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Mullins: McDonald’s franchisee says it must highlight healthier food

McDonald’s has a problem. For the first time in 10 years, the company generated less revenue in a month than it did a year before, and it’s not a blip. The world’s biggest burger chain has been posting lagging results for some time, particularly in the United States.

Blake Casper says he has a very good idea why.

“Companies like Chipotle are doing a great job talking to people about healthy food, and they’re changing the dynamic of how people eat,” said Casper, who owns Tampa Bay’s largest McDonald’s franchise group with his sister Allison Casper Adams. “We embrace that outlook. But we’re not doing a good job of explaining our options. We put our calorie counts out way before that was mandated, but reality is not perception, and the perception out there about our food is not good. It’s a problem.”

McDonald’s has been expanding its menu in the past several years, adding choices including more chicken, fruit, oatmeal and salads, Casper says, but the company hasn’t gotten the word out to customers like he thinks it should.

McDonald’s franchisees rarely speak publicly or veer from the official McDonald’s script, but Casper is now waving a warning flag. Nationally, he said, McDonald’s needs to address its health image problem, now.

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Casper has some gravitas in the McDonald’s world. His family has owned McDonald’s sites in Tampa for decades. They have a picture of John F. Kennedy driving down Dale Mabry Highway past the first McDonald’s site in Tampa. Now, the Caspers Co. owns 53 McDonald’s sites in the wider Tampa Bay area, and they’re often test beds for new ideas. Wall Street analysts will travel to Tampa to assess the future of the company. Caspers was among the first nationwide to pay employees to learn English on company time, partly to improve service, but also to lower the turnover rate.

What’s more, Caspers Co. is pouring money into renovating restaurants into the most modern designs. (They split the total cost with McDonald’s 60/40, with Caspers picking up most of the tab.) That’s not cheap. Casper asked me to guess the budget for a single site. I figured between $2 million and $3 million per location, depending on the features. He said, “That’s about right.”

McDonald’s is a common target for health complaints. The movie “Supersize Me” came out 10 years ago, but Casper still feels the sting of the criticism, partly because “they still show that movie in high schools as part of health class or science class. ... As a system, we in McDonald’s have to say, ‘OK, we’ve got to respond.’”

One response comes in the form of John Cisna, an Iowa schoolteacher who went on his own yearlong diet of nothing but McDonald’s food. Casper is friends with the McDonald’s franchise owner in Iowa who helped with the project. The restaurant paid for all the food, but never said what Cisna should eat. Rather, the teacher had his students build an FDA-approved daily diet. With exercise, Cisna said he lost 60 pounds, and his blood work all improved.

Cisna is now on retainer by McDonald’s to travel the country telling his story, and he’ll be in Tampa this November.

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There are a million ways to compare nutrition numbers between restaurants, and it’s never an apples-to-apples comparison, particularly comparing burgers to burritos. It’s a whole different game, too, if you get full-sugar sodas, fries or tortilla chips and guacamole, but let’s try to make the most simple comparison we can.

When I think of getting a meal, a McDonald’s double cheeseburger doesn’t strike me as the healthiest option compared to something like a chicken burrito from Chipotle. Perhaps I’ve been swayed by Chipotle’s own marketing about healthy ingredients. So let’s compare some raw numbers. Spoiler Alert: Don’t eat the whole burrito.

A double jalapeno cheeseburger at McDonald’s weighs in at 430 calories, 23 grams of fat and 1030 milligrams of sodium. By contrast, a Chipotle chicken burrito with beans, rice, salsa, cheese and lettuce has 910 calories, 29.5 grams of fat and 2325 milligrams of sodium. (The McDonald’s burger had 1 gram of trans fat while the Chipotle burrito had none.)

Now, to be fair, one Chipotle burrito feels like two meals to me, so I typically save half for later. But I know lots of people go through a whole burrito in a sitting, and those are Chipotle’s own numbers for one burrito. Even comparing red meat to white meat, Chipotle’s chicken burrito had twice the calories, more fat grams and twice the sodium – just a hair shy of the FDA’s suggestion for a whole day’s worth of sodium. The Chipotle burrito also has more cholesterol: 155 milligrams versus 80 in the McDonald’s jalapeño double cheeseburger.

That means if you think of a burrito as two meals, then one half a burrito stacks up well against a cheeseburger strictly by the numbers. If you just ate the whole burrito, well, what can I say? Maybe a juice cleanse is in your future.

“Numbers don’t lie!” St. Petersburg nutritionist Sarah Krieger said. “Eat the whole burger or half the burrito for the same nutrition.”

As for Chipotle’s response, I asked the company and here’s what they said.

It's not an apples-to-apples comparison because a burger is 4.6 ounces of food, while a burrito is 20 ounces of food, said Chipotle spokesman Chris Arnold. (Another argument to cut the burrito in half.) Also, he says more people buy burrito “bowls” that don’t have the wrapper. Without the wrapper, the calories, fat and sodium come down, and if a customer bought a three-taco meal they’d look even better: calories, 510; fat, 14 g; cholesterol, 155 g; and sodium, 1030 mg.

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Meanwhile, McDonald’s faces rivals all over, and not just in the burger and fries business.

There’s a resurgent Dunkin’ Donuts and a reinvigorated Wendy’s. Starbucks is making huge leaps forward in both coffee and sandwiches. There are now hordes of “Better Burger” places: Five Guys, In-n-Out, Burger21, BurgerFi and so on.

In “Fast Casual,” there’s Panera and tons of similar rivals, from Pizza Fusion to Jason’s Deli. In Tampa, the PDQ chain is expanding with a new concept, WTF burgers, salads and pizzas.

At the ultra-healthy end, the Juice Bar trend is reaching white hot levels, with customers paying $10 or more for a bottle of fresh-pressed juices at places like Swami Juice, Xtreme Juice, Urban Juice and Orange Julius.

The irony here is many rivals to McDonald’s don’t bother with a “Health” claim. Checkers, whose current slogan is “Feast On!,” has a seasonal item of deep-fried mozzarella sticks, served on a bed of French fries and drizzled with a garlic sauce. I looked for nutrition information on their website, but it didn’t exist. Company representatives couldn’t find the info for me either. So let’s look at a Checkers Buford Smokehouse burger with 680 calories, 37 grams of fat and 1610 milligrams of sodium. (Fewer calories and sodium than a Chipotle chicken burrito.)

As Casper says it: “If we can get people to look at the raw numbers, which is not easy, we can show we’re doing a good job.”

McDonald’s still sells gooey cheeseburgers and piles of French fries, but Casper says McDonald’s just isn’t getting credit for revamping huge parts of its menu to add healthier options like yogurt, fruit juice, milk, wraps, salads and apple slices for kids instead of fries.

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Which brings us to the crux of the issue: Choice.

Dietitian/nutritionist Krieger, spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, said people simply need to act on the raw numbers that McDonald’s and other companies make available and make choices that are better for their health.

Krieger noted one of her clients ate at Chick-fil-A four or five times a week. Just by switching from deep-fried to grilled chicken, her client cut daily calories by 200 and upwards of 20 grams of fat per day.

McDonald’s has an online meal planner with information on every item. “I’m on the McDonald’s website right now, and you just hover the mouse over any sandwich and it gives all the information on calories, fat and sodium,” she said. “It’s all right there.”

As for Casper, he might not be alone among franchisees speaking out on the health issue.

“I think you’ll see a lot of us talking about it,” he said. “We have to eliminate the concern, or else everything else we do will be hampered.”


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