Many of us have enjoyed a Big Mac or Quarter Pounder with Cheese, but have you ever glimpsed at the business behind the burger? Have you ever wondered how the beef gets from farms and ranches into those juicy, beefy sandwiches? (Are burgers really sandwiches??)This April, I had a rancher’s dream opportunity. A chance for a behind-the-scenes peek at McDonald’s business. An insider’s view into not only their corporate executive minds, but also a chance to speak with their restaurant owners – those with boots on the ground, literally selling the beef from my very ranch.
In theory, cattle ranchers and the burger giant McDonald’s should go together like peanut butter and jelly – but in reality, there is rarely a direct connection between retails and those who raise the beef that they are selling. As food producers, we have made a concerted effort in the past few years to connect with the people who consume our food, but have somehow skipped over those who are selling it.
Full disclosure, I have been a huge fan of the McDonald’s organization for many years now. They have treated Canadian beef producers in a way that no other end user ever has before. Beyond their commitment to serving Canadian grown food to Canadian people, McDonald’s has done so much more. In a world of fear based marketing, McDonald’s has risen above and embraced the primary producers of food. Their “Not Without Canadian Farmers” campaign has filled farmers and ranchers from across Canada with pride. So, when I was invited to Orlando to attend the McDonald’s World Wide convention, I didn’t just jump at the opportunity – I leapt.
The convention itself was a once in a lifetime experience. There were 15,000 people from all over the world registered. To put that into perspective, the population of people attending the conference was more than 23 times larger than Ituna, the town we ranch near. The conference population would have been in the top handful of largest cities in our entire province. It was BIG.
My purpose for attending this massive event was twofold. I would have opportunities throughout the week to meet and talk with McDonald’s executives, their greatest minds who keep the global wheels of their entire organization rolling. From supply chain to communications, I was to have the unique chance to share with them my thoughts on how to bridge the gap between beef producers and consumers. I was also going to spend time in the Sustainable Beef booth speaking with restaurant owners and corporate McDonald’s people about what sustainability means to my own ranch.
From the first session (which happened to feature a surprise performance by Pitbull), I had an entirely new appreciation for their commitment as an organization to sustainability. There, on a stage in front of thousands and thousands of people, global CEO Steve Easterbrook spoke of their Scale for Good commitment. As the largest restaurant company in the world, they saw that they could create positive change in a way that no one else could. They could make changes within their own restaurants, as well as within their supply chains, which could have ripple effects across the globe. He spoke of this with pride, as well as determination. It would not be an easy task, but it was a noble one.
Being on the enourmous conference floor helped me see McDonald’s restaurant owners in an entirely new light. The scope of their business is not unlike that of a large farm. There were booths for drink dispensers, uniforms, print material, insurance, banking, cleaning supplies, and on and on and on. Chatting with many restaurant owners, it was a complete surprise to find that succession planning was just as big of an issue in their business as it is in my own.
It made me think back to when McDonald’s first launched their Sustainable Beef Pilot here at home. It was a ground breaking approach, for an end user to come to us, as an industry, and say “Here is our goal. Let’s work together to figure out the best way to get there.” By all accounts the project was a huge success, and has now transitioned to being a part of the Canadian Round Table for Sustainable Beef. There is also now the Canadian Beef Sustainability Acceleration Pilot with Cargill and partners like Verified Beef and BIXS, which brings the work that McDonald’s started even further along. All along, McDonald’s vision has not been about creating an elite brand of beef to market, it has been about helping beef producers learn from each other and to grow as an industry.
Spending time one on one with those owners, also helped me see that they are as disconnected from food production as consumers are. It was absolutely fantastic to see just how excited each one was to hear directly from a beef producer, and to get a little glimpse into a cattle ranch. Cargill, who makes all of Canada’s patties for McDonald’s, had created an amazing 360 degree video showcasing beef production from ranch to feedlot to processing plant and through to patty plant. It was a huge eye opener for each person to see, and was incredibly fun for myself, to be able to guide them through the video with anecdotes from my own farm. Every single time that I introduced myself as Adrienne, a Cattle Rancher from Canada, I was met with the same huge smile and exclamation of “No way!! That’s amazing!!” It was heartwarming to see not only the excitement of people wanting to talk to ranchers, but also that McDonald’s saw this need, and wanted to make sure that as many people as possible had the opportunity to learn from us. Yes, learn FROM us, not talk down to us. It was so refreshing, just thinking about it now has me craving a Big Mac….
I was amazed with how much their corporate executives wanted to chat with us ranchers, and how much they valued our opinions. We sat down with many of their corporate staff to share our views on how we thought McDonald’s could continue to do business with beef producers. The idea that they not only wanted to bridge the gap between their beef producers and their customers, but wanted our opinions on how best to do that, gave me goose bumps. These people, including the Corporate Executive Vice President herself, Francesca DeBiase, as well as many other vice presidents, directors and managers of McDonald’s global business, deeply valued our boots on the ground experience.
From McDonald’s Canada’s CEO, Chief of Marketing VP and General Council VP, each were thrilled to meet and chat. I met a man who works in their HO treasury branch. I asked him about how they hedge markets and peg currency to lower their risk. He was shocked and amazed to hear that farmers need to be experts in these areas as well, and that we, as producers, need to be constantly managing our exposure to markets. He had never thought of agriculture as that kind of business before. It was a great conversation.
It was a week that filled me with pride in the food I am producing, as well as excitement for the future of the beef industry. In my eyes, those golden arches are glowing pretty bright these days, in ways that this country girl would never have expected.