Panera Bread

Will the real McDonald's please stand up?

April 23, 2014: 11:57 AM ET

In an effort to get back to basics to stem a recent drop in profits and sales, CEO Don Thompson said that McDonald's would be returning its focus on its core menu offerings.

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McDonald's can't seem to decide if it should serve you a burger and fries or fruit on a stick.

FORTUNE -- McDonald's (MCD) is having a bit of an identity crisis.

The burger behemoth announced a 5.2% drop in profits for the first three months of 2014 and a 1.7% decrease in same store sales in the U.S. on Tuesday. President and CEO Don Thompson emphasized that McDonald's would be focusing on its core products, like its Big Mac, Egg McMuffin, and its famous french fries.

Thompson's back-to-basics vow comes in response to the sort of menu creep the chain experienced in 2013, when it rolled out a seemingly endless stream of limited time offers, like its Mighty Wings, a steak and egg burrito, a steak breakfast sandwich, a new Quarter pounder, a grilled onion cheddar burger, the Hot n' Spicy McChicken, and a product that the restaurant must have questioned from the start: Fish McBites. That was all on top of the Snack Wrap it added to its menu in 2006, the McCafe coffee beverages it introduced in 2009, and the fruit smoothies and McCafé Frappés it started to sell in 2010.

After all, those special promotions and innovations didn't do much good. Same-store sales slipped by 0.2% in the U.S. last year, and chief operating officer Tim Fenton admitted in January that the fast-food chain "stumbled a bit [in 2013] with too many new products, too fast and we created a lot of complexity."

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On Tuesday, Thompson said that McDonald's "core products are familiar favorites for our customers. They truly represent McDonald's to all of our customers, and at about 40% of total sales, they are an incredible business asset for us that requires a constant drumbeat of communication."

But there's another side to McDonald's, the one that in September announced in conjunction with the Clinton Foundation that it would feature food choices that are lower in fat, salt, or sugar content. Kiwi on a stick, anyone? The initiative aimed to appeal to health-conscious millennials, who are drawn to the fresh offerings of Panera Bread (PNRA) and Chipotle (CMG). At the time, Thompson said that McDonald's wanted to optimize its menu with more fruit and vegetables, "giving customers additional choices when they come to McDonald's." Thompson made no mention of this initiative in the earnings call on Tuesday.

When asked specifically how the renewed focus on basic burgers and fries would mesh with the more healthful "additional choices" initiative from September, a McDonald's spokesperson simply said that the fast food chain's menu "features a variety of balanced choices to fit our customers' individual diet and lifestyle needs." She added, "We have adjusted our U.S. marketing calendar so that we're introducing the appropriate number of new and promotional menu items."

It's vital that McDonald's craft a consistent message, so customers' expectations are met when they choose to eat beneath the Golden Arches. When McDonald's first got off the ground in the 1940s, it had a nine-item menu made up of hamburger, cheeseburger, soft drinks, milk, coffee, potato chips, and a slice of pie. It built its iconic reputation on guaranteeing that these food and beverage items would have the same great taste no matter the McDonald's location at which they were served.

Just as crucial, too much menu diversification, which McDonald's has suffered from of late, leads to longer customer wait times in an industry built on speed. QSR Magazine, which covers the quick service restaurant industry, reported in October 2013 that McDonald's experienced the slowest drive-thru time in 15 years, which the publication attributed to its complicated menu.

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"What [McDonald's] workers do inside those four walls is really impressive. Everyone has their time and place, and their entire job is done in two or three steps," says Howard Penney, managing director at Hedgeye Risk Management. Adding more processes that come with a bigger menu, specifically the smoothie and espresso machines, has disrupted McDonald's restaurants' time and motion, he says. It takes a lot longer to make a smoothie than it does to pour a fountain Coke.

"Everything they've done to become all things to all people has slowed service," Penney says.

Going back to its roots could be just what McDonald's needs. After all, it seems like a long shot for the fast food giant to morph into the next Chipotle or Panera since, as Penney puts it, "the core McDonald's customer is not looking for a wrap with a cucumber in it."

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