McCharm offensive: Burger giant opens up its kitchens to win back sceptical customers

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Indy Lifestyle Online

Oscar seems impervious to his employer's recent PR nightmare, as he hunches over the giant hotplate, scrambling the pre-packaged liquid egg that, once suitably congealed, will slot on top of the pork sausage patty, processed cheese slice and streaky bacon that make up the McDonald's Big Breakfast Bun.

He is under pressure because he is being watched by an audience that the fast food giant needs to win over if it is to reverse the chain's plunging sales in the UK. Welcome to "Open Doors", McDonald's latest attempt to convince a satiated public that it still has enough room in its life for the Golden Arches.

During the burger chain's 12-day initiative to improve its image, some 3,000 people will be able to poke around the kitchens in any of 120 selected outlets. The beleaguered restaurant group is hoping this will work the same magic here as in France, where the scheme was pioneered three years ago to counter the damage that the activist José Bové was wreaking on the brand with his "Non à McMerde" campaign. Last week's third-quarter results from the US-based company revealed that "weak results" in the UK and Germany were offsetting a positive contribution from France. Overall, underlying sales across Europe fell by 2 per cent during September.

Back in the kitchen at the Kings Road branch in London, Oscar's breakfast creation has been built by another crew member and is waiting in the warming oven. A system of buzzers and flashing lights ensures that no item outlives its bun life. It is only 10 o'clock, but already the smell of cooking fat is becoming unbearable. As well as at least three vats of vegetable oil, where the french fries will be cooked later on, separate vats of fat await each of the chicken, fish and vegetable burgers on the menu.

Keen to show off the gleaming burger ovens, Oscar tries his hand at a Cheeseburger. He reaches for a frozen beef patty from the freezer and, following the "patty placement guide", lays it on the hotplate. A mere 45 seconds and a sprinkle of salt later the 100 per cent British beef patty is ready to be slapped between the toasted roll that will become a Cheeseburger.

Andrew Taylor, chief executive of McDonald's UK, says the tours are about telling customers about the changes that have taken place at the chain during the past 18 months. About "re-emphasising to them and others that we are a trustworthy, transparent and quality organisation".

In Britain, McDonald's problem is how to compete in a market where trendy sandwich chains and healthier fast food concepts vie with the humble hamburger. New, healthier menu choices, such as the Bacon Ranch Salad and the Chicken Club Flatbread for grownups, or bags of sliced apple and seedless grapes for kids have already been introduced. Chicken is now available in whole pieces of breast rather than the assorted jumble of meat that goes into Chicken McNuggets - branded a "McFrankenstein creation" by a US judge.

Meanwhile the chain's 1,230 UK restaurants are receiving a makeover in an attempt to "deplasticise" the dining experience. In its outlet on The Strand in London, polished wood banquettes and dark leather armchairs have replaced tacky plastic tables. Customers can linger over a cappuccino or a latte while munching a pastry from the new McCafé that nestles next to the burger counter.

James Cantalupo, who was charged with stopping the sales slide when he was appointed chief executive in January, is going for a new, hipper image for the chain. Justin Timberlake, the teenyboppers' pop idol, is fronting the company's first global marketing campaign, which was launched last month with the strapline, "I'm Lovin' It". Given the group's track record of manipulating its younger customers, analysts are betting that Mr Cantalupo will succeed. Wall Street certainly seems to think so: McDonald's shares have risen some 80 per cent from their eight-year lows in March.