On first glance, it looks like a fast food store that is simply shut for the night. The lights are out but the tables and chairs are clearly visible as well as a large counter with white tiles.
But it’s not the middle of the night, it’s midday. The tables are caked with dust, dead leaves have eased their way beneath the glass doors and fully fledged plants now sprout from nooks between the store’s bricks.
This is the experimental McDonald’s that never made it beyond a single store. And yet months after it closed, it looks as if it could reopen tomorrow – after a good scrub that is.
Hidden off a main road in Sydney, it’s the mysterious Mary Celeste of Macca’s.
McDonald’s told news.com.au it was a “fresh idea” but “did not generate broader opportunities for expansion”.
When it opened in 2014, the burger giant said the store – that was never branded as a McDonald’s – would “push the boundaries of what we can do in a cafe environment”.
The plan was to see just how far Macca’s could persuade people to buy healthier foods such as salads over sundaes and sausage McMuffins. Seemingly, it couldn’t push people all that far.
A retail watcher has told news.com.au McDonald’s may have shut up shop, keen to avoid its “New Coke” moment.
On the shabby building, opposite the busy Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Camperdown, you can still see the outline of the store’s logo, prised off when the cafe shut in October 2020.
It was called “The Corner by McCafe”. Although you had to squint to see the McCafe bit as it was in such tiny type.
To the untrained eye this was a fresh looking cafe-cum-takeaway – bright, open and devoid of any of that usual McDonald’s waft of frying chips or sizzling patties.
How The Corner was different to your average McDonald’s
From a large counter you could order coffee from a selection of different bean varieties. You could then team that with corn fritters with avocado, a chorizo and egg roll on a brioche bun or a Moroccan chicken salad.
Or you were invited to design your own sandwich or salad. A fridge next to the counter was for grab and go snacks – a quick sandwich, pots of porridge and pear or brown rice and quinoa with veggies.
Staff buzzed around in denim shirts and brown rustic-esque aprons delivering food on wooden boards – this was the mid-2010s – to punters sitting at large communal tables.
There were some clues to its corporate owner. The yellow paint job had a Macca’s feel about it and there were some Ronald McDonald biscuits for the kids.
But talking to The Daily Telegraph, then manager Kyle Jarvis said there was not a Big Mac to be seen.
“It’s a new concept for us, it’s a learning lab where we test the things that Macca’s has never done before and push the boundaries of what we can do in a cafe environment.”
The store was already pretty unique even before it became The Corner. Prior to that it had been the world’s only stand-alone McCafe.
“The only association we have is that we are a McCafe, but what we are offering is totally different to what we offer in McCafe,” said Mr Jarvis.
The Corner “isn’t terrible”
The reviews were middling. Website Good Food lauded McDonald’s ambition, but said it had the feel of “an airport kiosk at 1pm on a Friday”.
“The food isn’t terrible,” the hardly glowing review continued.
“It’s mostly mindless fare engineered to be eaten with a smartphone in one hand. The pearl couscous with roasted eggplant and capsicum is gluggy but completely edible and better than anything from a Coles deli.”
The store saw a few notable events in its short life. In 2018, a health worker, from the hospital next door, was stabbed in the neck right outside. McDonald’s was also sued by the owner of a pub in Melbourne with the same name for trademark infringement.
Sad sight of Macca’s bold experiment today
But when Macca’s called time on their hipster experiment, it looks like they exited in a hurry. Behind them, the firm left a time warp.
The sign above the door has come down but that’s about it.
The once white washed bricks on the exterior are now greying. ‘Eat good food’ is painted on the wall next to a depiction of a carrot. Above it, part of the exterior is sagging and a healthy looking plant which has made its home in a gutter is the only sign of life.
Little icons of muffins, coffee and toasties are on the windows, reminders of what was once indoors. Black plastic was strung up when it closed, to stop prying eyes from peering inside. But it’s falling down giving a clear view of the eerie interior.
Above the fridge is a wooden sign saying “good food to go”. But the fridge is bare.
“Order here,” says another sign hanging above the counter, to customers that will never now arrive.
The big communal table is exactly where it was placed when the store was open. Next to it, dusty high chairs for the kids are stacked up.
Macca’s “New Coke” moment
QUT retail and marketing expert Professor Gary Mortimer said businesses were constantly looking to evolve and innovate, to find new customers and markets.
McDonald’s reliance on high fat burgers and sugary shakes saw it out of step with consumer moves to healthier options.
“While an idea might look great in a board room, it may not work in the real world. Even global brands have invested millions in developing new products, only for them to fail in the market such as New Coke and Pepsi Crystal,” Prof Mortimer said.
Brands often tested concepts on a small scale before they rolled them out more widely, he added.
“Coles launched its first innovative Coles Local concept in the Melbourne suburb of Surrey Hills in 2018, before expanding the offer elsewhere. Woolworths trialled a micro-format supermarket before rolling out its Metro stores,” Prof Mortimer said.
But The Corner got no further than one store in an inner city suburb.
McDonald’s insisted at the time it was a “learning lab”. But if they’d learned the concept was a winner, just as McCafe was which also debuted in Australia, many street corners would likely now sport The Corner.
A McDonald’s Australia spokeswoman told news.com.au that the company was “known for coming up with fresh ideas” and innovative concepts.
“While The Corner provided a unique experience for our customers, it did not generate broader opportunities for expansion as part of our future growth strategy.
“The Corner closed in October 2020 and the site has recently been sub-let to another party, who will have the opportunity to make the space their own,” she said.
But Macca’s couldn’t say what specifically it had learned from their “learning lab” and what dishes that began there had made it to McDonald’s outlets more widely.
It also didn’t reveal why an experimental Macca’s was abandoned almost intact; a museum piece to a thought bubble.
A sign on the door now directs former The Corner customers to the nearest McDonald’s, a few kilometres away along the busy and not very healthy ambience of Parramatta Road.
If they’re searching for a brown rice and quinoa vegetable pot, they’ll be searching in vain.