London - For almost half a century, the world's most popular burger has remained all but unchanged by the swirls and eddies of the US fast-food business.
Today, the Big Mac is still composed of the same few simple ingredients made famous in a 1974 advertising campaign: “Two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions - on a sesame seed bun.”
Even as it was assigned the blame for America's expanding waistlines and became a byword for US cultural imperialism, the signature McDonald's sandwich, first made in 1967, has continued to sell in the hundreds of millions.
But now, on the eve of its 50th birthday, the Big Mac is about to undergo the most fundamental alteration in its history.
Last week, McDonald's began trialling two new versions of its best-selling burger at around 130 locations in Texas and central Ohio: a smaller so-called “Mac Jr”, and a larger “Grand Mac”. If the two new sizes prove to be a hit with customers, they will be rolled out across the US. From now on, the Big Mac may - technically speaking - be a Medium Mac.
McDonald's US sales fell steadily over the first half of this decade, and the company has admitted it must innovate to keep pace with consumer tastes. Its core menu is its testing ground. With stiff competition from its rivals in the so-called “better burger” sector, the Big Mac is struggling to maintain relevance in the industry it first helped to super-size.
This week The Weinstein Co released the first trailer for its McDonald's biopic The Founder.
Oscar-tipped, the film stars Michael Keaton as Ray Kroc, the ambitious businessman who wrested the chain from its creators, the McDonald brothers, in the 1950s. It's either the origin story of an enduring American institution, or a nostalgic glimpse of a fading empire's glory days.
The Big Mac was created in 1967 by one of Kroc's early franchisees, Jim Delligatti, who operated several McDonald's restaurants in Pennsylvania. At the time, it was considered a prestige menu item, and a necessary response to Burger King's Whopper. It became available across the US in 1968 and, upon its sesame seed-encrusted shoulders, McDonald's would build a global brand.
Andrew F Smith, the author of Hamburger: A Global History, teaches culinary history at the New School University in New York. He ate his first burger in 1956, back when McDonald's had only a handful of items on its menu. “I didn't like the burgers,” he recalled. “I went because the French fries were great.”
Eventually, Mr Smith said, Mr Kroc and co realised their customers “didn't just want something cheap, they wanted something that tasted good. The trifecta of taste is sugar, fat and salt; those are the flavours inherent in virtually all fast-food. The secret of the Big Mac? A lot of fat and salt! It became a symbol for McDonald's and for the entire hamburger industry”.
Today, McDonald's purports to serve some 68 million customers per day, in 119 countries.
The Big Mac, as potent a symbol of American capitalism as Coca-Cola or the iPhone, has been used by The Economist to compare the cost of living in different countries since 1986, when the magazine published its first “Big Mac Index”.
In a press release announcing the Mac Jr and Grand Mac, Scott Nickell, the president of the McDonald's Central Ohio Co-op, described the Big Mac as “a McDonald's icon and a greattasting sandwich,” adding: “We listened to our customers, who told us they wanted different ways to enjoy the one-of-a-kind Big Mac taste.”
The Grand Mac contains one-third of a pound of beef compared to a regular Big Mac's onefifth of a pound, and it comes in a bigger bun with an extra slice of processed cheese. In 1967 Delligatti sold his new creation for 45 cents; today's Big Mac costs $3.99 (about R50). The Grand Mac will go for $4.89, while the modest Mac Jr is a mere $2.59.
For decades, the Big Mac was the standard against which all other burgers were measured It's a sensible business move, explained Darren Tristano, executive vice president at the food industry consultant Technomic. “McDonald's beverages and French fries have always come in multiple sizes,” he said. “By creating the Grand Mac and Mac Jr, they can satisfy both price and portion sizes for different people's tastes, without adding any new items to the menu.”
Just like the Big Mac in 1967, the Grand Mac and Mac Jr are a response to market forces. For decades, the Big Mac was the standard against which all other burgers were measured, but for many of today's burger-lovers, it's little more than a punchline. Who needs a Big Mac when you have “better burger” chains such as Five Guys, Smash Burger or the upmarket Umami Burger? Chipotle Mexican Grill, considered the most successful “fast casual” dining chain in the US, said last month it had applied for a trademark to open a burger chain called, simply, Better Burger. The fast casual market exploded in the late 2000s and is now worth around $5bn, Mr Tristano said. “It has stolen share not only from McDonald's, but from Burger King and Wendy's.”
Perhaps the leading purveyor of “better burgers” is Shake Shack, which opened its first permanent restaurant in New York in 2004 and now has almost 70 locations worldwide.
Shake Shack landed in London in 2013, and this year opened its first west coast branch in West Hollywood. When it went public early last year, the company was valued at around $1.6bn.
Shake Shack's cows are said to be raised without antibiotics or hormones, and its beef ground fresh from full-muscle cuts, not scraps. The chain launched in the same year as the release of the documentary Super Size Me and shortly after the publication of Eric Schlosser's book Fast Food Nation, both of which helped make the Big Mac a symbol of the evils of the food industry.
Still, McDonald's appears to enjoy its greatest success not when it tries to flog salads, but when it stays true to its original, nutritional values: salt, fat and sugar. In recent months, the firm curbed its US sales slide by offering breakfast all day. Days before the new Big Macs were unveiled, a Missouri branch announced it would serve “bottomless” orders of fries.
In the US, McDonald's must now jostle for position with multiple rivals. Overseas, its business continues to grow in countries where chain restaurants have yet to saturate the market. The bitter irony is that the Big Mac may be viewed more positively by consumers in the developing world than it is at home, in the culture it helped to create.
History's most influential burger may still be a global bestseller, but in America the Big Mac fell out of fashion years ago. It's the Elvis of sandwiches. “The Big Mac was for the Baby Boomer generation. It was exactly what we wanted and needed in the 1960s, 70s and 80s,” said Mr Smith.
“But my students go out of their way to avoid McDonald's. They prefer all these new chains who claim they don't use antibiotics or additives, who say they use grass-fed beef only - all the things that are attractive to millennials. Shake Shack may be healthier than eating a Big Mac. But then again, eating salt and fat and sugar has never been good for you, and it still isn't.”