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How McDonald's Could Conquer Kale

When McDonald's develops a new appetite for produce, it usually ends up dominating the market

The kale fad has reached America's ailing burger behemoth.

McDonald's has confirmed plans to test the leafy superfood in an experimental breakfast bowl that will be served in nine southern California locations. Kale will also be used in three revamped salads at McDonald’s in Canada, according to a report last week by an analyst at Janney Capital Markets. The come-to-kale moment can't be easy for a company that rolled out new commercials in January taunting "vegetarians, foodies, and gastronauts" while vowing that the Big Mac "will never be kale." Without breaking that promise, McDonald's can easily become a colossus of kale—possibly the No. 1 buyer in the U.S.—just by putting the ingredient on its menu nationwide.

The anti-kale ad released by McDonald's earlier this year.
The anti-kale ad released by McDonald's earlier this year.
McDonald's

That's the uncanny thing about McDonald's: Even with declining sales and an urgent turnaround plan, the sheer scale of operations makes it easy for the company to dominate any ingredient it touches. Historically, when McDonald's adopts a new produce item, it ends up becoming a kingpin in that market. Just two years after adding Apple Dippers to the menu in the early aughts, McDonald's was buying 54 million pounds of fresh Gala apples each year—more than enough to make it the country'svbiggest buyer and seller of the crisp fruit. The burger chain had similar effects at various times on grape tomatoes, edamame, and English cucumbers; it took McDonald's two years to build a supply chain for cucumbers when it decided to include the crispy veggie to its McWrap. The chain told Bloomberg Businessweek it expected to use about 6 million pounds of cucumber in 2013, its first year selling the item. 

The kale offerings are currently limited to one corner of the U.S. for now, and company officials declined to address whisperings about the kale salads coming to Canada. "We’re always innovating on McDonald’s food and drinks, and we’ll share news on our menu when the time is right," spokeswoman Lisa McComb told Bloomberg last week. 

Even without elaborating on the supply chain at McDonald's, kale experts are aware of the potential for the company to capture the market. "Even for a small ingredient, the marketplace and buying power of a company the size of McDonald’s is huge," says Kathy Means, a representative from the Produce Marketing Association. If kale sticks on the menu, "the ramp-up will be fast and steep," she says.

Kale hasn't yet surpassed its niche foodie status to enter the mainstream. Americans eat a relatively tiny amount of kale, compared to its lettuce-like brethren. As of 2012, even the humble mustard green still got more dinner table play than nutrient-packed kale. 

With current consumption so low, any big company wields the power to alter the marketplace. Just deploying kale as a decoration on its salad bars made Pizza Hut, for a time, the largest purchaser in the U.S. Doug Terfehr, a spokesman at parent company Yum! Brands, says Pizza Hut has since ditched the garnish, leaving the role of America's kale king open for McDonald's.

Even if McDonald's decides not to take kale breakfast bowls nationwide, the chain's small experiment has already changed the small world of kale agriculture. Speculation alone "can start an enormous buzz and cause folks to pre-adapt" by growing more kale," Means says. "McDonald's will have a large impact, even if it uses kale as a small ingredient in a smoothie."

All the attention to woes at McDonald’s can cause one to overlook the company's lingering power to publicize food trends to the general public: "Nothing is more mainstream than McDonald’s, and others will take notice," Means adds. Maybe the kale-enhanced future will bring us to places bacon has gone. First, it's kale at McDonald's. Before you know it, we'll have kale lip balm, kale toothpaste, and kale-flavored vodka

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