A 50th McAnniversary. An 80th birthday. Record sales. A tasty new chicken sandwich. Even a goofy appearance by the world’s most famous clown. And somehow Drake manages to steal the show. McDonald’s Canada held a top secret company convention in Toronto last week, with 2,300 franchisees, restaurant managers and company brass — including ‘the founder’ George Cohon — celebrating the golden anniversary of the Golden Arches in Canada. Turns out the now-retired Cohon, who just turned 80, actually happens to have at least one famous rapper on his radar. He regaled the McFaithful in the Metro Toronto Convention Centre about a chance meeting he had with Drizzy at Sotto Sotto in Yorkville recently. “I said: ‘Drake, you’re famous dude.’ He said: ‘Well, you’re a famous dude,’ ” Cohon recalled with a chuckle. Then he says after he gave the rapper’s bodyguard a card to redeem for a free burger, “Drake asked if I had any more, so I gave him nine of the 10 cards I had,” he said. The anecdote befit the closed-door, two-day gathering of McDonald’s staff and suppliers at a time when the company wanted to give a respectful nod to its wildly successful 50-year history in Canada while making way for a new generation of more health conscious and tech savvy fast foodies. The Golden Arches isn’t the only restaurant chain that started out in Canada in the baby boomer era that is coming of age in the millennial generation. Boston Pizza and Pizza Pizza also hit 50 this year, while Tim Hortons hit the milestone in 2014 — then Burger King swallowed it the same year. KFC (previously Kentucky Fried Chicken) is 55 now in Canada. “These are all brands that started here in boomer times, and now they’re doing business with a whole new digital generation that wants antibiotic-free meat, food quality and all-day breakfast,” noted Robert Carter, executive director of food service at market research firm NPD Group. Appropriately, the theme of McDonald’s biennial conference this year was “constant evolution.” Of course, the past was resurrected given the anniversary. The conference kicked off with streamers and a singalong led by company mascot Ronald McDonald. Employees and executives had just watched one of McDonald’s early 1970s-era commercials featuring then unknown Anson Williams (Potsie on Happy Days) and John Amos (the dad on ’70s sitcom Good Times) dancing with mops and brooms in chorus line fashion to the original “You deserve a break today” jingle. The revved-up clown then urged the upbeat audience to sing new lyrics displayed on the giant stage screen to the old company standard: “Celebrate ourselves today, Raise a cup of McCafé, We’re McDonald’s, We’re McDonald’s!” The first McDonald’s in Canada was opened in Richmond, B.C. in 1967, marking the chain’s first foray outside the U.S. after 12 years of rapid growth south of the border under legendary franchising wizard Ray Kroc (the subject of the recent movie The Founder starring Michael Keaton.) The company quickly grew here too, becoming the largest restaurant chain in Canada by 1981. It launched its first drive-thru restaurant in Regina in 1977 and breakfast in 1976 — considered cutting edge at the time for the French fry- and burger-centric industry. Attracting the coveted millennial customer has proven tougher today for a fast food industry born and raised by boomers. Carter of NPD Group says young consumers are interested in healthier, fresh ingredients and are willing to pay more for a quality product. However, they also want to keep the “fast” in fast food because convenience is an issue in the non-stop digital world. McDonald’s has responded with faster ordering on in-store kiosks and has also added third ordering windows and double lanes at drive-thrus — which make up about 70 per cent of the business. They recently added greeters to usher guests through the process from the moment they walk in, along with table service. McDonald’s Canada has also pledged to remove antibiotics important to human medicine from its chicken offerings, including their popular Chicken McNuggets, by the end of 2018. Plus it has introduced more premium offerings at a higher price point and more customization at self-ordering kiosks, which have dozens of higher-end ingredients on offer, from crumbled blue cheese to sun-dried tomato pesto. But the Big Mac isn’t going anywhere. “We’ve stayed true to our roots but constantly evolved to meet the needs of our guests,” McDonald’s Canada chief executive John Betts explained. McDonald’s in the U.S. had really struggled a few years ago with a stale, unhealthy image and sliding sales, but has begun to bounce back with simple things such as toasting Big Mac buns and all-day breakfast. Canada has been a bright spot for the international chain, charting year-over-year sales growth over the last decade. Betts, who has presided over nine of those years, expects another record year in 2017. The conference didn’t have any Big Macs or fries on offer, so lunch was catered by the convention centre including seafood chowder, beef, chicken and vegetables. But the McCafé truck that travelled to various events such as the Toronto International Film Festival was set up on the convention floor, and samples of the chain’s fresh muffins and buttery croissants were available among the 80 vendors. Mayor McCheese ties ($13) and T-shirts ($10) were popular, and they also handed out free pens with the Hamburglar and Grimace on them, but those guys were nowhere in sight. Franchisees got to check out various store designs for new restaurants via virtual reality headsets. They were all brightly lit with a European café vibe with lots of wood and stone finishes. A restaurant in Richmond, B.C., was torn down and is getting a total rebuild with one of the new designs. The store is run by affable franchisee Joe Guzzo, who has worked for McDonald’s for 42 years and now runs a few restaurants in the area. “I have ketchup in my veins,” he joked. He said things at his employers “have changed a lot over the years but it’s better. We kept our foundation and core values. I love the McDonald’s history and what it stands for.” The convention also included a tribute to Cohon, who is renowned for his philanthropic work (Ronald McDonald House celebrates its 40th birthday this year, too). He also launched McDonald’s in the then-Soviet Union in 1990 and wrote about his adventures working in both countries in his book To Russia With Fries. Though the parent Des Plaines, Ill.-based burger behemoth doesn’t release financials for its subsidiary markets, Betts said that the first quarter of 2017 in Canada was strong, largely due to the introduction of all-day breakfast items here in February — and it was launched more than halfway through the three-month quarter. “It’s not about following other brands,” Betts noted. “We don’t sit back. We don’t accept the status quo. We drive forward with a relentless pursuit to beat yesterday,” he told the cheering McCrowd. When told it was a couple of his competitors 50th birthdays too, Betts replied: “I’ll have to send them a little card. They’ll get a kick out of that.” – Source: The Hamilton Spectator, Canada.
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