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Professionally Speaking
McEspresso Comes to Town
Author: Peter Giuliano
Posted: December 9, 2003
Article rating: 8.8
feedback: (26) comments | read | write
Billboard Ad for the McCafe

A friend who lives in California heard that the U.S.’s first McCafe was open and operating in Raleigh, North Carolina, and told me about it. Being in the business of coffee, I felt duty bound to visit the McCafe and report on it, and here's my thoughts and views on McDonalds' foray in to the world of "specialty" coffee.

The Review

The McCafe is attached to a McDonalds on Falls of Neuse road in North Raleigh. Now, North Raleigh is a suburby kind of place, with lots of chain restaurants and clothing outlets. On the way there, I passed a shop called “Pet Mania”. I have no idea what Pet Mania might be, but I know I don’t want it.

I knew I had reached the McCafe when I saw a McDonalds with a sign that said “MCRIB IS BACK!-CAFE OPEN-2FOR $2.00 SAUSAGEGG BISCUIT”. The building itself looked like a crazy hybrid- a familiar-looking McDonaldland welded to a modern café with an italicized McCafe sign. Boy was I excited. It’s not everyday you get to go to the first McCafe in the United States of America.

As I entered the café through the attractive patio, I was immediately confronted by a sign declaring that I was about to enter “A coffeehouse without a superiority complex”. I walked in and was immediately surprised by how many customers were there: at 3:00 in the afternoon, there were 6 people at three tables chatting and sipping out of giant mugs. I approached the counter and surveyed the espresso menu: pretty typical, but very simple.

Your options were: Latte, Cappuccino, Mocha, Americano, Espresso, Espresso Con Panna and - get ready for this - Flat White. Most everything comes in Small, Medium or Large. Nary a mention of single, double, short or tall, grande or lungo. Yep, no superiority complex here.

The prices seemed eminently reasonable: $1.19 for an espresso, $1.95 for a small Cappuccino, $2.50 for the Large Latte. A small Americano was $1.49, don’t ask me why they are charging 40 cents for the water. The setup was attractive and pretty cool: A La Cimbali 2-group Dosatron with one grinder-doser, a brand-new Bunn twin thermal brewer (the new super-digital kind that looks like a Fetco), a couple of buff-looking Vita Mixes, and an assortment of Monin syrups. The décor was a comfortable kind of modern woodgrain vibe that felt nice.

As I approached the counter, Bonnie, the register keeper, hollered “Welcome To McCafe! Can I help you?” with a big smile. I don’t mean to review Bonnie’s personality here, but it occurred to me a couple of times that she was almost aggressively friendly. She had a take-no-prisoners kind of cheerfulness that clearly was a big big part of what she wanted to communicate to the world.

I ordered a small espresso, and after she assured me that it was "really really tiny". She accepted my money and told Amanda, the barista, what to make. Amanda prepared my espresso in a porcelain cup with McCafe inscribed on it (I give big points for that).

When I got the drink, sad to say, the espresso was way below par, even by chain coffeehouse standards. Very long, thin-looking, and with almost no crema, I brought it back to my table to taste.

Indeed, the coffee was watery and thin to the extreme. If I had not seen it with my own eyes, I would have doubted it came out of an espresso machine. On interesting note is that there was no trace of dark roastedness at all. A very different experience than any other chain espresso I have ever tasted.

The espresso test is a little unfair, though. I mean, who orders a small espresso? Those are really really tiny! So I went back for a Cappuccino and a brewed coffee.

As I returned, Bonnie cheerfully repeated her "what-would-you-like!" line of questioning, and happily rang me up and counted my change. Amanda was back on the task, preparing my Cappuccino and Coffee. The Cappuccino was in another nice porcelain cup, but Amanda decided to stir up previously steamed milk to simulate integrated foam.

The big moment during the Cappuccino preparation was when she produced a special customized tool designed to shield certain parts of the drink from the shower of cinnamon she poured from a shaker. This operation resulted in a cute little “M” on the top of the cappuccino, reminding me that I was, indeed, in a McDonalds. Cool! The coffee was for some reason given to me in a paper cup, and I got the whole thing on the same kind of brown plastic tray McDonalds had when I was a little kid.

The cappuccino was predictably flat and disappointing. Cinnamony and watery.

The brewed coffee, on the other hand, was pretty good. Light roasted and pretty complex, the coffee had a trace of the juicy acidity that I commonly identify with Ethiopian Yirgacheffe. Not unpleasant at all- I would be tickled to have that in the morning.

Drinks at McCafe

It is clear that McCafes are consciously trying to distance themselves from the Starbucks style of dark roasting. I did notice an interesting thing - every drink I got was lukewarm! This immediately reminded me that the most infamous thing about McDonalds and the world of coffee: the lawsuit about the scalding coffee in the lady’s lap years ago. Clearly, they are taking no chances now.

Click for larger image
The Author
... trying to get into the groove at a McCafe. At least there's a plug for a notebook computer :)

As I tasted the coffees, I noticed the surroundings. The place was comfortable, with classic jazz (Sinatra, Ellington) playing. I read the literature on the table: “Our Chairs Aren’t Stuffy”, “No Smug Mugs, Just Great Coffee”. The message was clear: there would be no highfalutin’ foreign-language coffee snobbery here. This was a middlebrow coffeehouse and proud of it. I began to feel a little attacked. Was I an example of the coffee-superiority-complex-stuffed-shirt they were referring to?

I had worked up an appetite by this time, so I decided to ease over to the regular McDonalds which was attached via a doorway. As I ordered my McDLT, Shamrock Shake and McDonaldland cookies, I realized I had not been in a McDonalds for a while: none of these things are available any longer! Sadly, I resigned myself to a Happy Meal and enjoyed it over by the jungle-themed Playland. In the Playland, a couple of moms were watching their kids play while sipping lattes. Seemed like things here were going along just as planned.

The Thoughts

Click for larger image

On the way home, I reflected on the experience. The barista clearly had her share of training- she prepared the drinks with a robotic focus that only the most well-drilled employees have. The espresso equipment was slightly surprising but nothing to scoff at. So why were the drinks so bad?

Well, I have a couple of theories. I could not tell how long the extraction was, I was not quite brave enough to crane my neck around the espresso machine and watch the pour. The grind must have been way coarse to account for the lack of body and crema. I did entertain the notion that, perhaps, in a desire to reduce the serving temperature and therefore the risk of a lawsuit, the McManagers had reduced the brewing temperature of the espresso machine.

However, this could not be: in a machine like the La Cimbali with it's heat exchange system, any significant reduction of extraction temperature would be accompanied by an unworkable decrease in steam pressure. What is apparent, though, from my baristas maneuver with the lukewarm reused milk, is that there was little interest in the beverage being prepared.

As for the brewing apparatus, I have had the opportunity to fiddle with the new Bunn brewers, and they are amazingly versatile. My coffee was not piping hot when I got it, but I feel it was properly extracted.

It is clear that the McCafe seeks to synthesize and package the coffeehouse experience for the masses. Of course, one might argue that this has already been done, but the McCafe takes the idea to its logical extreme. There is no mention of coffee origin at the McCafe; indeed, the employees were mystified when confronted with a question about the origins of the coffee used.

Any question of roast style, blend profile, or barista skill are way beyond the scope of this kind of operation. As a coffee person, I see this as a huge opportunity for the real coffeehouse, staffed with coffee professionals who know, understand and love coffee, to shine. I hope it will present a challenge to the barista and coffeehouse owner: It is no longer enough to know how to pronounce 'latte' correctly; it is no longer sophisticated to order an 'americano'. As these become more commonplace, the baristas who know their stuff will rise to the top.

I'm talking about the capital "B" Barista, the server who has an intimate knowledge of the blend that is in the grinder doser, and why the components of that blend are special and essential. The Barista who understands the geopolitical implications of the coffee trade and can talk intelligently about them. The Barista who knows how an Ethiopian Yirgacheffe differs from a Harrar. The Barista who understands that Java is really the name of a coffee-producing island, not just a slang name for the beverage itself. The Barista who understands the how a 13 minute dark roast tastes differently from a 21 minute dark roast. Of course I'm coming from a roaster's perspective, but these are the servers who should be called a Barista.

These are Baristi who are passionate, intelligent, and skilled in the dark arts of coffee. They'll be at the top of the heap, and hopefully, the existence of the McCafes at the bottom end of the market will motivate the independently-owned, labor-of-love coffeehouse to be more welcoming, more communicative, and more skilled. And if this should happen, the world will be a nicer place.

Welcome to the neighborhood, Mayor McCheese.

About the Author

Click for larger image

Peter Giuliano is the master roaster and coffee buyer for Counter Culture Coffee in Durham, North Carolina. Peter fell in love with coffee in 1988 while working as a barista at the legendary Pannikin in San Diego, when a winsome coworker declared her love for Kayumas Estate Java. Peter was enthralled, and has made coffee his career ever since. After many years as a barista, Peter went to work for Cafe Moto, San Diegos mysterious and enigmatic coffee roaster. In 2000, he relocated to North Carolina and joined the equally mysterious Counter Culture Coffee. Peter is a dedicated soldier in the RoastersGuild, and seeks to improve his coffee skills daily for the rest of his natural life.

Article rating: 8.8
Author: Peter Giuliano
Posted: December 9, 2003
feedback: (26) comments | read | write
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