The McDonald’s brand hasn’t always had the best of reputations, but UK CEO Paul Pomroy has made it his mission to educate the naysayers and rebuild a brand known for good food and happier staff.
Bird beaks, fake eggs and pink slime - just a few of the rumoured ingredients that have surrounded the McDonald’s menu over the years. And this fake news continues to rankle its UK CEO Paul Pomroy. “You can’t deliver 49 quarters of growth if you’ve got bad food,” he insists. “It irritates me when people believe some of the stuff that gets put on the internet.”
So Pomroy has made it his mission to dispel some popular misconceptions around the fast food brand, from provenance to health to how it treats its staff.
Within months of his promotion in January 2015, the UK business launched a much-lauded campaign tackling these rumours head-on, poking fun at talk of Frankenstein chickens and additive-packed cattle in the production line.
“I wanted to bust the myths. We’ve nothing to hide. Whether it’s 100% British beef, our freedom food pork, or our 100% British potatoes, I’m really proud of our supply chain.”
Name: Paul Pomroy
Family: Married with two young sons
Potted CV: Briefly worked for Sainsbury’s as a student before joining McDonald’s in 1996
Your best move? When I worked for Steve Easterbrook he set up a department called business strategy and insight, and asked me to work on the food supply chain. I met my wife there - you need to get that in as a positive - and it gave me a strong grounding in the business.
Favourite McDonald’s order? I love Chicken McNuggets, but Filet-o-Fish was one of the first things I ate when I was growing up in Kent, so it’s quite nostalgic for me.
Last good book? I’m a dad of two young boys so I don’t get to read that often. Probably the best book I read to my sons is The Lion Inside.
Hobbies? I love football. I’m a Tottenham fan and I take the boys. I love the gym and do pilates twice a week.
He even handed vloggers free rein on supplier farms in 2016, despite not having a clue what they did. “It was completely alien. I was like ‘what an earth is a vlogger?’ We gave them complete editorial rights with no control from us to go into our farms, restaurants, talk to our people and post on social media.
“It was a brave decision,” he laughs, “but it really connected. If you get real people making real stories in real situations, it helps with the credibility of the above the line advertising on TV.”
Nor was Pomroy prepared to accept - as more upmarket burger chains popped up left, right and centre - that McDonald’s was a destination for a second-rate burger, appointing Michelin-starred chefs to help develop NPD as part of its Chefs Council, and launching its gourmet Signature Collection in 2015. The range was rolled out to all 900 UK stores last year. “The gourmet burger market was a high-interest, high-footfall market which I felt was overpriced. Using our volume and scale, we’ve kept our value really strong for customers.” Burgers in the range are priced at £7 or less for a meal. “The average price of a burger in a lot of our competition was over £10 so it meant for a meal of a burger and fries you were paying £10-£12. I saw a real opportunity for us to play in that market and be a fast follower.”
It’s a similar story with coffee - its McCafé branches have been serving up flat whites since February for significantly less than high street rivals. And it’s set to premiumise its coffee range further still with a trial of handcrafted barista coffee underway at its St Paul’s store in London.
On health the UK CEO has also sought to address its reputation, with a comprehensive rebrand that saw the launch of menu bundles for less than 400 and 600 calories in January 2017, smaller portion sizes for a few bestsellers and even an invitation extended to parents on Mumsnet to pitch ideas for healthier menu options. From this initiative the grilled chicken wrap was born. But there are also pesky misconceptions around the calorie counts in its existing menu.
“A lot of people don’t realise a Big Mac is 580 calories. If you compare that to a sandwich in one of our competitors, a tuna baguette is 580 calories. If you look at a grilled chicken wrap in McDonald’s they’re between 300 and 380 calories, and a plain prawn sandwich in a competitor will be 380. So there’s an opportunity for us to show customers that you can eat more regularly at McDonald’s.”
Not least as you don’t even have to leave your house any more. In 2017 the chain launched a delivery service that drops off anything on its menu to your doorstep, though it comes with a £3 delivery charge. Isn’t that a hefty mark-up?
“I think people understand in the UK that there is a cost for having food delivered, or anything delivered. We don’t put any restrictions on the size, so you can order a double espresso for less than £1, but you’ll pay £3 to have it delivered. Or you can order a whole bundle of food and you’ll still only pay £3 for delivery. So we think it’s really transparent and fair in the way we’ve done it, and it’s very obvious to customers what the delivery cost is.”
Around 50,000 deliveries are now being carried out from 500 restaurants per day, a chunk of extra sales that no doubt helped push the UK business to its 49th consecutive quarter of growth in results released last week, with like-for-like sales across the international business up 4.9%, largely driven by the UK and France.
“The OOH market is running flat to slightly negative, which is the informal eating out market in which we operate, but we’re significantly bucking that trend.”
While inflating ingredients costs and declining volume sales plague rivals, the long-term relationship between McDonald’s and its suppliers ensures far more stability on pricing - while innovation continues to draw in a growing number of customers, adds Pomroy.
“You can’t deliver 49 quarters of growth if your people aren’t happy. It’s impossible”
Last week’s results are just the latest chapter in a growth spurt spanning 12 years, he adds, an evolution kicked off by Pomroy’s predecessor (and fellow Brit) Steve Easterbrook, who restructured the business and dismantled the previous hierarchy to involve executive teams coming forward to share ideas. Since being promoted to global CEO in 2015 the stock price of the QSR giant has nearly doubled from $90 per share to around $160, with franchisees investing £650m in the estate in less than three years.
This growth has seen 5,000 new staff members recruited over the past 10 months alone and an announcement in April that the UK business would look to recruit a further 1,000 managers. Finding enough skilled candidates to take on these roles will require Pomroy once again to set about dispelling unflattering myths about the ‘McJob’ though.
“There are certain pockets that have a certain legacy view of the McJob, which really irritates me. At least have the facts before judging.” Half of franchisees start their careers in McDonald’s restaurants, he points out, and are now “very successful entrepreneurs”.
“We’re also spending £40m a year on training and development of our people” as well as offering private healthcare and high street discounts to staff, introducing fixed-term contracts in April 2017 and upping starting rates by 25% in the past two years.
For Pomroy it comes down once again to the idea that “you can’t deliver 49 quarters of growth if your people aren’t happy. It’s impossible”.
And it’s true that be it chicken feet or dead-end jobs flipping burgers, the old rumours that have plagued McDonald’s in the past are looking somewhat outdated. As Pomroy puts it: “I’ve probably seen more change in the past three years than in the entire 21 years I’ve been here, and it’s really exciting.”