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."

10 Pickle Facts to Savor (in Honor of National Pickle Day)

iStock
iStock

In honor of one of the year's most important food-focused holidays—yes, we're talking about National Pickle Day—learn more about the snack that's so much more than just a sidekick to your sandwich.

1. PICKLING IS THOUSANDS OF YEARS OLD.

Cucumbers, native to the Tigris Valley in India, were first pickled way back in 2030 B.C., although preserving food in a vinegar or brine solution may stretch back even further with the Mesopotamians.

2. AMERICA GOT ITS NAME FROM A PICKLE MERCHANT.

Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci was once a ship chandler, supplying merchants and sailors with supplies for their voyages, including preserved meats and vegetables. His nickname, the pickle merchant, likely arose from his former trade, although writer Ralph Waldo Emerson derisively referred to Vespucci as a “pickle-dealer” in his book English Traits.

3. THE WORD "PICKLE" COMES FROM THE NETHERLANDS.

In Dutch, to salt or brine something is called pekel. The word may also come from the German pökel or pökeln.

4. WE EAT A LOT OF PICKLES.

Americans consume about 9 pounds of pickles per person every year. The most popular type remains kosher dill, thanks to the large numbers of Eastern European Jews who emigrated to the United States and New York City in the late 19th century.

5. CLEOPATRA USED THEM TO PRESERVE HER GOOD LOOKS …

Cleopatra was supposedly a pickle devotee. She ate them regularly, believing that they helped keep her gorgeous.

6. … WHILE CAESAR AND NAPOLEON THOUGHT THEY COULD BUILD MUSCLE.

Julius Caesar and other Roman emperors had soldiers eat the crispy preserves because they were thought to provide strength. Napoleon Bonaparte, like Caesar, valued his troops’ health, and offered 12,000 francs to anyone who could safely preserve food for his soldiers.

7. SHAKESPEARE COINED THE PHRASE, "IN A PICKLE."

Shakespeare used it to refer to finding oneself in a difficult position in The Tempest. In the 1611 play, Alonso asks Trinculo, “How camest thou in this pickle?” to which Trinculo responds, “I have been in such a pickle since I saw you last that, I fear me, will never out of my bones: I shall not fear fly-blowing.”

8. PICKLES ARE CURED IN OPEN, OUTDOOR VATS.

Companies that produce pickles on a mass scale ferment their cucumbers in giant outdoor pots in a salt brine. Yes, that means anything can get in there, including bird droppings and bugs, but the sun’s UV and infrared rays help prevent yeast and mold growth.

9. THE U.S. RATIONED PICKLES DURING WWII.

Forty percent of all pickles produced in America were set aside for the Armed Forces and soldiers’ ration kits.

10. THE PHILADELPHIA EAGLES USED PICKLE JUICE TO BEAT THE COWBOYS.

During a hot September 3, 2000, game in Irving, Texas, when temperatures on the field of Texas Stadium reached 109 degrees, Philadelphia players chugged pickle juice and credited the briny solution for their 41-14 win. The Eagles outgained Dallas 425-167, and defensive end Hugh Douglass said, “I may start drinking pickle juice when I’m home chilling.”

A BYU study later confirmed that drinking pickle juice can help relieve a cramp 37 percent faster than drinking water.

9 Vintage Thanksgiving Side Dishes We Shouldn’t Bring Back

We all have that aunt—the one who’s been bringing her Miracle-Whip-bound pimiento-pea salad to Thanksgiving dinner since time immemorial. Although you may swear she got her recipe straight from the devil, it turns out that cheese-and-lime-Jell-O salads and their ilk were all the rage in her day. So it’s not (totally) her fault! To cut her a little slack, here are some examples of vintage Thanksgiving-themed recipes that will make her salad look like a perfectly golden-brown turkey.

1. CRANBERRY CANDLE SALAD

Best Foods Mayonnaise Ad 1960s with Jello Molds

Nothing complements the tart, refreshing flavor of cranberry sauce like some gelatin and salty, eggy mayonnaise. If that weren’t weird enough, this recipe also tells you to shove a real candle in there and then light it. Ostensibly, you’re supposed to eat around the melted wax, but we can’t be sure—maybe it’s considered a condiment.

2. CANDIED SWEET POTATOES WITH ANGOSTURA BITTERS

This recipe for candied sweet potatoes, which involves baking them in a mixture of butter, sugar, and angostura bitters, is probably either really good or really bad. It sort of makes sense, adding bitters to cut down on the sugar factor. Alternatively, you could just not make a candied version of something that already has the word sweet in its name.

3. CREAMED ONIONS

This once-popular Thanksgiving mainstay has been neglected over the last century, for perhaps obvious reasons. In some households, the idea was to pour creamed onions over the turkey, like gravy, to add a little moisture. Or possibly because eating a chunky mouthful of pearl onions and cream sauce by itself is gross.

4. TURKEY AND STUFFING ON JELL-O

Thanksgiving Jello Ad

There’s not much to this one, is there? It’s a pile of turkey and stuffing dumped on top of a cranberry orange Jell-O ring—sounds delicious!

5. WINTER CORN

This mixture of corn, sour cream, and bacon is sometimes found on Midwestern Thanksgiving tables. It’s mostly off-putting because its main ingredient is creamed corn. That said, creamed corn really needs all the help it can get, so adding bacon can only improve it.

6. SWEET AND SOUR TANG POPCORN (A.K.A. ASTRONAUT POPCORN)

Reportedly, this was a popular Thanksgiving dessert in the ’70s. The idea seems to be an offshoot of caramel corn, but … with Tang powder.

7. HOT DR. PEPPER

You gotta give the good folks at Dr. Pepper a few points for at least trying here. They noticed that soda was not often considered a cozy, comforting holiday drink, and they stepped up to the bat undaunted. Bold move.

8. FROZEN JELLIED TURKEY-VEGETABLE SALAD

There’s only one way to improve a dish as alluring as Jellied Turkey-Vegetable Salad, and that’s to stick it in the freezer. From the sound of the recipe—which combines cream of celery soup, salad dressing, diced turkey, vegetables, and gelatin—this is basically the inside of a turkey pot pie if it was served frozen. And also if it was square.

9. JELL-O FRUIT CORNUCOPIA

Sure, cornucopias were for holding food in olden times, but don’t you wish you could eat one? Well, guess what—your years of longing are finally over, because someone has made a Jell-O version of one with fruit trapped in it. You don’t even have to take the fruit out of the cornucopia this time—you can just pop the whole thing in your mouth. Dreams do come true.

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