The Cult of McRib
by Jeffrey Sward
 
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The McDonald's McRib sandwich has attracted a loyal, fanatical, but small fan base often referred to as "The Cult of McRib."  Explore the history of the McRib, seasonal distribution, ingredients, quality or lack thereof, and behavior of the McRib cultists. 

A Brief History of McDonald's Menu

McDonald's is nothing if not a contradiction unto itself. 

The original streamlined McDonald's menu was created by Richard and Maurice McDonald in 1948 and consisted of just nine items:

  • hamburger 15 cents
  • cheeseburger 19 cents
  • French fries 10 cents
  • milk 10 cents
  • milk shake 20 cents
  • root beer 10 cents
  • orangeade 10 cents
  • coca cola 10 cents
  • coffee 10 cents

This original nine-item menu has been validated with various extant contemporary display and paper menus.  The limited menu allowed high-volume-low-cost food preparation with standardized procedures.  Note: the official McDonald's site lists the original nine items as: hamburger, cheeseburger, soft drink in 3 flavors, milk, coffee, pie, and potato chips.  Clearly very early in the process pie and potato chips were replaced with milk shake and French fries. 

In 1963 McDonald's began down the dubious path of expanding the original nine item menu with the addition of the Filet-O-Fish sandwich.  As McDonald's grew exponentially, the commitment to a simple menu was foolishly abandoned and replaced with both additional permanent items and seasonal items.  

In 1981 McDonald's introduced the McRib sandwich.  The McRib sandwich never became a permanent menu item, and has been available on an intermittent basis ever since.  Often the McRib sandwich is available for certain brief times in select regions on a rotating basis.  It usually returns just once a year in select markets, but not simultaneously. 

Recent National Seasonal Rollouts

Beginning in fall of 2010, McDonald's began a series of nation-wide McRib rollouts rather than rotating select markets all year. Dates of recent national rollouts follow.

  • November 2, 2010 through December 5, 2010
  • October 24, 2011 through November 14, 2011
  • December 17, 2012 through Mid-January 2012
  • Mid-October 2013 through Mid-December 2013
  • November 5, 2014 through December 2014 (selected areas)
  • September 2015 through November 2015 (selected areas)
  • November 9, 2016 through December 2016 (selected areas)
  • November 6, 2017 through December 2017 (selected areas)

McRib Seasonal Theories

Why is the McRib available only sporadically?  There are many theories.  Here are a few:

Inadvertent Official McDonald's Pronouncement

At the 1985 stockholder meeting, it was mentioned that the reason the McRib was pulled was because the McRib could not sustain international sales because many countries do not eat pork regularly. The McRib would be brought back periodically as a specialty sandwich for promotional periods until sales receded.  Ironically, Germany is the only country where the McRib is always on the menu.

The "A Few Million Dollars Is Real Money Even for McDonald's" Theory

McDonald's sells approximately 500 million Big Macs per year, compared with 20 million McRibs.  Even though the McRib is an infinitesimal percentage of the McDonald's empire, 20 million sales of anything might be real money. 

The Rotating Specialty Inventory Theory

It is best for any restaurant to have as little inventory as possible.  The greater the inventory, the more it adversely affects the bottom line. The McRib adds three unique items to the required inventory, namely: the meat, the sauce, and the bread. If the McRib was offered permanently, the demand would fade to a lower level causing the total dollar sales to decline but the specialized ingredient overhead inventory cost would remain high.  So, in a nutshell, the sales would plateau but expenses would go up.  

The rotating specialty inventory theory fits elegantly with the rotating regional availability practice.  If the McRib is offered on a roving regional basis, the specialty inventory can be targeted to a relatively small geographical area until the profit margin drops, followed by rotating the specialty inventory to the next geographical area. 

The Declining Interest Theory

When the McRib is not available, people (read McRib cultists) crave it.  When the McRib becomes available again, an instant increase in traffic results.  After the novelty wears off, interest declines rapidly.  When the demand is less than fixed overhead costs, it is time to pull the product again. 

If it was sold all the time, people would just say "I'll get it tomorrow."  If it is known to be short term item, people will buy it today because it might be gone tomorrow.

Seasonal Marketing Ploy Theory

Many fast food restaurant chains find that the November-December holiday period is an opportunity for timed marketing campaigns. With McRib viewed as a peak demand product, it is convenient to overlay the McRib limited release to a holiday advertising campaign. Often fast food restaurants experience an end-of-year decline in traffic, and the seasonal McRib promotion is a counter measure.

The McRib Sandwich

What exactly is the McRib Sandwich?

From the official McDonald's web site:

  • Calories 500
  • Fat 26g
  • Cholesterol 70mg
  • Sodium 980mg
  • McRib Pork Patty: Pork, water, salt, dextrose, BHA and BHT and propyl gallate and citric acid (preservatives).
  • McRib Sauce: Water, high fructose corn syrup, tomato paste, distilled vinegar, molasses, natural smoke flavor (plant source), food starch-modified, salt, sugar, spices, soybean oil, xanthan gum, onion powder, garlic powder, chili pepper, sodium benzoate (preservative), caramel color, beet powder.
  • bun, pickles and onions

From the official McDonald's McRib 2010 restaurant box:

  • McRib tangy temptation
  • Flavorful boneless pork
  • A smothering of tangy barbecue sauce
  • Your old friend is back. It's the telltale sign of that tangy barbecue sauce that's left its mark on your lips. The fact that the tender boneless pork is smothered in it means there's no way of getting away with this love affair. I'm lovin' it ®.

From the official McDonald's McRib 2016 restaurant box:

  • Tangy, tasty, real pork ...
  • Tempted?

McRib Quality or Lack Thereof

The McRib sandwich is marketed as a barbecue rib sandwich.  It is neither, although it is a sandwich. 

The meat of the McRib sandwich is made from left over small scraps of pork.  The pork scraps are molded together into the shape of ribs.  In addition, striped coloring is added to enhance the illusion of ribs. 

The sauce may resemble in some remote manner barbecue sauce.  However, no respectable specialty barbecue restaurant would serve such a bland sauce. 

The hallmarks of the McDonald's philosophy, beside high sales volume, are consistent quality and taste which will offend almost no one.  Non-offensive taste leads to bland flavors.  Consistent quality means the product at one location will be very similar to the product at another location.  Consistent quality should not be confused with high quality.  Thusly, the result of the McDonald's philosophy is bland consistent mediocrity.  The McRib sandwich is an archetypal product. 

The barbecue cognoscenti have long regarded the McRib sandwich as fake barbecue  Often this is expressed as "faux barbecue" or "faux cue" for short. 

The Cult of McRib

Despite the mediocre quality of the McRib sandwich, but buoyed by its rare availability, the McRib sandwich has attracted a loyal, fanatical, but small fan base.  This fan base is often referred to as the Cult of McRib. 

McRib cultists are easily identified by these behaviors:

  • The phrase "I hear the McRib is coming back" creeps into unrelated conversations
  • Frequent surfing to the McRib Locator web site
  • Frequent calls to the closest McDonald's inquiring about the first day the McRib will become available
  • Creation of a countdown poster showing the number of days remaining for the return of the McRib
  • Measuring the freezer in order to buy the maximum number of McRibs for freezing in order to create a supply for when the McRib disappears from local restaurants
  • Making a trip to McDonald's the first day the McRib has become available again
  • Planning all recreational activities around the McRib schedule when the McRib is available locally
  • Planning trips to cities where the McRib is known to be currently available
  • Joining more than three Facebook groups dedicated to the McRib
  • A decrease in the ability to discern quality in barbecued meat

Conclusion

This is the peculiar story of the Cult of McRib.  For those of us non-cultists, it is best to remember the cognoscenti's assessment of the McRib as "faux barbecue" or "faux cue" for short.  So when someone asks "What is your opinion of the McRib sandwich?" merely reply: "Faux cue." 

 

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