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CollectingCandy // Chloe Effron

The Short, Strange Life of McDonald's Pizza

Original image
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."

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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iStock
Sponsor Content: BarkBox
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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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iStock

Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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