McDonald's has long been a leader in the fast-food industry, making groundbreaking changes and small tweaks to refine its menu and reshape the dining experience. And 2023 has been no different.
The mega-chain known for its iconic burger-and-fry combos made moves to make 2023 its best yet. It's gone from launching new initiatives to perfecting its menu by subtly improving classic offerings to zeroing in on marketing opportunities to boosting brand awareness and doubling down on digital offerings to boost sales.
Worldwide, McDonald's serves 69 million loyal diners daily, slinging countless Big Macs, World Famous Fries, and Chicken McNuggets that made the chain famous. That popularity saw the global chain bring in $23.18 billion in global revenue in 2022, and there's no slowing down in sight.
In 2023, McDonald's followed its strategic plan and honed in on the chain's three M-C-D pillars: Maximizing marketing (brand awareness, affordability), committing to core products (burgers, chicken, coffee), and doubling down on the four Ds (delivery, drive-thru, digital, and development). The result was a focus on elevating crucial menu items and refining digital offerings to make ordering a breeze.
Here are 10 of the big changes McDonald's ushered in this year.
Goodbye, self-serve drink stations
McDonald's is officially phasing out self-serve drink stations nationwide. This change was announced in September, and while it won't make much of a difference if you typically hit the drive-thru, it affects customers who order or eat in the dining rooms. This change was meant to create a more consistent ordering experience for employees and customers, regardless of where or how they order food.
Some stores in the Midwestern states have reportedly already started phasing out self-serve drink stations. One franchisee owner in Illinois told the State Journal-Register that the change is to make room for the growth of digital service. Don't worry about saying goodbye to free refills anytime soon, however. The country-wide transition won't be completed until 2032—nine years from now—so there's lots of time to adjust. Who knows? By then, maybe robots will serve up the drinks.
Hello, "strategic" price increases
Womp, womp. McDonald's used to be a reliably cheap spot to dine—in the 1940s, a burger was 15 cents–but this year, the Golden Arches was no longer seen as the affordable treat it once was. According to Business Insider, the company announced it would raise menu prices by around 10% in 2023. That's on top of a roughly 10% increase the year before. These price bumps don't sit well with low-income diners. The chain reported in an October earnings call that there has been a downturn in visits from customers who earn $45,000 a year or less. These "more discriminating" consumers—facing inflationary pressures and rising interest rates—are skipping the fast food chain as a result.
Meanwhile, McDonald's banked $6.69 billion in revenue in just three months. That revenue bump was directly attributed to "strategic menu prices," according to the New York Post. The irony was not lost on internet users. One McDonald's location at a rest stop in Darien, Conn., was reportedly selling a Big Mac combo meal for a whopping $18, which includes medium fries and a medium soft drink. (Psst. See how the price of a Big Mac at your local McD's compares to other locations by consulting the McCheapist map, courtesy of Pantry & Larder.)
McFlurry spoons got the boot
To reduce excessive plastic waste, McDonald's swapped out the McFlurry spoon, or "spindle" as it's formally known. The chain is ditching the famous hollowed-out spoon, instead opting for a more eco-friendly alternative. "This small change will help reduce single-use plastic waste in restaurants—while giving customers the same delicious McFlurry they know and love," McDonald's explained in a blog post announcing the change in October. "That's a win-win in our book." The change is part of a larger goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Rather than the straw-like spoon, your McFlurry will soon be served with a smaller black spoon that uses less plastic—the same one used for the sundaes.
The McCrispy is born
What's in a name? It turns out, a lot. In 2021, the crispy chicken sandwich debuted on menus, and, since then, it's steadily earned a fanbase despite its standing as a newcomer. In the two short years that it's been available, the sandwich became a "billion-dollar brand," according to the company. And, earlier this year, McDonald's made a game-changing decision to capitalize on the popularity of the southern-style chicken sandwich by renaming it the "McCrispy" in March.
With the signature fried chicken sandwich earning the "Mc" stamp of honor, it's officially solidified its place on the permanent menu. That simple change even boosted the sandwich's success. In a campaign to celebrate the name change, McDonald's launched two limited edition flavor variations, the Bacon Ranch McCrispy and Bacon Ranch Deluxe McCrispy. One month after the McCrispy came to be, the chain reported "double-digit sales growth" for the sandwich.
Burgers got an upgrade
Why reinvent the wheel? McDonald's knows its menu items are surefire winners, but this year saw the chain improve on its classics and step up the burgers that made Mickey D's famous. In April, McDonald's announced small tweaks to the preparation of its signature burgers: softer buns toasted to a perfect golden brown, cheese monitored to ensure optimal meltiness, and white onions cooked directly on burger patties for a "juicier, caramelized flavor," according to the chain.
Big Macs, McDoubles, classic cheeseburgers, double cheeseburgers, and hamburgers will all get this special treatment. Meanwhile, the beloved Big Mac will arrive with even more creamy and tangy Mac sauce. In total, McDonald's plans to make more than 50 different burger upgrades by early 2024.
Three bakery items got discontinued
Fans had to say goodbye to the cinnamon roll, the apple fritter, and the blueberry muffin this year. Back in July, the chain announced it would be phasing out its McCafé Bakery lineup, and these three bakery items were getting the boot. The chain hinted in a statement that it all came down to shifting consumer tastes—and while goodbyes are hard—fans can still get chocolate chip cookies and baked apple pie at restaurants nationwide. The now discontinued treats were launched in October 2020, making them the first baked goods McDonald's added to its permanent menu in more than eight years. Though there were fans of the sweet breakfast treats, perhaps sales weren't that great after all.
Digital ordering got a glow-up
This year, the fast food chain made a big investment in digital strategies. McDonald's aimed to create even more personalized and convenient experiences for customers who order through digital channels, with an added focus on digital kiosks, the McDonald's app, and McDelivery. Crafting more seamless digital experiences makes sense: The chain's loyalty program has expanded to more than 50 markets, and in the U.S., there are more than 25 million active users.
The chain reported that digital sales account for 40% of systemwide sales across its top six markets. That means huge investments in kiosks, mobile apps, and new tech for drive-thru customers. Digital strategies aim to speed up ordering and payment processes and drive sales, so McDonald's is investing heavily in these avenues.
Collabs make a comeback
Everyone has a go-to order at McDonald's—and the chain knows it. Back in 1992, McDonald's launched its first true celebrity meal featuring Michael Jordan's order, the McJordan Special. The meal featured a Quarter Pounder with cheese, circular bacon, mustard, pickles, onions, and a new barbecue sauce. McDonald's unique marketing approach paid off—who wouldn't want to eat like a fave celebrity?
In February 2023, McDonald's revisited the celebrity meal after skipping it in 2022. At the Super Bowl, a commercial aired announcing the Cardi B and Offset Meal, which dropped on Valentine's Day. The date-night deal featured each of the married rappers' signature orders. For Cardi B, a cheeseburger, Tangy BBQ Sauce, and large Coke, alongside Offset's favorites, a Quarter Pounder with cheese, large Hi-C Orange Lavaburst, plus large fries and an apple pie to split. (The collab was not without controversy.)
The collabs didn't stop there. In November, McDonald's embarked on its first-ever collaboration with Crocs, launching three clogs and a pair of sandals with iconic McDonald's characters for the superfans.
Hundreds of employees were laid off
A company-wide restructuring shook up the chain in April when hundreds of corporate employees were laid off from McDonald's offices. The Chicago-based chain told restaurant owners it was shuttering field offices and would consolidate operations into one national structure to oversee all of its 10 field offices.
The move was part of a company-wide restructuring as the business "[had] grown increasingly complex in recent years," according to Joe Erlinger, president of McDonald's USA. The restructuring was aimed at making operations more efficient and streamlined. Other unfortunate changes included cutting pay and benefits for those who kept their jobs.
Limited edition launches prevail
McDonald's is well known for its limited edition launches, and this year was no exception. From the March launch of the Chicken Big Mac in Canada, to the October launch of two new dipping sauces, Sweet and Spicy Jam and Mambo Sauce, the Golden Arches know how to drum up hype. In August, McDonald's launched an As Featured In Meal, showcasing meals that appeared on TV and in film. In July, the chain gave one signature sandwich a spicy upgrade, with the Cheesy Jalapeño Bacon Quarter Pounder gracing menus, while the fan-favorite Spicy Chicken McNuggets were brought back in September. Rolling out limited-time offers is a successful marketing tactic employed by the burger chain as it creates a buzz among customers and a sense of urgency to try new flavors. If 2023 is any indication, expect more limited edition launches hitting McDonald's restaurants in 2024.