Value is usually one of the top reasons people eat at McDonald's. But that's not always the case.
The gap between America's haves and have nots is wider than ever. The middle class is shrinking, and this means that shopping and dining trends go two ways: budget or luxury.
And McDonald's is one of the many chains that is trying to adapt to this new reality. In spring 2019, the chain did away completely with its beloved Dollar Menu. Then in summer 2019, the chain doubled down on deals in order to appeal to budget diners.
At the same time, the chain has made big changes to appeal to richer Americans, most notably by switching to fresh beef and rolling out delivery services.
But can one chain really cater to both sides of the economic spectrum?
In order to see how different McDonald's offerings are at the top and bottom ends of its menu, I compared its cheapest burger with its most expensive burger, and what I found was telling.
The cheapest item on McDonald's menu is the hamburger, which cost $1.69 at my local McDonald's. The most expensive item is the Double Bacon Quarter Pounder with Cheese, at $7.99.
These sandwiches look like they're from entirely different restaurants. The hamburger contains 250 calories, while the bacon double quarter pounder contains 820 calories.
Everything about the sandwich from the bun to the beef was different. The only elements they had in common were their pickles, ketchup, and mustard.
According to the McDonald's website, the hamburger is made with a regular bun, a 100% beef patty, ketchup, pickle slices, onions, and mustard. It has been a menu mainstay for years.
I guess technically there are multiple onion bits on this burger.
But all-in-all, it was more bun than burger.
And yet, the meat is the star of the show. The bun itself is bland and dry.
But supported by meager yet effective condiments, the meat manages to make the hamburger more palatable.
It is by no means an appealing or satisfying option, but it certainly is the cheapest one. You would need at least two of these to make a filling meal, and the majority of that meal would be bread.
The Bacon Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese is made with two quarter-pound beef patties, a Quarter Pounder bun, two slices of American cheese, bacon, ketchup, pickle slices, onions, and mustard. It was made a permanent addition to the menu in March after McDonald's bacon-focused promotion that began in January ended.
The beef is thick and colorful, while the bun is shiny and round with a photogenic splash of sesame seeds. On the outside, this sandwich looks quite different.
However, aside from a few strips of bacon and larger onions, this burger has the same condiments as its junior partner: ketchup, pickles, mustard.
With two quarter-pound patties, this burger weighs in at roughly half a pound of beef when uncooked. It's more than a large meal for the average American.
This sandwich is a lot of meat. And better, juicier meat. It's greasy and packed with protein and fat.
The sesame seed bun is also a step up, and the bacon adds an extra burst of flavor.
Is it worth paying nearly four times the amount for a hamburger? It is if you can afford it.
That said, it's still a McDonald's burger. Sliced onions do not make it a gourmet burger.
But it's clear that what McDonald's offers its most budget-oriented customers is nothing like what it offers customers who are willing to dish out.
With the elimination of its dollar menu, McDonald's has made options more limited and less satisfying for customers who eat there seeking value.
There are increasingly two kinds of Americas and two kinds of McDonald's burgers: the value-menu burger and the deluxe burger delivered to your door.