A few years ago, McDonald's started going after the Dunkin' Donuts and Starbucks of the world by stepping up the quality of some of their beverage offerings. This began with their Premium Roast Coffee, which has actually done quite well for them. Given their leverage in size, they are able to offer this at an affordable cost, while adding an upgrade to their breakfast menu, all while providing handsome profit margins.
The success of the coffee launch prompted the company to look at other drink offerings. Back in May 2006, Crain's Chicago Business outlined their strategy:
McDonald's Corp. is boosting its beverage offerings around the world as it seeks to build on three years of monthly same-store sales growth… testing sweet iced tea in 3,000 restaurants in the South and iced coffee in the Northeast. Energy drinks may start springing up in other parts of the country.
…Adding more drink choices is part of a new trend in the restaurant industry and an easy way to grow profits. "Where the consumer sees a thirst-quenching choice, the restaurant operator sees margins," says Dennis Lombardi, executive vice president of food service strategies at WD Partners, an Ohio-based restaurant development firm.
On that note, recently McDonald's increased the rollout of their sweet iced tea to include the Chicago market. Marketed under the brand Mickey D's Sweet Tea, it's a southern-style sweet tea that obviously hopes to gain a broader audience.
As I lack the personal expertise to know what makes a great sweet tea (though Slate had a great tutorial last summer), I tapped into the opinions of my good friend Randy Birkey, Web Strategist at Chicago-based Headstand Media. More importantly, Randy's roots come from his upbringing in South Carolina and his family's creation of a secret sweet tea recipe. If I needed to go to anyone for an authoritative opinion on sweet tea, Randy would be my first choice. So that is what I did!
Here are a few of Randy's thoughts…
I think it is important to note that this is southern-style sweet tea. Northerners are not accustomed to this style of tea! I judge sweet tea based upon my upbringing in South Carolina. I grew up on the stuff!
When one approaches sweet tea, it's really a matter of taste and preference, formed by one's culture and upbringing. In many cases there are negative connotations regarding sweet tea, normally associated with the amount of sugar used in making it. To dispel that myth, I don't have bad teeth, diabetes, or other sugar-related issues. There is more sugar in a can of pop than in most sweet iced tea.
Additionally, if brewed properly, sweet tea contains antioxidants. In fact, depending on what tea leaves are used during the brewing process, it can also be caffeine free.
Having tasted McDonald's Sweet Tea, I think it's pretty good, if you work from the assumption that they are attempting to target the widest possible audience. Personally, I feel it needs to be sweeter and possess a stronger tea flavor for me to really recommend it.
However, one of the challenges of sweet tea is that the stronger you make it, the more bitter the drink becomes. To help neutralize the bitterness, we often add a small amount of baking soda during the brewing process when preparing my family recipe. It helps give the tea a sweet, smooth flavor. I wish McDonald's would have figured that out, as they would have a better product, in my opinion.
In the end, the big question is, "Will this product from the South find acceptance here in the North?" Judging from the commonplace non-sweetened tea available in most restaurants, my guess is this will be a hard sell for McDonald's up here.
Still, given the limited choices, I would select the sweet tea at McDonald's over their other drink offerings. It's not bad, just not perfect! (I'd say the best restaurant sweet tea I've had can be found at Cracker Barrel.)
Jumping from Randy's expert opinion to my naive one, I also tried Mickey D's Sweet Tea when it was first launched here in the Chicago area. Apparently, each individual restaurant needs additional equipment to make this particular beverage.
I found the drink to be very sweet when sampled on my virgin palette. I'm just not used to tea tasting that sweet, which probably hints to the acceptance issue that Randy noted in his review. Of course, this is also the middle of winter, and probably one of the last things I'm desiring to drink these days is a nice cold batch of tea! The color of the drink was what you come to expect from tea, though I would imagine that most folks won't actually see the drink, given that its served in a foam-based cup with non-transparent lid, partaken with a straw.
The comments made about the health aspects of sweet tea should be noted. When browsing McDonald's website for nutritional information, I found entries for 5 different sizes of Mickey D's Sweet Tea being offered at restaurants: Child (12 oz. – 60 calories), Small (16 oz. – 120 calories), Medium (21 oz. – 150 calories), Large (32 oz. – 230 calories), and Gallon (128 oz. – 640 calories).
It should be noted that in all of its marketing materials and inaugural $1 pricing, McDonald's is pushing the 32 oz. size, so watch your calorie intake accordingly. Comparing the calories/ounce, however, McDonald's Sweet Tea does seem to be the less caloricly-costly option when compared to ordering a Coca-Cola. The nutritional data doesn't note whether their calculations are based on a large amount of ice added to the cup of sweet tea. In my personal experience, there was quite a bit. Your mileage may vary.
Overall, it should be interesting to watch how McDonald's Sweet Tea/Mickey D's Sweet Tea does in various markets. Obviously their initial testing a few years ago prompted a larger rollout. Has McDonald's introduced this drink in your area? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.