McDonald’s in tussle with junk food image

NEW YORK — At a dinner McDonald’s hosted for reporters and bloggers, waiters served cuisine prepared by celebrity chefs using ingredients from the chain’s menu.

A Kung Pao chicken appetizer was made with Chicken McNuggets doused in sweet and sour sauce and garnished with parsley. Slow-cooked beef was served with gnocchi fashioned out of McDonald’s french fries and a fruit sauce from its smoothie mix.

The event in New York City’s Tribeca neighborhood was billed ‘‘A transforming dining experience of ‘fast food’ to ‘good food served fast.’ ’’

The dishes aren’t intended for McDonald’s restaurants. Instead, the evening is part of a campaign by McDonald’s to shake its reputation for serving cheap, unhealthful food. At a time when Americans are paying closer attention to what they eat, the company is trying to sway public opinion.


It’s just one way that McDonald’s is trying to change its image. In the past 18 months, the chain has introduced the option to substitute egg whites in breakfast sandwiches and rolled out chicken wraps as its first menu item with cucumbers. In coming months, mandarins will be offered in Happy Meals, with other fruits being explored, as well.

McDonald’s declined to make an executive available for this story. But early this year, chief executive Don Thompson said: ‘‘We’ve got to make sure that the food is relevant and that the awareness around McDonald’s as a kitchen and a restaurant that cooks and prepares fresh, high quality food is strong and pronounced.’’

The company faces an uphill battle, especially if the past is any indication. The salads it introduced more than a decade ago account for just 2 to 3 percent of sales. And the chain last year discontinued its fruit and walnut salad and premium Angus burgers, which analysts said were priced too high for McDonald’s customers at around $5.


The problem is that some people don’t consider McDonald’s a place to get high-quality food, in part because the prices are so low. And while McDonald’s has added salads and a yogurt parfait to its menu over the years, Americans are gravitating toward other attributes, like organic produce and meat raised without antibiotics.

‘‘People just don’t think of McDonald’s as having that premium quality,’’ said Sara Senatore, a restaurant industry analyst with Bernstein Research.

In some ways, the image McDonald’s is battling is ironic, given its reputation for exacting standards with suppliers. Yet the low-cost burgers, ice cream cones, and other food that ahve made McDonald’s so popular since it was founded in 1955 have come to define it. And some people can’t get over the idea that low prices equal low quality.

‘‘It’s the whole perception people get when you sell something cheaply,’’ said Richard Adams, who used to own McDonald’s restaurants in San Diego and now runs a consulting firm for franchisees.

The low prices at McDonald’s are part of what keeps it from competing with places such as Panera, which recently said it will eliminate all artificial ingredients by 2016. Such a move would be a Herculean feat for McDonald’s, given its pricing model and the complexity of its menu.

Beyond that menu, the company is determined to take control of its narrative.

‘‘We’re going to start really, really telling our story in a much more proactive manner,’’ Kevin Newell, US brand and strategy officer for McDonald’s, said late last year.


McDonald’s, he added, has gone too long in ‘‘letting other folks frame the story for us.’’