How hot is too hot? McDonald’s launches Spicy McChicken experiment to find out

A team of cooks, marketers, and operations experts exited a boardroom at McDonald’s Canada headquarters last April with a vision for a new McChicken. They did not know what it would look like exactly, but they knew it would be very spicy.

Just how spicy it would be was left to Jeff Anderson, the company’s head chef. It was a perilous assignment: too hot and he risked offending the majority of McDonald’s consumers; too mild and he’d lose credibility with pepper heads.

“It’s up to us as McDonald’s to understand, okay, what is spicy?” Anderson said. “What does an average consumer think is spicy?”

But McDonald’s Canada — the biggest burger chain in the country — didn’t know the answer.

“It’s really hard for us to understand what spice level they want in Atlantic Canada, versus what they want in Quebec, versus the west. It’s all different,” he said. “How do we put our finger on that key tolerance that will fit a McDonald’s consumer?”

The new Spicy McChicken promotion, which starts Tuesday and runs until March 11, is the chain’s attempt to figure out exactly how hot is too hot.

To do it, Anderson has developed a kind of Goldilocks experiment, with three levels of spicy mayonnaise subbing in for the regular mayonnaise on non-spicy McChickens.

Flavour Reddy Foods LLC

McDonald’s Canada head chef with a Spicy McChicken sandwich.

J.P. Moczulski for National Post

He refuses to refer to these sauces as mild, medium and hot, insisting that even the first tier is spicy. A pale green jalapeño sauce, the least spicy of the three, will debut Tuesday, joined by the mid-range habanero sauce two weeks later and a ghost pepper sauce two weeks after that. Aside from the new sauce, Anderson said, the “McChicken identity” remains intact.

“This will give us a great indication of where our consumer’s spice level is,” Anderson said, adding that the staggered release is designed as a gauge of consumer preference in each market around the country, with the resulting knowledge then used in future campaigns.

“We’ll be able to understand where we sold this more than we sold this, or when we brought in this, did people stop buying this one?” he said. “We want to make sure we’re fulfilling our guests’ expectations on what spicy is.”

From the start, Anderson was determined not to repeat the mistakes of 2016’s Spice It Up campaign, McDonald’s last attempt at a spicy dish in Canada, which paired an Angus burger with jalapeño and Sriracha.

“It didn’t perform as well as we would like,” he said. “The feedback was, ‘It’s not spicy.’”

This time, Anderson had clearance from up high to make a legitimately spicy sandwich, since McDonald’s Canada chief executive John Betts is a self-described “spice fan.” From there, however, it was complicated.

We want to make sure we’re fulfilling our guests’ expectations on what spicy is

McDonald’s Canada head chef Jeff Anderson

Anderson and his team considered adding hot peppers to the breading on the chicken, but that posed the risk of “flavour transfer” in the deep fryers, with the chicken making the oil spicy and the oil in turn making everything else spicy.

McDonald’s also looked at partnering with some major hot sauce brands — Anderson wouldn’t say which ones — before deciding on a three-tier sauce approach after rounds of consumer testing. “We did a lot of different spicy research,” he said.

McDonald’s didn’t come up with the sauce alone. Shortly after announcing the spicy McChicken, McDonald’s asked its suppliers to pitch ideas on how to actually make it spicy. Anderson’s menu team eventually chose Flavour Reddy Foods LLC to manufacture the sauce.

Joseph Horvath, Flavour Reddy’s product development chef, worked with McDonald’s to develop the three spicy mayonnaise recipes. He said using ghost pepper — among the hottest and most famous in the pepper world, with a rating of one million units on the Scoville scale (a bell pepper is rated at zero) — signalled that McDonald’s was serious.

head chef

McDonald’s Canada head chef Jeff Anderson prepares a Spicy McChicken sandwich at the company’s test kitchen.

J.P. Moczulski for National Post

Horvath sat with the menu team and a scale, pepper powders and mayonnaise, and mixed different combinations until they were set on taste and colour. The habanero and ghost pepper powders were similar in colour, so they added more paprika to the ghost pepper mayonnaise to make it deeper and angrier looking than the orange habanero.

“We don’t make sauces at this level (of heat),” Horvath said. “As soon as this got approved, we had an internal meeting as to how we’re going to handle this on the floor.”

At its manufacturing facility, Flavour Reddy cordoned off an enclosed area for producing the sauce. Staff had to wear extra protective gear, so that their skin was not exposed. And the sauces are only produced on the weekend to limit how many people are at the facility.

“I know if I go out and I see something with ghost pepper, I’m expecting heat,” Horvath said in an interview last week, sitting with Anderson in the cafeteria at McDonald’s headquarters in north Toronto.

The cafeteria, a fully functioning McDonald’s restaurant, doubles as the company’s test kitchen, but it includes a set of privacy shields on wheels, which Anderson uses to block off a section when he serves up menu item prototypes during secretive tastings.

Anderson, of course, presented each level of Spicy McChicken to John Betts and the rest of McDonald’s Canada top brass prior to launch.

“The team brought me one after the other,” Betts said in an email, “and by the third one I was definitely sweating.”

Financial Post

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