Why Did McPizza Fail?

Why do some products succeed and others fail? The answers may hold lessons for which future projects should be pursued and, if pursued, how to pursue them. Successes are sometimes researched; failures much less often. The passages quoted below are from an unusually deep dive into the story of McDonalds’s failed McPizza.

(p. 1) Maybe you are too young to remember. Perhaps you forgot. Or there’s a chance you’ve blocked it. But the home of the Big Mac began selling pizza in the mid-1980s, hoping to grab market share from national pie chains. McDonald’s gave up a few years later. Nobody seemed to lament the passing of McPizza, and nobody was urging its return. Which, to Mr. Thompson in the fall of 2016, made the topic all the more appealing.

. . .

(p. 8) One trick to keeping this enterprise alive and entertaining is Mr. Thompson’s refusal to accept answers to the show’s titular question, which he had learned by Episode 5. McPizza failed for reasons that should have seemed evident before it was rolled out: It’s way, way off brand, and it didn’t bake fast enough to keep pace with the rest of the menu.

. . .

Early on, Mr. Thompson learned that a McDonald’s in Pomeroy, Ohio, was the last franchise in the country still serving the pizza, and he raised money through Indiegogo to fly there and try it. (He described it as “at least as good as Little Caesars.”)

He wondered how the place kept selling an item that others in the chain didn’t offer. Once again, definitive answers were elusive because the franchise owner would not speak to him.  . . .

Several months after Mr. Thompson’s visit, the Pomeroy McDonald’s stopped selling McPizza. The podcast depicted this as retaliation against the show, a shameless effort to curtail old-fashioned muckraking. This makes sense only in the mind of “Brian Thompson,” whose baseline assumption is that McDonald’s ought to again sell pizza because people love it and because the company is in business to make money. Hence, any rationale for the product’s demise is under suspicion.

To Mr. Thompson’s delight, he keeps unearthing new rationales for the product’s cancellation. At one point, he heard about a McDonald’s in Adak, Alaska, a largely deserted island in the middle of the Bering Sea. For years, Adak was a Cold War outpost for Army and Navy barracks, but it was decommissioned in the early 1990s, and the McDonald’s there was abandoned. Last year, Mr. Thompson raised money online to travel the 3,100 miles there, hoping that the husk of a restaurant would contain his Holy Grail: a McDonald’s pizza oven.

He flew to Anchorage, then took a once-a-week, three-hour flight to Adak. After landing, he went straight to the McDonald’s and was disappointed to see it had been boarded up — there was no way inside. The trip seemed a grand bust. But as Mr. Thompson prepared to leave the island, his Airbnb host suggested he call a guy named Larry, who, it turned out, had once found a pizza oven in a derelict bowling alley. Evidently, it had been hauled out of the defunct McDonald’s. Larry determined it had been manufactured for McDonald’s by Garland Commercial Industries, a company in Freeland, Pa.

To “Brian Thompson,” this was a breakthrough on a par with the formulation of the laws of thermodynamics. He called Garland, and a representative put him in touch with a service tech in Cleveland who had once repaired McDonald’s ovens. Unlike the corporate P.R. department, this guy was chatty.

“They were only in McDonald’s for roughly two to three years because of the difficulty to program them,” the tech said on Episode 143. “I don’t even think there’s program manuals for it.”

And thus, to Mr. Thompson’s delight, three years into the show, he’d added another reason that McDonald’s killed pizza — the ovens were a fiasco.

For the full story, see:

David Segal. “Answering a Fast-Food Question, if You Care.” The New York Times, SundayBusiness Section (Sunday, November 1, 2020): 1 & 8.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Oct. 28, 2020, and has the title “A Podcast Answers a Fast-Food Question That Nobody Is Asking.”)

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