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Is the US love affair with McDonald's waning?

McDonald's Image copyright Getty Images

Americans are shunning McDonald's. The fast-food giant is one of the most iconic brands in the US - but with sales there down for six quarters in a row, the burger chain's new British chief executive needs to lure Americans back.

The US is the largest and most important market for McDonald's. And the Golden Arches are ingrained in the American palate and psyche.

But can nostalgia save the company as Americans increasingly choose healthier, more tailored fast food? Do Americans even want healthier choices from McDonald's?

"No way," says Jacques Quincy, who grew up eating McDonald's every Friday and Saturday to give his mother a break from cooking when they were kids.

Image caption Jacques Quincy began eating at McDonald's at an early age

"I get the two McChickens, I get a large apple pie, a large French fries, a shake, a giant shake, and then after that I might get two, three cookies, depending on how I feel."

McDonald's would probably feel good about Mr Quincy's choices. The company has been steering customers towards chicken offerings amid a rise in beef prices.

Mr Quincy spoke to the BBC while walking past a McDonald's and a Chipotle, where sales were up 10% in the first quarter of this year.

He says McDonald's does let him have it his way: he likes his McChickens well done on sesame bread with red onions.

Slim at the age of 24, he doesn't worry about all the calories or sodium he's consuming. But he likes the fact that McDonald's posts the calorie content of all the items on its menu, so he knows what he's getting.

He says he isn't shunning McDonald's at all. But he spoke while carrying a Starbucks coffee.

Image caption Jennifer says she and her son have been put off McDonald's by price rises

Jennifer, on the other hand, is shunning McDonalds - at least a little bit. And she dislikes seeing the calories listed by the menu items: "I don't want to know!" the single mother said while having an early dinner with her 10-year-old son.

"We used to come almost five days a week," she said. "Now we come two to three times a week."

But it wasn't health concerns or the listed calories keeping them away.

"It's the cost. They keep raising prices. I used to be able to get a double for a dollar. But they keep going up. $1.19, $1.49. I can get a better deal at Jack-In-The-Box," she said, referring to another McDonald's competitor.

"And the French fries are the best," she said. "Nobody makes better fries."

Her son agreed. Jennifer works three part-time jobs and knows the prices of many items on the menu without looking: for her, every penny counts.

Fast-food restaurants have been raising prices because of the drought and rising commodity and labour costs.

Jennifer says people on a budget can ignore the mandatory calorie counts. (It's the law to post calories for big fast-food chains. A double cheeseburger has 430 calories. Large French fries have 510 calories).

For Maureen Lynn, McDonald's is now an annual treat. Her large Irish-Catholic family went to McDonald's every Sunday after church.

Image caption Sydney Lynn marked her first birthday with a Big Mac

With five kids and usually a few of the neighbours' children hanging around, they were not allowed to complicate their order with specialty items. It was "hamburger or cheeseburger" and "orange or coke" to drink. Everyone got small fries.

"On your birthday, you got a Big Mac," says Ms Lynn, who, at 42, keeps the tradition alive by taking her three kids for an annual birthday Big Mac in Cleveland, Ohio. "Sometimes we forget or don't have time, but we try to get everyone a Big Mac on their birthday."

Although McDonald's offers various specialty products around the world to tailor to the local market - spicy sauce in South East Asia, for example - the allure of McDonald's is partly in its consistency.

The Big Mac or Quarter Pounder with cheese or Chicken McNuggets taste the same in Portland or Pittsburgh or Poland.

Image caption China Magno (left) still likes her Chicken McNuggets

And while parents seem to appreciate the apple slices or yogurt selection in a Happy Meal and juice or milk instead of fizzy drinks, people say they don't come to McDonald's for salad or fancy wraps. McDonald's removed several sandwiches recently to simplify the menu and get rid of unpopular items.

"I know it's unhealthy, but I want the chicken nuggets - that's why I came here," says China Magno, who was chatting with a friend over small orders of Chicken McNuggets and free cups of water.

For some consumers, the bad press McDonald's has received in recent years has forever altered their opinion of the burger chain.

Image caption Michelle Angelis (right) and Angie Maco (left) prefer Chipotle

"I watched a documentary not too long ago called Super Size Me and it just completely repulsed me and I have no desire to eat there ever again," said Michelle Angelis. "It's been three years since I've had anything from there."

Does she miss it?

"I would eat their cheeseburgers. I like those. And then I found out how bad they were for you and so now I go to Chipotle."

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