Dan Coudreaut, executive chef and director of culinary innovation of McDonald’s USA, speaks with Andy Hanacek, executive editor of The National Provisioner, about the development process that created the restaurant’s latest success story, the Southern Style Chicken Sandwich.

NP: What were some of the formulation challenges toward getting the Southern-Style Chicken up to McDonald’s high-quality standards?
Coudreaut: That’s a unique product in that, the development of it was really in the vein of the Egg McMuffin, Filet-O-Fish or Big Mac. It was a grassroots development process from our owner-operators down in the South. They had found a need for a very straight-up, chicken-as-the-hero sandwich. So it really came up through them as a development request, and we’ve been hand-in-hand in partnership with them. Culinary comes into play there more along the lines of, ‘Now we have this great base ingredient, so how do we build off that for the future?’ Obviously, I’m not going to be able to tip my hand as to what’s coming, but my team comes into play with how we’ll be using this moving forward.

NP: So when it’s owner-operator driven, it’s a little different for your department as far as the development goes?
Coudreaut: We’re involved in that we have a voice at the table, but the actual idea and generation of [the Southern Style Chicken Sandwich], I want to give credit to the owner-operators that really pulled it forward. As opposed to a menu item such as the Asian Salad or Southwest Salad, where it was culinary-driven from the very beginning, this particular product … really did come from the owner-operators, which is a very positive thing. That type of innovation allows us to reinforce the idea that the entire system is rowing in the same direction.

NP: To have new product development coming from the owner-operators and other branches than culinary obviously is an enormous strength for McDonald’s. Can you explain how this helps the company ‘row in the same direction’?
Coudreaut: I’ve always found that ideas can come from anywhere — my seven-year-old daughter could have an idea that might make sense somewhere along the line. So making sure that we’re all open to innovation no matter where it comes from is extremely important.

NP: How does McDonald’s supply-chain access come into play when products are in development?
Coudreaut: We strive to influence each other: I’m influencing the culinary culture to try and get us to the next level, and supply chain is influencing us to give an understanding of the timeline it takes to start growing capers, for example, or the challenges within the restaurant. So we’re all pulling or pushing each others’ envelopes. To give you an understanding of the menu-management department, of which I’m a part, it’s an integrated team. We have new-product supply-chain folks, new products marketing and operations, all working together in that department day-in and day-out. We’re all trying to obviously get the best products for our guests, but we’re also trying to make sure that we’re not backing ourselves into a corner by going after an ingredient of which there isn’t a good supply. There’s a lot of pre-thought that goes on between supply chain and culinary.

NP: Expound upon the relationship between the culinary and supply-chain teams at McDonald’s, relating to the development of this product. It seems as though there is pretty good access because of the teamwork that exists between the two departments.
Coudreaut: We’re open, and that’s a powerful culture within McDonald’s. It’s very much an entrepreneurial company that’s open to innovation. The fact that we introduced breakfast or introduced drive-thru or are open to ideas coming from the franchise community, that culture is translated throughout our department. I try to foster it, knowing I don’t have all the answers, and the same with the supply chain knowing that they don’t have all the answers. So there’s collaboration within our owner-operator community, our supplier community and internal team. Then we also have to also collaborate outside the four walls of McDonald’s, without tipping our hand to our competitors. I was just recently appointed to the presidency of the International Corporate Chefs Association, as one example, and so we go out there and I’m interacting with other culinary professionals, whether they’re direct competitors or at hotels or other casual-dining restaurants. We’re able to talk about some of the challenges in the industry, and we’re open to all that, understanding that at any point in time we don’t know where the next idea or nugget of an idea might make sense.

NP: Was additional training of restaurant-level managers and employees required when McDonald’s launched the Southern Style Chicken Sandwich? How much does potential product-quality training come into play when the R&D team devises new products?
Coudreaut: At the very beginning, we talk about the quality attributes, what we’re trying to achieve by putting a product forward, whether it’s the Southern Style Chicken, the McSkillet Burrito or the new canola oil blend for the French Fries that is trans fat-free. The training is very important. My team really trains the people who will do the [restaurant-level] training. The operations folks are there side-by-side with us on the menu-management team in the early development stages, asking how to bring the great ideas in the test kitchen to life in the restaurants. They are extremely important in that whole process. At all times, we’re talking about how the sauce will go on, for example, and training each other along the way and working through challenges.

NP: How do other factors, such as employee skill sets, ingredients or equipment already in place, come into play in terms of product development?
Coudreaut: It absolutely comes into play, and best-case scenario is that it comes into play from the very beginning. My job is to make sure that it doesn’t, however, become a constraint to our thinking. I have to make sure that we are operationally sensitive, but not operationally handcuffed. … I tell my team, we really want to do a lot of blue-sky ideation, but if we start doing too much blue sky all the time, then what are we paying our bills with today? We have to have a balance of things that are close in, mid-complexity and totally far out and a great idea that should be considered. I have a base of owner-operators that have a vote in this game, and I have to make sure that what I’m asking them to do makes sense for them, as well as the customer.

NP: Were there any other challenges involved during the development of the Southern Style Chicken Sandwich that you wanted to include?
Coudreaut: From my perspective, in this business especially with a system as large as McDonald’s, there aren’t any no-brainers. There are a lot of details that need to be vetted out and worked through, and we have just wonderful, wonderful food technologists and suppliers. We as McDonald’s really rely on our suppliers as partners — we want their opinions and collaboration to work together to find those solutions.