The McRib

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The musical Brigadoon is about a Scottish village which appears for one day every 100 years. The village can be thought of as a metaphor for things that are fleeting, or why we must take advantage of opportunities when they appear. 

Brigadoon doesn’t exist in our world, but we do have the next best thing.

The Mc Rib.

Learn more about the sandwich which only occasionally appears on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

Let me start by noting that this episode is not sponsored by McDonald’s. I didn’t get so much as a coupon or a gift certificate for this show. Not even some of that orange drink which they provide for children’s birthday parties. 

That being said, the McRib is a fascinating case study featuring economics, marketing, and internet fandom. 

For those of you who do not live in the United States or in countries that have the Mc Rib, the Mc Rib is a pork sandwich where the patty looks like a very small rack of ribs. 

If you are wondering, “don’t ribs have bones in them?”, the answer is yes, and I’ll have more on that later. 

The reason why the Mc Rib is worth the time to do an entire episode is that the Mc Rib is almost never on the menu at McDonald’s. It appears seemingly randomly. Sometimes it is only in certain regions and at certain times. There is no set schedule for when the McRib appears. 

In December 2020, for the first time in 8 years, the Mc Rib had limited nationwide availability in the United States. 

It has developed a devoted following, and there are even websites that track Mc Rib appearances, and people who will travel far out of their way to buy them. 

The genesis of the McRib is directly tied to the development of the Chicken McNugget.  In the late 1970s, the McNugget was a hit, but there wasn’t enough chicken available to meet the demand.

As a substitute, McDonald’s Executive Chef René Arend, and yes, McDonald’s Executive Chef is, in fact, a thing, created the McRib as a way for franchisees who couldn’t get McNuggets to have a new product.

Like a Chicken McNugget, the McRib is made of reconstituted meat. That is, it is pork that has been emulsified and then reshaped in the form which is desired. That is how you get a patty that looks like a side of ribs with bones sticking out of it, even though there are no bones in the sandwich.

The launch of the McRib was rather uneventful. It was released nationally in 1981 after some regional test marketing in Wisconsin. This is something that McDonald’s and other restaurant chains do all the time, and most of the tests never amount to anything. 

Some failed McDonald’s menu experiments include the Hula Burger, which is a hamburger with pineapple, personal pizzas, and even spaghetti. 

The sandwich wasn’t a resounding success and it was removed from the menu in 1985. 

However, this wasn’t the end of the McRib. 

The McRib came back in limited regional runs starting in 1989. It had a limited nationwide release in 1994 as a marketing tie-in with the Flintstones movie and then went back to limited, regional releases. 

In 2005, McDonald’s said they were going to retire the McRib permanently, and they launched the McRib farewell tour. Something which they did no less than three times. 

In November 2010, they did the first nationwide release of the McRib since 1994 and called it Legends of the McRib which honored several of the McRib superfans. 

They did so again in 2012, and the most recent nationwide release was in December of 2020. 

All the while there were periodic appearances of the sandwich in regions around the US, as well as in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the UK. 

Today, the only countries in the world which have the McRib permanently on the menu are Luxembourg and Germany. 

All of this is great, but the real question I and other people have is, “why does McDonald’s do this?”. 

They’ve released data on how the McRib is popular, often boosting sales 5-10% in stores that have it. If it is so popular, why don’t they sell it all the time? Why would you take the product which has its own fan base and not sell it?

McDonald’s has never come out and directly answered this question. The closest they’ve come is in a Frequently Asked Questions part of their website where they just say they like to have a variety to their menu. 

OK, but then why not schedule the releases like they do with a shamrock shake which is available every March? Let people know that every October or November is McRib month?

The releases are far more random and much more localized than other products. 

There are two major theories as to why McDonald’s does this, and they might all have a bit of truth. 

The first is just marketing. By having something which isn’t around all the time, it makes it a special event when it is available. It’s the old “absence makes the heart grow fonder” routine.

It wasn’t until the McRib was pulled from the menu back in the 80s that the sandwich became popular and developed a cult following. 

Most fast food doesn’t really inspire people to get excited. By making the McRib elusive, it can engineer interest that it otherwise wouldn’t be able to do.

The Simpsons did a parody of this on one episode where the Krustyburger Ribwich was only available for a limited time only in different cities. There was a group that called themselves “rib heads” which followed the sandwich around the country.

The other theory is simple economics. The price of pork doesn’t allow for McDonald’s to make a profit on the McRib, hence, it will only release it when pork prices are low enough to justify it. 

In 2011 an article titled “A Conspiracy of Hogs: The McRib as Arbitrage” analyzed the appearance of the McRib between 2005 and 2011, and found that its appearance coincided with dips in pork prices. Basically, when pork is cheap, the McRib has a good chance of appearing. It can’t stick around for too long because if it did, it would cause pork prices to rise. 

Moreover, the McRib is probably either a very low margin product or a loss leader for McDonald’s. It is the only sandwich on the menu in most locations that isn’t round, requires a different type of bun, special packaging, and handling. 

So, for whatever the reason, the McRib’s presence in our world is only fleeting.  Like a comet which only appears briefly in the sky later to return, so too is the McRib.