OAK BROOK, Ill. -- McDonald's Corp. here is featuring hearth-baked bread at its newly launched Hearth Express restaurant.
Billed as "Your Home Cookin' Place," the company's new restaurant concept -- with cafeteria-style service and "comfort foods" -- was introduced this fall at a site near the company's corporate offices here.
"Hearth Express is designed to make you think of a full, hearty meal like Mom used to make, and the idea of home-made, kneaded bread is part of that," said Paul Raab, a company spokesman.
"The bread also appeals to the senses. You see it immediately when walking into the restaurant, and smell it while ordering." Thick slices are included with each meal, but whole loaves, displayed unwrapped on wood racks behind the service counter, can also be purchased to take home. Painted light green, the bread racks add to the "country" look featured inside the restaurant. And the racks' color creates contrast to make the bread stand out, Raab said.
The bread is offered in three varieties: white, wheat and dark rye. The retail price is $3.99, or $1.99 for a miniloaf, which is available only in white. Loaves will be sliced on request.
The breads are baked by a local bakery and brought in each day. In the future, however, Hearth Express may bake the bread itself at a central facility, a spokeswoman said. "But it, like everything else at the restaurant, is being tested right now," she said. She noted that when McDonald's first introduced biscuits at its quick-service units it sourced them from outside, but later, when the decision was made to keep them on the menu, production was taken on by McDonald's.
Hearth Express offers a limited selection of entrees. Rotisserie chicken, meatloaf and ham are the mainstays. A roster of side dishes includes macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes, creamed spinach, baked beans, orange-glazed carrots and apple-bread stuffing. Emphasis is on providing a meal for the entire family. There is seating for 96 people. Business has been so good, however, that an addition will be made to the 3,650-square-foot building before the end of the year, Raab said.
It's notable that nothing on site or in the Hearth Express logo makes any connection with McDonald's.
"This is an entirely different concept. Here the emphasis is on a full-dinner menu."
SN asked some retailers to comment on the McDonald's bread program. Officials at Dominick's Finer Foods, Northlake, Ill., and Jewel Food Stores, Melrose Park, Ill., which have units near the test site, could not be reached for comment.
A bakery director at a large Northeast chain, however, said, "They're taking a high-margin item that, at the same time, has a good perceived value and they are making a pure impulse item out of it. I'd bet that 85% to 90% of the loaf sales are impulse. And the ambience of the place would allow them to get a good price.
"And the fact that a local bakery is making the bread is quite an idea. They're being a good community neighbor. They're doing some of what supermarkets are doing when they partner up with manufacturers and distributors to satisfy a niche or ethnic market. They've gone a step further, making a strategic alliance with a local company."
And Ed DeYoung, director of bakery operations at D&W Food Centers, Grand Rapids, Mich., said, "I like it that they're doing that. I think it'll be beneficial to supermarkets. Often restaurants can create an awareness of a product or concept in customers that supermarkets can't seem to do. "For instance, we've really struggled trying to get the concept of hearth-baked bread across in this part of the country, which is pretty conservative. I know it would help us if a restaurant here called attention to it. We've seen it happen with a dinner roll that a restaurant chain in this area features. Restaurants here also have been hammering away on no-sugar-added pies and that has helped our sales of them."