Eating Badly: Can Fast Food Truly be “Artisan”?

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Does that final buzzword mean anything more than the two preceding labels, when applied to the fast food industry? It’s an arena where words hold power, where every little descriptor is carefully engineered, researched, focus-grouped and tested for maximum potency in generating a carefully considered response. On the scale of international corporations, these simply aren’t the sort of things that happen by chance. The words a corporate megalith such as McDonald’s chooses to use tells us everything we need to know about how they currently see their market and consumers.

And right now? What they think people want is “artisan.” Welcome to fast food’s latest attempt at enhancing the perceived quality of its products. Welcome to the “naturalism” movement.

The poster child for that concept would be McDonald’s new “Artisan Grilled Chicken Sandwich,” which is still assembled by by McD’s employees and not master Flemish glassblowers, as the name might lead you to believe. The official description calls it: “100% grilled chicken breast filet seasoned to perfection with ingredients like salt, garlic and parsley—seared in our kitchens, no preservatives added. Crisp leaf lettuce, fresh tomato and a vinaigrette dressing. All atop our delectable artisan roll.” All in all, better than the previous description, which boasted of supremely vague “pantry seasonings,” whatever that means.

If you’re thinking that sounds not too far from the beaten path, then you’re right—and wrong. It’s not as if fast food giants such as McDonald’s haven’t tried to enhance the perception of their food’s quality before. But there’s a twist here in how they’re doing it—rather than simply implying “We’ve made it taste better,” the push toward “artisan” fast food rather is proclaiming “We’ve made it more real”…which presumably also makes it taste better. Same destination, slightly different route.

This type of path in fast food is littered with costly mistakes and failures, and that’s certainly something McDonald’s in particular knows as well as anyone. In reality, they’re the experts—nobody else has spent as much money on huge product roll-outs of “fancy” sandwiches, only to have it blow up in their face. Most famously, the corporation spent hundreds of millions of dollars promoting the “Arch Deluxe” burger back in 1996, a hamburger for grown-ups, only to have it fail spectacularly despite the “stone ground mustard sauce” they were so proud of at the time. And let’s not even get into the McDLT, which thought “separately packaged hot and cold ingredients” would make for a best-selling sandwich concept.

The push toward “artisan,” though, doesn’t simply play on the angle of using better or fancier ingredients—there’s an implication that these ingredients are simultaneously more traditional, healthier and more simple. In a culture that finds itself up in arms about GMO produce and antibiotic-fed meat, it’s an attempt to cultivate an air of authenticity. The customer base they’re trying to court can’t simply be defined as “adults,” as was the case back in the Arch Deluxe days. They now see their perfect customers as “hip,” “cultured,” “aware” and presumably politically active. Which begs the question: Even if a corporation like McDonald’s CAN make its food more authentic, do those types of consumers really care? Or do they oppose the business McDonald’s runs sheerly on principle? It’s awfully hard to be the butt of jokes to a certain demographic for decades and then turn around one day to claim “Hey! We’re now making products for you guys too!”

McDonald’s of course is certainly not alone in trying to capture this particular zeitgeist. Taco Bell, for instance, has been pushing authenticity TO THE MAX for several years now, behind its advertising campaign featuring one “chef Lorena Garcia,” who sports an authentic Spanish accent. Just listen to her praise the “amazing black beans” or “chunks of avocado in your guacamole.” I don’t know how the J.J. Abrams-level lens flare factors into the authenticity, but Taco Bell apparently thought it did.

On some level, it’s a demographic that every one of the major chains is trying to cash in on, with a few twists and variations. Wendy’s, for instance, is now pushing a new veggie burger, a segment of the fast food market that none of the giants have ever done particularly well. Like McDonald’s, though, their offering is all about authenticity and some sort of attempt at rusticness—my favorite detail is the “multigrain bun” being cited as a selling point. Try as I might, I simply can’t conjure a mental image of a bunch of hip, 20-somethings driving down the highway, talking about where to eat, and one suggesting: “Guys, we gotta stop at that Wendy’s. They’ve got multigrain buns, bro.” Perhaps this is something that hipsters (who still eat fast food) say? If so, I’ve yet to hear it.

Ultimately, the economies of scale present in a corporation like McDonald’s make it difficult to accept the idea of any product they produce legitimately being able to claim an “artisan” label, even if they do have actual cooks putting actual (perfectly shaped, flat, uniform) chicken breasts onto grills in the back. To think of it another way—if you grill a chicken breast on your own home grill in the backyard, is that “artisan” as well?

Still, it seemed unfair for me to discuss McDonald’s sandwich in particular in such depth without at least trying it for myself—to wit, I had one for lunch today. Here’s what an “artisan chicken sandwich” looks like in real life, removing the top bun.

IMG_1140 (Custom).jpgThe brown spots are the patented “flavor zones.”

It could be worse, right? And it could taste worse as well. The artisan chickenwich turns out to be a perfectly decent fast food sandwich—I don’t typically order much chicken at a McDonald’s, but eating this one does feel a bit more like it came from an actual animal and not an unholy, quivering cube of living chicken meat that McDonald’s is injecting with growth hormones in the depths of a lab somewhere. Which is to say, this chicken does not taste like it has spent the majority of its existence praying for death. Rather, it’s a nicely seasoned piece of real(ish) chicken (sort of a chicken breast uncanny valley), on an excellent bun, with an understated vinaigrette sauce, a bit of lettuce and a thick slice of completely and utterly tasteless tomato, because hey, this is still McDonald’s we’re talking about here. Baby steps, people.

Whether an “artisan,” or at least naturalistic movement, can ever be sustained in the American fast food landscape will likely come down to the public’s continued interest in those sectors of the food market. Many are the times in the past when these sorts of pushes, whether toward “natural” products or healthy eating, have been trumpeted and then fallen by the wayside in favor of the old, reliable stand-bys. After tasting the latest generation, I can at least admit that the food itself is decent enough, but is that enough? Can a fast food megalith eventually change its colors, assuming it actually wants to? Only time will tell.

Jim Vorel is Paste’s news editor, and he has a severe allergy to bullshit in fast food. You can follow him on Twitter.

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