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Ronald McStarbucks

The Golden Arches unveils its society cafe

By Traci Vogel

TEN YEARS ago, in a case that has since been deep-fried in folklore, McDonald's was ordered to pay $2.7 million dollars in punitive damages to an 80-year-old woman who suffered burns from hot coffee she spilled in her lap. According to the prosecution, McDonald's was serving its coffee at temperatures almost 40 degrees hotter than most food establishments. Back then, $2.7 million represented two days' worth of national coffee sales for the Golden Arches.

Which makes it a tiny little bit ironic that McDonald's latest effort to reinvent its brand revolves around coffee. The first McCafe to grace the West Coast (there are 500 or so worldwide; in Australia, where the concept started, there are 50) opened its doors on Mountain View's El Monte Avenue on Wednesday, just in time for the really cold and wet season. Owned and operated by Con and Lee Ann Freeman, the McCafe is part of a family tradition--Con's father opened the very first McDonald's franchise in the Bay Area, in San Jose in 1964. The Freemans now run a chain of McDonald's franchises and will open a second McCafe, in Palo Alto, sometime in March. Mary Freeman, Con and Lee Ann's daughter, has been trained as a McCafe barista.

Yes, barista. The McCafe at the Mountain View McDonald's comes sheathed in an oddly familiar dark faux-granite décor, with an oddly familiar glass-fronted bakery case full of muffins, cake, gourmet sandwiches and wraps. It also sports an actual espresso machine. Standing in line at said espresso machine Tuesday, this Biter writer admitted some skepticism regarding what would froth forth. Coffee, as associated with McDonald's, usually bears some truck-stop-diner attributes--perfectly adequate as something to wash down that Egg McMuffin, but nothing to write to Starbucks about.

The McCafe's mission is to change all that, and the single medium latte (the McCafe gratifyingly sticks to the terms "small, medium and large" to describe its drinks, in lieu of more confusing monikers) that slid across the counter toward Biter did look astonishingly authentic. Served in a wide-mouthed porcelain mug on its very own saucer, the latte's cap of milk foam had the perfect consistency and sweetness, the espresso a complex mellowness--not too strong, not too watery.

Con Freeman, unquestionably wide-eyed from a week of coffee testing, watched Biter's tentative sipping intently. He himself is a coffee connoisseur, he says: "I know how important the coffee is. If we mess up your latte, it could mess up your day. So we take it very seriously." Each barista employed at the McCafe undergoes 40 hours of coffee training. The espresso itself is an imported blend of beans specially roasted. Even more surprising, Biter's medium latte cost $2.20. A large-size single shot latte is $2.50, and frappés range from $2.85 to $3.

McDonald's envisions these espresso bars as complements to its fast-food empire--places where moms can stop in, get the kids a Happy Meal and sit down themselves to a latte and a strawberry amaretto torte with almond flecks ($2.75). Starbucks has already paved the green faux-marble road. If McDonald's can do it cheaper, we might be seeing a McCafe alongside every mermaid.

Speaking of the mermaid, there happens to be one right across the street from the new McCafe. Biter stopped by on our way out and asked the barista what she thought of the arch competition.

"Oh, that," she said. "I don't think we're allowed to comment. But McYuck."

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From the December 4-10, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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