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McDonald's Pizza Should Have Been a Hit—So Why Did it Fail?

James Logie

What do you get when you combine one of the world’s most popular foods, with the most successful fast-food franchise on the planet?

You get the perfect formula for something that should still be around today but faded away quickly: McDonald’s pizza.

Everything was set up to make McDonald’s pizza a long-lasting hit, including a massive marketing campaign.

But issues regarding time, preparation, and the physical changes required to serve this new item would lead to its demise.

McDonald’s spent a decade tinkering with their pizza, and it was their attempt to take over the fast-food world.

McDonald’s has fallen off a bit in recent years — due to higher-quality competition — but no one could touch them in the 1980s.

They owned nearly 40% of the entire $48 billion fast-food burger market and were making double the profits of their next closest competitor.

The franchise had humble beginnings serving just burgers, fries, and shakes, but as their success grew, they branched out into new items.

This included things like:

  • McDonald’s breakfast and egg McMuffins
  • Filet-O-Fish (which was created to draw in more Catholic customers on Fridays)
  • Chicken McNuggets
  • Happy Meals

Over the years they’ve even experimented with hot dogs, lobster, spaghetti and meatballs, burgers with pineapple, and the famous McRib.

This doesn’t even include items from around the world such as noodles, shrimp, and a mashed potato burger served in China.

Pizza has been a go-to food choice for decades. Why was this never considered as a menu item? It turns out that pizza had been considered for years, but there were a lot of logistics to figure out.

Serving pizza at McDonald’s would be kept on the back burner, however, the rapid growth of pizza parlor restaurants such as Pizza Hut forced McDonald’s to speed up the process.

Pizza Hut and independent pizza restaurants were growing at an astonishing rate of 10% per year.

Fun fact: Pizza Hut was originally going to be called ‘Pizza House.’ The first chain started in Kansas and they only had $600.

At the end of construction, they had run out of money and had a sign that could only hold 8 letters, so they went with ‘hut’ instead of ‘house.’

The Creation of ‘McPizza’

There was never any intent to call it McPizza — but this is the name that industry insiders attached to it.

McDonald’s had experimented with a calzone so drivers could eat it on the road, and it had the temporary name of McPizza. But they scrapped it in the early 80s.

McDonald’s goal with their pizza was to capture the dinnertime crowd. Burgers were seen as being a lunch/later afternoon choice — but everyone had pizza for dinner.

McDonald’s started work on their pizza in 1986, so they could seemingly take over the entire fast-food world.

The first step was creating an oven that would cook the pizzas. They came up with a quick-cook design that used super-heated air.

This could take a lump of frozen dough and turn it into a crispy crust in six minutes.

If you ever got to try a McDonald’s pizza, it had a very crispy crust and I recall it having an onion-type flavor to it.

The sauce was on the sweeter side, and the toppings were small, but there was a decent amount of them. I really liked the combinations of flavor — but I was just a kid and also thought the Filet-O-Fish tasted like a gourmet item.

The Physical Changes Needed in the Restaurants

If you’ve ever worked in a McDonald’s (like 1 in 8 Americans have) you know that every inch of floor space is optimized for efficiency.

You just have to watch the great movie “The Founder” to see the painstaking process to create the early design of the McDonald’s kitchen.

Since they designed the kitchen for such efficiency, producing pizza would destroy the flow.

Restaurants had to reconfigure their kitchen to make room for the giant new ovens, prep area, and the additional warming ovens required to serve the pizza.

Then there was the drive-through issue. If you ordered the large pizza, the box was too big to fit through thedrive-through window.

The windows also had to be reconfigured to accommodate the new, larger item. The idea was then to make the windows even larger so customers could see the pizza-making process.

McDonald’s was trying to shift themselves into a classic pizzeria. Some early test market locations were even adding red and white checker table clothes for their nighttime service.

Trials for the new pizza started in 1989 at 24 different restaurants. Going into the early 90s, McDonald’s was now ready to enter the pizza market and try to take it over.

But their pizza took a little longer than usual to make — and definitely longer than their usual fast food items.

Would this become a problem?

The Early Marketing For McDonald’s Pizza

The fast-food items you see in marketing campaigns look nothing like what you actually get in the restaurant. McDonald’s pizza was no different.

The advertising created made the pies look like they were right out of an authentic Italian restaurant.

The commercials also promised that you’ve never had pizza “so good, so fast.” These commercials were everywhere, and young kids like me were flipping out knowing we could now get pizza at our favorite restaurant.

While McDonald’s was pushing their new pizza, restaurants like Pizza Hut were not taking this lying down. It’s not like Pizza Hut is the epitome of a classic Italian pizza, but it’s on a higher level than McDonald’s.

And they made sure people knew it.

Pizza Hut fired back with their own marketing questioning why anyone would want to eat a “McFrozen” pizza. They cautioned people not to make a “McStake.”

Pizza Hut — and other pizza franchises such as Domino’s — would offer two-for-one pies as a way to deter the public and prevent McDonald’s from taking over the $21 billion pizza market.

McDonald’s countered back and ran ads that focused on the speed, service, and quality of their hot, fresh pizza. But they were already scrambling.

McDonald’s began tweaking their pizzas even while they were being sold. They worked on making the crust even thinner, and the sauce better — but the writing was on the wall.

What Killed McDonald’s Pizza?

The failure of McDonald’s pizza ultimately came down to the time issue.

You go to a fast-food restaurant to get food as quickly as possible — and pizza did not lend itself to speed. The prep and cooking time could take upwards of 11 minutes.

If the restaurant was busy, you could wait even longer.

Eleven minutes may not sound like much, but it’s a lifetime in a fast-food restaurant — especially when you’re hungry.

If you ordered a regular burger meal, you would have to wait for your pizza-loving friend’s meal to arrive, making your food go cold.

McDonald’s got to the point where they would make people wait in their cars and bring the pizza out when it was ready.

McDonald’s said that their pizzas only took five minutes — but this would never be the case.

Then there was the cost issue. The pizzas ranged in price from $5.99 to $8.99 for a 14-inch pie. Converted for today, this is around $12 to $18.

That’s a lot of money for a fast food item considering you could buy a hamburger at the time for just 75 cents.

This was a steep price for a pizza that was mediocre at best. Instead of waiting for what was essentially frozen pizza, you could just go down the street and get pizza from a real pizza place that was not only miles better — but much cheaper.

You were probably better off just going to Pizza Hut — but don’t tell McDonald's that…

By the end of the 90s, McDonald’s pizza would be no more.

Final Thoughts

For the record, I actually liked McDonald’s pizza. The personal size one in the meal deal was the dream lunch for a kid.

And many people like it, too. In the early 90s, pizza was being served at over 2,000 locations.

However, the time issue — plus the cost — led to its ultimate demise. It would last a little longer in Canada, and there were even reports of two locations still selling it as late as 2017.

The two locations were owned by the same franchisee in Ohio and West Virginia. They were told by the McDonald’s corporate office to stop selling them.

So all those custom made ovens have now gone to that great big pizzeria in the sky.

McDonald’s pizza now only exists as a memory, and a time where the fast-food giant tried to take over the food world.

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Personal trainer, podcaster, Amazon best-selling author. Writing about some health, a little marketing, and a whole lot of 1980s.


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