McDonald's makes change to experiment that allows customers to tailor their own burgers with premium ingredients; burger patty will now be flat grilled like its other burgers rather than char-grilled

SANTA ANA, California , January 31, 2014 () – Under pressure to differentiate its menu in 2014, McDonald's is tweaking an experiment that allows customers to tailor their own burgers with premium ingredients.

The world's largest burger chain launched a build-your-own burger program late last year in two U.S. stores, including a gussied up fast-food outlet in Laguna Niguel. The upscale burger menu, which triggered headlines across the U.S, offers premium ingredients such as caramelized grilled onions and applewood bacon.

The test ended Dec. 15. However, the Laguna Niguel McDonald's quietly resumed the experiment this week with one major change: the patty is now flat grilled just like other burgers on the menu. In the initial test last year, the Quarter Pounder sized patty was char-grilled.

"As part of any test, we're trying different cooking combinations and methods to capture data on what's resonating with customers," McDonald's said Thursday.

The chain also said the remodeled McDonald's restaurant, at 30305 Golden Lantern Street, is the only one in the country selling a build your own premium burger.

"With this test, we will continue to have an opportunity to hear directly from our customers in real-time on what they expect from McDonald's in terms of the overall restaurant experience and their ability to further customize their menu choices," McDonald's told the Register. "It is too soon to tell whether this concept, or something similar, would be rolled out nationally and this test represents just one aspect of our broader menu innovation journey."

Using an iPad, customers choose from more than 20 toppings and sauces such as sharp white cheddar cheese, guacamole, caramelized onions, grilled mushrooms and creamy garlic sauce. A buttered bakery style bun and a buttered toasted artisan roll are the bun choices.

McDonald's didn't give specifics on why it brought the experiment back to Southern California. The decision was made, the chain said, after gathering "insights and feedback from our customers."

Dennis Lombardi, a restaurant consultant with Ohio-based WD Partners, said it's not unheard of for a chain to resume a test after retooling it based on customer critiques.

"One of the purposes of a field test is to see if there are refinements and enhancements that can be made. When that is the case, a second round of testing is typical," he said.

On Wednesday, an employee helping customers at the iPad stations made it clear that char-grill option is no longer available. She also cautioned that the custom burger would take a few extra minutes to prepare. Beyond that, the custom options remained unchanged from before, including the $5.79 price tag.

McDonald's said going to a flat-grilled burger also allows it to track "what is operationally reasonable, given that customers expect a timely order at McDonald's."

The custom burger test comes as the chain struggles with domestic sales in a post-recession economy. Last week, McDonald's reported a 1.4 percent decline in U.S. same-stores sales for the fourth quarter. Chief executive Don Thompson said last week that global same-store sales for January are expected to be flat.

"While near-term challenges remain, we are intent on strengthening our brand to further differentiate McDonald's and become an even bigger part of our customers' lives," he said.

If McDonald's expands the build-your-own burger program nationally, Lombardi said it must prove to "drive enough incremental traffic and sales to make it worth the hassle."

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