Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Bona Fide Fans Chase Rib-Free Rib Sandwich


Bona Fide Fans Chase Rib-Free Rib Sandwich
Julie Jargon and David Kesmodel
Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Before traveling to visit his parents in Nebraska last winter, Jeremy Duensing consulted what he always checks before a trip: the "McRib Locator" website.

To his delight, he found a McDonald's restaurant near Omaha that, unlike most of the burger chain's 14,000 U.S. restaurants, had the McRib on its menu. He bought six of the pork sandwiches, ate one right away at the restaurant, and carried the rest home to Burnsville, Minn., in an ice-packed cooler.

"Either you find places that have them or you're out of luck for the rest of the year," says Mr. Duensing, 34 years old.

The McRib actually has nothing to do with ribs. It's a boneless pork patty molded into the shape of a rib slab and adorned with pickles, onions and barbecue sauce on a bun. The sandwich made its debut in 1981.

But McRibs are almost never available at all McDonald's restaurants at the same time. Instead, the Oak Brook, Ill., company offers them in different cities at different times, rarely for longer than a few weeks.

The sandwich's elusiveness has created a fan base of people who go to considerable lengths to munch on a McRib. Ryan Dixon of Burbank, Calif., once drove 10 hours to Medford, Ore., after hearing a McDonald's there was selling the sandwich.

"It has a ghostly quality," says Mr. Dixon, a 30-year-old graphic novelist. "You don't know when it will appear. It's the girl who you are in love with who has always been a tease to you."

On Nov. 2, for the first time in 16 years, McDonald's Corp. will offer the McRib at outlets across the U.S., but even then, only for six weeks or so. "It doesn't sell well all year long because people get tired of it," says McDonald's USA President Jan Fields.

Derided by some as "mystery meat," the McRib has served as the inspiration for a Simpsons episode about a "Ribwich," and appeared on David Letterman Top 10 lists and in the movie Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle, in which a character cites the McRib as an example of African-American Irish culture.

Nearly 300 Facebook groups are devoted to the sandwich, including "Bring back the McRib, Please," with more than 500 members.

Some people don't get the attraction. Justin McDaniel, a 32-year-old health-care-industry worker in South Pasadena, Calif., says he'll go out of his way for some fast-food products, but the McRib is "pretty disgusting" and he'll never sample one again.

"It's a conglomeration of pork waste, as far as I can tell," says Kate Sedgwick, 34, a travel blogger who lives in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She has never actually tasted a McRib, and isn't familiar with its ingredients because, she says, "I saw a dog turn his nose up at a piece of one. That's all I need to know."

Plenty of companies offer limited-time products to coincide with holidays or promotions. Burger King offered actual ribs for a while this year. Mars Inc. sells red and green M&M's at Christmas.

For McDonald's, with about $23 billion in annual revenue, these sorts of items might be considered a drop in the bucket. While the chain says it sold more than 60 million McRib sandwiches in the last three years, it sold 1.5 billion Big Macs in the same period. But every sale counts in a business that demands month after month of strong same-store sales.

"A tenth of a point in sales at McDonald's is a lot of money," says Dennis Lombardi, executive vice president for WD Partners, an Ohio restaurant design and development firm. "There's a certain percentage of people, when a product is not available, that crave it, and for the short amount of time that it's available again, it stimulates traffic."

A McDonald's spokeswoman said the company isn't behind any of the McRib fan groups on Facebook and that there is no connection between McDonald's or any of its McRib lovers.

Still, the franchiser has helped cultivate the McRib mystique. Five years ago, one of the company's marketing regions in the South said it was permanently removing McRibs from all restaurants and announced a "McRib Farewell Tour." At the same time, the region created a "Save the McRib" website sponsored by the fake "Boneless Pig Farmers Association of America." The sandwich continues to be sold on and off in the region.

Alan Klein's obsession with the McRib began when he was growing up on a hog farm in South Dakota. The 28-year-old meteorologist, who now lives in Minnesota, justified his craving by saying that eating McRibs supported the family business.

After moving to Minnesota for college, he had trouble finding McRibs. Five years ago, he visited South Dakota and saw the sandwich at a McDonald's near his childhood home. "It rekindled my love of McRibs and made me start thinking it would be nice to know where they were," he says.

Three years ago, he launched the McRib Locator at www.kleincast.com. Visitors can inquire about and report McRib sightings. Mr. Klein says he gets 300 to 400 hits a week. On Sunday, the site's U.S. map showed a cluster of sightings in the Chicago and Detroit areas. The latest: New Baltimore, Mich.

Posted sightings aren't always reliable. Tom Russomano of Morristown, N.J., has tried unsuccessfully for five years to track down the sandwich, and says he has encountered several "false positives" on the McRib Locator.

Last spring, the 28-year-old university employee took a train to nearby New York City where a McDonald's reportedly was selling the McRib, only to leave empty-handed, and dejected. "The only reason I would ever set foot in a McDonald's is for the McRib," he says.

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