers Brewing Company, the world’s first African-American-owned brewery (later sold to Coors). His enthusiasm for his two franchises exudes from every pore. Wearing an impeccably tailored suit, he kept a broad smile on his face as he walked the group through the refrigerator, freezer, squeaky clean basement, and kitchen area.

Parker bought the two Berkeley McDonald’s in 2010, but acquiring them was not easy, he said. When he first applied to get a franchise he thought he was a shoo-in. After all he was a former military man with an engineering degree. But he was turned down. It was only after he went to a fundraiser for the Ronald McDonald House and met a top regional executive who went to bat for him that he got a franchise.

Thomas Parker, the owner of the two McDonald’s in Berkeley, shows the operation of the San Pablo Avenue store. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel
Thomas Parker, the owner of the two McDonald’s in Berkeley, shows the operation of the San Pablo Avenue store. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

That high bar permeates everything McDonald’s does, from the training it gives its employees, to the standards of cleanliness it expects in its restaurants, to the freshness of its food, Parker told us. Parker spent two years learning how to run a McDonald’s (some of it at Hamburger University in Chicago), and he wasn’t even guaranteed a franchise until he successfully completed his training. He was lucky, however, as he bought two stores in Berkeley, not far from his hometown in San Ramon. Many other would-be-owners have to relocate in order to get a restaurant.

A McDonald’s franchise can be incredibly lucrative, said Parker. The one on San Pablo Avenue makes about $7,000 in sales a day, or about $2.5 million a year. The store on University takes in half of that since it does not have a drive-through, he said.

The San Pablo restaurant was completely rebuilt in 2009 and now features a modern look, with booths covered in a lively black and white patterned vinyl and blonde wood light fixtures. The updated restaurants out- earn those that have not been updated, according to a recent New York Times magazine article.

The tour emphasized the lighter side of McDonald’s. Before we started, we were handed folders with one-page colorful descriptions of meals such as “Wholesome Starts,” “Enjoying the Food Groups at McDonald’s,” or “Meal Combinations Made Easy for 600 calories or less.” According to the handouts, an Egg McMuffin is 300 calories, while a Fruit N Parfait, made with fresh fruit and low-fat vanilla yogurt is 130 calories. (Adding granola adds another 30 calories.) A premium Grilled Chicken Classic sandwich on a bakery style bun is 350 calories.

In July 2011, McDonald’s put its popular Happy Meals for children on a diet. They now include apple slices, fat free chocolate or 1% milk, and a smaller serving of French fries. The calories have gone down by 20%, but a Happy Meal with Chicken McNuggets is still 410 calories, and the hamburger version is 470 calories. A Big Mac weighs in at 540 calories.

A shelf in a refrigerator at McDonald’s. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel
A shelf in a refrigerator at McDonald’s. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

Parker demonstrated the freshness of the ingredients McDonald’s uses. We squeezed into one of the refrigerators, stacked with box after box of shredded lettuce. There were bowls of lemons and limes and cherry tomatoes, as well as packages of blueberries. Parker pulled out some frozen pancakes, which he said were freshly made and then flash-frozen to preserve their quality. All food must be consumed within a certain time period or it is tossed, he said. Hamburgers, for example, must be served 15 minutes after being made.

Parker also insisted that McDonald’s is committed to serving local and sustainable produce whenever possible. It gets its strawberries from Watsonville, CA and the fish in the fish fillets is from the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s approved list of sustainable seafood. The restaurant uses 14 different varieties of lettuce and serves 40 million tons of tomatoes a year. McDonald’s is also turning toward packaging with more recycled content.

“McDonald’s is in tune with sustainability,” said Parker. “As the consumer has evolved, McDonald’s has kept its ear to the consumer and has evolved.”

Further proof of that new focus is McDonald’s decision not to put a shrimp salad on the menu, said Parker. The corporation liked the idea – and customers clamored for it – but McDonald’s determined it would deplete the world’s shrimp supply.

The tour then went into the heart of the restaurant: its frying zone. Employees whizzed around, dunking fries into vats of oil (which is recycled after use) and moving McNuggets from oil to plate. Hamburgers sizzled on the state-of-the art grill. And, while the tour was arranged to show off the lower-caloric side of McDonald’s, we all greedily ate the bags of French fries Parker set before us. (They were unsalted, part of McDonald’s commitment to offer lower sodium items.)

But then something bizarre happened. When Berkeleyside was first approached to participate, the PR person from Golin-Harris promised full access. This was to be a tour that showed every nook and cranny of McDonald’s to demonstrate that the restaurant chain had nothing to hide and lots of things about which to brag. But after I had been taking pictures for almost an hour, Jennifer Kurrie, from Golin-Harris, came up to me and told me to stop. I was taking photos of proprietary information and it was forbidden, she said. In addition, I was not allowed to quote her.

Not exactly the full access, open tour I had expected. I left.

The tour did not seem to work out as McDonald’s expected. Neither Anjali Shah, who writes The Picky Eater: A Healthy Food Blog, nor Heather Flett, a co-founder of Rookie Moms, have written about the tour.

“I enjoyed seeing behind the scenes, but it didn’t change my perceptions very much,” Flett said in an email. “As a child, I went to McDonald’s every week all the way up through my 20s. As a parent, I have never taken my kids. And I probably still won’t. The organizational stuff was very impressive; the nutritional stuff not so much.”

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Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California, published in November...