Can a dash of guacamole and some caramelized onions bump McDonald's into the better-burger category?
Last week, the Golden Arches began the nationwide rollout of its Signature Crafted Recipes sandwiches, part of the company's plan to win back customers from rivals. The chain said earlier this year that it lost more than 500 million visits since 2012 to its competitors.
McDonald's has long struggled to find a balance between offering value and premium options to its patrons. When it has shifted too far in one direction, it has usually lost ground with customers on the other side of the spectrum.
Over the last couple years, McDonald's has stressed its value propositions, including dollar menus and All-Day Breakfast. Now, the restaurant has begun promoting healthier, more upscale options in a hope to come back to center.
The Signature Crafted Recipes can be customized in three flavors: Pico Guacamole, Sweet BBQ Bacon, and Maple Bacon Dijon. The new sandwiches cost between $5 and $7, on average, depending on your location and are on par with the prices at other chains in the better-burger category.
So far, the new sandwiches have met with some fanfare, as customers found the departure from McDonald's typical burgers and chicken refreshing and tasty. However, others found the burger giant's new menu items to be underwhelming and not worth the price.
CNBC decided to see for itself. Since the Golden Arches hopes to compete with chains like Five Guys and Smashburger, we wanted to see how the Signature Crafted Recipes stack up against these chains' signature burgers. To standardize the test, we sampled only burgers, not the chicken options. Also, we ordered all the McDonald's sandwiches with artisan bread, although a sesame bun option is also available.
To get a baseline for comparison, I started by tasting the burgers from Smashburger and Five Guys.
Smashburger starts all of its burgers the same way, with a loosely packed ball of seasoned meat smashed onto a hot grill top. The result is a juicy, pan-seared patty.
For the Classic Smash, the chain adds American cheese, Smash Sauce, ketchup, lettuce, tomato, pickles and onion to the burger and pops it between an egg bun.
In this burger, the patty really shines. It's savory, covered in cheese, and the toppings add texture and taste, but don't overpower the burger. The bun holds everything in and didn't get soggy from the sauce or the juice from the burger.
I paid $5.59 for the Classic Smash, but that price can vary based on where you live. I would definitely purchase this burger again.
At Five Guys, you have the choice between a double and single-patty burger, with about a $1 difference in price between them. Since the other burgers would only have one patty, I got a the Little Cheeseburger option for $5.39.
Five Guys doesn't have a signature burger, instead it allows guests to customize their meal with more than a dozen toppings. The chain does offer an "all the way burger" which includes mayo, lettuce, pickles, tomatoes, ketchup, mustard, grilled onions and grilled mushrooms.
So, I opted for that burger, minus the grilled mushrooms. What can I say? I don't like mushrooms.
The burger is similar to the Smashburger in that the patty is made with fresh meat and seared on a hot grill. However, it lacks some of the flavor that the Smashburger patty had.
The Five Guys burger is juicy, but definitely relies more heavily on the flavor of the toppings than Smashburger's did.
The bun holds most of the toppings in place, save for one rogue pickle. However, it did become a bit soggy from the tomatoes. I would purchase this burger again, but with a few less toppings.
McDonald's Pico Guacamole sandwich has a creamy buttermilk ranch sauce, cheddar cheese, lettuce, pico and guacamole — the problem is that there are too many flavors and only some of them shine through.
The first thing you taste when you bite into McDonald's Pico Guacamole burger is butter. The artisan bread has this decidedly sweet, buttery taste that over powers every other flavor in your mouth.
The second bite is a bit different. It's spicy. For some, a little heat is a good touch for a burger, but here it's just overpowering. Between the pico de gallo and the bun, it's hard to taste the other elements in the burger. Especially, the beef patty.
When it comes to guacamole, I'll be honest, I am very particular. Texture is really important to me. I like my guacamole to be a little chunky and not too wet. McDonald's guac did not have that desired texture. While you could clearly see the bits of cilantro and tomatoes in the guacamole, it was so heavily blended together that it was pretty slimy.
I paid $5.99 for the Pico Guacamole burger and wouldn't purchase it again.
You can't really go wrong with bacon and onion straws, in my opinion.
McDonald's Sweet BBQ Bacon burger comes with both along with caramelized onions, a slice of white cheddar and sweet BBQ sauce.
At first bite, this is a decent burger. The bacon is super crispy, the caramelized onions are sweet and the cheese is gooey.
However, the BBQ sauce is too sweet and artificial tasting. It detracts from the other flavors that are in the burger rather than melding with them.
That said, I think that this was McDonald's most successful attempt at a better-burger. The two different kinds of onions and the bacon more than make up for the buttery bun and lackluster BBQ sauce.
For $5.99, I might buy this burger again, but I would ask for them to hold the BBQ sauce. It was just one item too many.
Like the Sweet BBQ burger, McDonald's Maple Bacon Dijon burger could have benefited from a little bit of editing.
The beef patty is topped with maple bacon, caramelized onion, lettuce, white cheddar and Dijon mustard.
The first few bites are great. The bacon is sweet and crispy, the onions add a nice layer of flavor and the cheddar has the right sharpness. But as soon as I got a mouthful of Dijon mustard, I stopped eating. Every bite after that was just sharp and acidic.
Once again, for the $5.99 price tag, I might get this burger again, but I would make sure it didn't have the Dijon sauce.
This isn't the first time that McDonald's has offered up more upscale menu items and it likely won't be the last. While some customers have praised the chain's new offerings, it's clear that they still need a little work.
Each of the three signature flavors has an ingredient that probably should have been tinkered with or left behind altogether. At its current price point, customers have other options that are as good, if not better, than what McDonald's is offering.
The company will likely win back some customers with these innovative burgers, as many have already flocked to their locations to try the new items. Perhaps, once McDonald's rolls out its fresh, never-frozen beef, which will be used on all quarter-pounder sandwiches, including the signature sandwiches, the burgers will be a bit more robust in terms of flavor.