Does the McRib "Pork Price" Theory Make Any Sense?

Photo: Ruocaled

The McRib is the Brigadoon of the food world, and inspires similar passion. Consider Willy Staley‘s long and entertaining report at the Awl, which wonders if the McRib’s very occasional appearances are related to low pork prices. Dan Hamermesh found this line of thinking sensible too.

But … really? Aside from the fact that the correlation between McRib reintroductions and pork prices isn’t very robust, I always wondered if a firm of McDonald’s size could be so nimble as to strike fast on something like this. In the comments on Hamermesh’s post, a reader named Jeff Birschbach tells us what he knows:

I run a McDonald’s franchise. I cannot speak to the exact timing although I would say it is planned at least a year in advance. The most significant reason the sandwich comes and goes is the diminishing marginal utility. Over the course of the last five years the promotion has played out the same way. First few weeks we sell nearly 200 per day and near the end we may sell less than 50 per day. These quantities do not justify its placement as a core menu item and McDonald’s enjoys the pub and novelty of reintroducing sandwich. Sometimes the greedy nefarious corporation trying to make an easy buck isn’t that at all but just common sense business practices.

Makes sense, doesn’t it? To be fair, the Awl’s report acknowledged this possibility:

The last, and most obvious, explanation is the official version of the story: the sandwich has a cult following, but it’s not that popular. Like Star Trek, Arrested Development and that show about Jesus Christ returning to San Diego as a surfer, the McRib was short-lived because not enough people were interested in it, even though a small and vocal minority loved it dearly. And unlike these TV shows, which involve real actors and writers with careers to tend to, the McRib needs only hogs, pickles, onions and a vocal enough minority who demand the sandwich’s return, and will even promote it for free with websites, tweets and word-of-sauce-stained-mouth.

I will say this: the boom in McRib literature in recent weeks did its job on me. I went out of my way to go get one at a McDonald’s. (They had me at “pork slurry.”) Now, I happen to enjoy McDonald’s once in a while, much more than most of my McD-hating New York friends. But I have to say, the McRib was a major letdown. I was in Berlin recently and, at one of those omnipresent Christmas Markets, had a sort of authentic German version of the McRib. It was about 10 times better (and a bit cheaper, too). That said, the next time the McRib comes around, months or years hence, the excitement will probably be so high that I’ll forget how bad the last one was and go ahead and try another. 

 


Ian M

There was a comedian who called it "McSpam with sauce". I can't remember who it was.

I still want to try one. Mmmmm, heart disease.

BL1Y

I had the same experience. The texture feels like molded pork slurry, the meat itself has no discernible flavor, and the barbecue sauce is somewhere south of the worst thing you can find at your grocery store.

They reintroduce it to make some money from the cult fanboys and from those like Dubner and I who are merely curious, and then yank it once we all discover/remember how bad it is and refuse to buy in any more.

It's interesting to learn that the boom for these things is only 200 per day, or that only 50 per day is enough to take it off the menu. 10:30am to 2:00am is 15.5 hours. 50 per day is someone ordering 1 every 18 minutes, which sounds pretty good to me. Though, the issue may be that the people who are ordering it would have ordered something else anyways, and so it's an added cost, without really increasing sales.

Tom

Any idea what the "sort of authentic German version of the McRib" is called? I am a former McRib fanatic that can't bring himself to actually eat "pork slurry" any longer. I would love to find something similar, but less synthetic that I can make myself.

BL1Y

Cook some ribs long enough that the meat falls off the bone, and then put that on a roll.

KevinH

Of course correlation does not tell you the direction of causation. It could easily be that the demand for pork by the largest restaurant chain in the world effects world pork prices, making it look like it starts its McRib at local minima in pork prices.

Mike B

I always figured the animal they made it out of would go extinct...or nearly so.

r melater

Why even pretend that this is food and worthy of anything but condemnation? Yr "McD-hating New York friends" - perhaps they have not been trapped by McDonald's propaganda the way you have, and see it for what it is - another craven attempt to pass off industrial waste as something delightful to eat. Of course they are trapped by OTHER propaganda, but that's the nature of life in New York or anywhere. But sad that you can use this as a basis for illustration, instead of calling it out for what it is. Not unlike the famous ethical quandary of using tainted / coerced research as a benchmark for other research - purely wrong, should not be engaged with. McD = massive fail. Gamed financial results are not worthy of consideration.

jimmer

"another craven attempt to pass off industrial waste as something delightful to eat."

Get a large order of french fries. Get a milkshake. Dip the french fries in the milkshake. If this doesn't qualify as an ACTUAL delight, you're broken on the inside.

[WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us '0 which is not a hashcash value.

r melater

Yes, it's an actual delight the way your first hit of cocaine is an actual delight; feels great, but you know the end result ain't so good. And even that - it's not REALLY a delight, you've been conditioned to believe that it is in the absence of other choices; those other choices have been chased out of the marketplace by the funny price protectionism that circulates around McD products, eg potatoes and labor. Propoganda is powerful; Pierre Franey / Julia Child did NOT wax eloquent about the wonderful taste of the McD fry. They're crap.

And the milkshake - they don't have those at McDonalds; they have simulacra of milkshakes though. Again, we're conditioned to think that this is good stuff, when some gradual reintroduction of real food would be revelatory.

Nikki

Since when does buying food at McD in the US require going out of one's way?

Drew

Does anyone know what that Jesus Chris surfer show is called? I'm intrigued.

Brian

"John from Cincinnati"

RGJ

I'm not sure how well-versed a McDonald's franchise owner is in marketing expenditures, but I find it hard to believe that McD;s "enjoys the "pub (publicity) and novelty of reintroducing" a sandwich with the proven and repeated inability to sustain sales high enough to justify its existence as a menu item. There must be tens of millions of dollars involved in each of these efforts.

I have seen theories that McRib is a "loss leader" periodically re-introduced to draw attention to what has to be a brutally stagnant advertising challenge (burgers and fries). So a considerable non-intuitive value has to be placed on anything that attracts media and attention to the wallflower Golden Arches.

The problem with unravelling these questions is that McDonalds operates on such an unimaginably enormous scale that long term subtle marketing issues, like making an item an occasional brief cult offering, actually makes sense in the humongous complexity of the King of Cow Killers.

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