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Sieren's China: Gray burgers

October 24, 2015

McDonald's is testing a new burger in China - one that's healthier and adapted to the culture. DW's Frank Sieren says that Chinese citizens feel understood.

China McDonald's
Image: Reuters/B. Yip

The new burgers are gray. Some users on the Chinese Internet say that they're marble gray, others that they're the color of smog. Be that as it may, from a Western point of view they're not particularly appetizing, even for those who aren't at all keen on McDonald's pale, plasticky rolls. However, the Chinese will have different associations. The burgers look like the mantous (steamed buns) that can be bought on every street corner. McDonald's mantou burgers are gray because of the black sesame that has been worked into the dough.

Mantous are a popular food that is also considered to be very healthy. Like French baguettes, they are eaten as an accompaniment to meals. It was a clever move by McDonald's to explore mantous because now the Chinese feel understood and believe that the US giant is taking their cultural considerations into account.

Not an easy market for Western fast food

It's cool to be seen on the net with a mantou bun burger, the Big Mac with a Chinese touch. Unlike in many other parts of the world, US fast-food chains have not had an easy ride in China. At the beginning, fast food from the "land of unlimited opportunities" was a success, but now things are becoming increasingly harder on this market, as young Chinese people begin to rediscover their cultural roots.

Frank Sieren Kolumnist Handelsblatt Bestseller Autor China
DW columnist Frank SierenImage: Frank Sieren

Early this week, David Novak, the CEO of the fast-food company Yum! Brands, announced that he wanted to spin off the China business into a separate, publicly traded company. He wants to sell off KFC and Pizza Hut to franchisees. For sales have stagnated, albeit at a high level: in 2014, Yum made $6.9 billion, but this year has failed to reach the 10 percent growth it had hoped for.

Red bean ice cream and Peking duck wrap

Profits fell by 8 percent to 713 million dollars last year. One reason was that US managers did not think it necessary to adapt to the Chinese market. Moreover, there were food scandals involving rotten meat and antibiotic-fed chickens. There were similar problems at McDonald's, with sales falling by 4.8 percent in the first quarter for restaurants that have been open longer than a year. Profits fell, too. However, on Thursday, McDonald's announced that global sales had increased by 4 percent again in the third quarter. Unlike Yum, CEO Steve Easterbrook has met the cultural challenge in China.

McDonald's has adapted itself to the country, including green-tea ice cream, rice and now the gray mantou burger on its menus. McDonald's ran its fast food restaurants in China for over 20 years itself, only starting to franchise them in 2008. By the end of 2014, about 20 percent of the country's 2000 McDonald's restaurants were franchises. However, though the mantou burger is a success, it will disappear from the menu in early November. McDonald's wants to try out a few other fast-food dishes with a Chinese twist. How about a sweet-and-sour burger and red bean icecream, or even a Peking duck wrap?

DW's Frank Sieren has lived in Beijing for 20 years.