Late last year, a new cafe appeared on a bustling corner in Sydney's Camperdown, near the RPA Hospital. The brick veneer is painted white and the logo is similar to that of many nearby cafes, with block capitals inside a circle.
But walk through the sliding doors and something doesn’t feel right. The yellow espresso machine, chambray staff uniforms and white-tiled walls are typical of many inner-west cafes, but the large space, with tables and chairs bolted to the floor in neat rows, is reminiscent of a canteen. A self-serve fridge with items packaged in plastic sits to one side of the counter. The coffee isn’t bad and the porridge we bought (with poached pear) had a good consistency, but left us with a sugary coating on our teeth, similar to the feeling you get after a can of Coke.
Welcome to The Corner, a one-off McCafé by McDonald’s Australia, a detail you notice only by paying attention. McDonald’s is, reliably, the place you can walk into anywhere in the world to eat a hamburger that tastes largely the same. Not at The Corner. In a radical departure from a formula that has served it well for decades, this McCafé looks – from the façade to the menu – nothing like its brothers and sisters. It has a logo that borrows from Sydney cafe The Grounds of Alexandria, and the decor appears to be inspired by Grill’d. It serves corn fritters with avocado; chorizo and egg rolls; and Moroccan salads. So what’s going on?
Most people are familiar with the company’s attempts to add healthier offerings to its menu, introducing salads, chopped fruit and the like. It’s easy to assume the same thinking drives The Corner, but variations on the word “health” have been carefully avoided. When asked if the new concept is about healthy food, Chris Grant, corporate communications manager of McDonald’s Australia, says, “It’s just different food, different to what you can order in other McDonald’s restaurants. We’re testing new products to see which ones our customers will love, and we may offer them at other McCafés.”
So why Camperdown, Sydney? Hosing down theories that the location is due to its proximity to the hospital (and perceptions that hospital staff would lend the business the approval of healthcare professionals) it turns out the location is simply convenient: the site was the only stand-alone McCafé in Australia.
Is it the beginning of a larger change, a new marketing strategy? No. Grant says it is a lab for McDonald’s to test new products, and the concept will not be rolled out across Australia.
If that’s what it’s not, then what it is, is a sign of the times. Over the past decade, Australian cafe culture has become one of the world’s most sophisticated. The influence of Australian cafes can be seen in cities worldwide, so perhaps it’s not surprising that the world’s most recognisable restaurant is looking to co-opt that culture.
Somewhat surprising, though, is how the custodians of that culture have reacted. Russell Beard, owner of Surry Hills cafe and roastery Reuben Hills, thinks it’s a positive step. “I think it’s a good thing,” he says. “Casual dining is where the market is heading. People want to have a coffee and hang out somewhere with an affordable price point.”
Whether or not The Corner is a sign that Australian cafe culture is now so ubiquitous it has gone McDonald’s-level mainstream, it's clear that multinational food operators no longer feel they can ignore small, independent operators. Regardless of where cafe culture is heading, you don’t rock the boat in a gigantic outfit like McDonald’s if everything is plain sailing. Just like the original McCafé idea, The Corner is an Australian concept, but reflects worldwide marketing initiatives put in place to counter declining sales across the board. These initiatives include giving away free coffee, and the Create Your Taste program, which lets customers build their own burgers using a touchscreen. A McDonald’s restaurant in Melbourne's Craigieburn is among the first to install the system, and now offers table service and burgers served on wooden boards. The program, “Will roll out across every McDonald’s in Australia in 2015,” says Grant.
The question of whether McDonald’s will adopt elements from The Corner in its US restaurants is an interesting one. The McCafé concept was created by a Melbourne licensee in 1993, and quickly spread across Australia before being adopted worldwide. While it took eight years for the first McCafé to open in the US, the continuing influence of Australian cafe culture in the States means there’s no doubt McDonald’s America will be watching The Corner closely.
“You don’t have to be a brain surgeon to work out cafes are a successful model. Walk outside any morning in Melbourne and there are queues around the block,” says Beard. “Sydney likes to support the indie. If you can disguise a chain as an independent, it will help.”