When I started working at Needham, Harper & Steers in 1982, the agency had just lost the McDonald's account. The fast food giant was such a big part of the agency's culture that there was even a McDonald's right in the lower level of the building, part of the massive Illinois Center development at Michigan and Wacker in Chicago.
|The McRib with food stylist help|
Having this franchise an elevator ride away was a mixed blessing. We were kind of pissed off at them, but it sure was convenient. So we ate there, but we also made fun of them. A lot. And one thing we found especially amusing was the introduction of the McRib.
It was definitely an oddity in the fast food business: a sandwich made from chopped pork, pressed into a patty shaped like ribs but boneless, drenched in sugary (well, high-fructose corn syrup) BBQ sauce. Yum.
|The McRib, naked|
One a particularly slow day, we decided to get a McRib and do a little taste experiment. We took the pork patty and ran it for several minutes under warm water to rinse off the sauce best as possible. Our suspicions were confirmed: the meat itself -- grey in color and amazingly well bonded so as not to come apart -- had absolutely no flavor, and standing alone and naked it looked nothing short of disgusting.
This thing has been a perennial "special limited time only" menu item for going on 30 years now. I cannot for the life of me understand why, except to speculate that there are a lot of people in the country who have never had real BBQ in their lives, and somehow think the McRib is the real deal. Philistines.
|The McRib as actually served|
I never thought of the McRib as anything else but a crappy fast food sandwich until I read a piece this week by a blogger named Willy Staley, who posts at The Awl, a site with the motto "Be less stupid." His article, A Conspiracy of Hogs: The McRib as Arbitrage, suggests in a rather humorous but astute way that the relatively random appearance of the McRib on McDonald's menus is actually arbitrage at work...
Arbitrage is a risk-free way of making money by exploiting the difference between the price of a given good on two different markets—it’s the proverbial free lunch you were told doesn’t exist. In this equation, the undervalued good in question is hog meat, and McDonald’s exploits the value differential between pork’s cash price on the commodities market and in the Quick-Service Restaurant market. If you ignore the fact that this is, by definition, not arbitrage because the McRib is a value-added product, and that there is risk all over the place, this can lead to some interesting conclusions. (If you don’t want to do something so reckless, then stop here.)
I'm not sure if Staley is correct, but it sure makes more sense than the counter argument that this is a delicious offering for people who love BBQ pork, given that I think my coworkers and I proved that wrong in our warm water McRib experiment way back in 1982.
Read the who article here... it's worth ten minutes.
[cross-posted on my course blog, J646 Overtime]