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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

The McRib is back (again): How a McNugget shortage led to its rise

The McDonald's McRib sandwich.    (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)
By Timothy Bella Washington Post

For more than four decades, four words in fast food have captured the appetite and imagination of millions around the world who have craved a guilty pleasure for a limited time only: “The McRib is back.”

While the barbecue-flavored pork sandwich did not find immediate success for McDonald’s and seemed destined for doom, something unusual happened that signaled that the McRib would not be easy to kill off: There weren’t enough chickens to keep up with the wild success of Chicken McNuggets. McDonald’s needed another hot item for its locations to promote, and in 1981, René Arend, the executive chef for McDonald’s, knew it was time to push the McRib as a viable alternative.

“The McNuggets were so well received that every franchise wanted them. There wasn’t a system to supply enough chicken,” Arend, who invented the McRib and McNuggets, told Maxim in 2009. “We had to come up with something to give the other franchises as a new product. So the McRib came about because of the shortage of chickens.”

The decision put the McRib on the map, making the sandwich - featuring restructured pork meat shaped like a miniature rack of ribs, barbecue sauce, onions and pickles on a homestyle roll - a culinary curiosity that has cemented itself as one of the biggest limited-time attractions in fast-food history. The McRib has been celebrated as a cultural phenomenon by fans and panned as an abomination by critics. It has been parodied by shows such as “The Simpsons” and “Family Guy,” all while the McRib has been killed off and brought back more times than Michael Myers in “Halloween.”

Nearly a year after the sandwich’s “farewell tour,” McDonald’s announced Wednesday that - spoiler warning - the McRib is back. The McRib will be available in limited markets starting in November, the company announced. It’s unclear where exactly the McRib will be available.

“It turns out not everyone was ready to say goodbye to the McRib,” the company said in a news release.

Though the McRib has a devoted fan base, including an online tracker to help locate the elusive sandwich, fast-food consumers weren’t always craving a pork product. The National Pork Producers Council wanted to change that. It approached Roger Mandigo, an animal science professor at the University of Nebraska in the 1970s, about creating a product with pork trimmings that could be sold to fast-food companies. The lobby group had one specific company in mind.

“The pork producers wanted to see more pork on the menu, and they were targeting McDonald’s,” Mandigo told NPR in 2011.

The request turned Mandigo into a pioneer for restructured meat products, which were commonly manufactured by using lower-valued meat trimmings that had been reduced in size by comminution, such as flaking, chopping or slicing. As Mandigo explained with his colleagues in a 1995 paper published by the university, a comminuted meat mixture is mixed with salt and water to extract salt-soluble proteins, which, in turn, produce a “glue” that binds the meat muscle pieces together. The muscle pieces can then be reformed to produce a “meat log” of specific form or shape and can be cut into steaks or chops that can look similar in appearance and texture to their intact muscle counterparts when they are cooked.

“Most people would be extremely unhappy if they were served heart or tongue on a plate,” Mandigo said in “Food Chains: From Farmyard to Shopping Cart,” a 2008 book by Warren Belasco and Roger Horowitz. “But flaked into a restructured product it loses its identity. Such products as tripe, heart and scalded stomachs are high in protein, completely edible, wholesome and nutritious, and most are already used in sausage without objection.”

With the technology in place, the inspiration for the McRib came from Arend, then a 31-year-old chef who had cooked in luxury hotels in the United States and Europe, serving the likes of Queen Elizabeth and Cary Grant. Arend was lured away from his gourmet gigs by the stability, salary and benefits McDonald’s could offer - and the challenge of lifting up the chain’s menu options.

“They asked me several times to come to McDonald’s. I said, ‘I’m a chef, I don’t believe in hamburgers,’” Arend recalled to the New York Times in 1981. “But when I came, I wanted to do for the people out there in the street what I did for those who were rich.”

The idea for the McRib came after the chef had enjoyed some Southern barbecue, he said in 2009.

“I had just come back from Charleston, South Carolina, where I ate sandwiches made from pulled pork,” Arend told Maxim. “I said to myself, ‘Something with that flavor should really go over.’”

But Arend did not want to do a pulled pork sandwich. Instead, he wanted a boneless pork sandwich that could trick people into thinking they were eating a rack of ribs.

“Some thought, ‘Why not just make it round?’ It would’ve been easier,” Arend said to the magazine. “But I wanted it to look like a slab of ribs.”

The creation of the McRib was needed after the McNuggets outperformed all expectations and turned McDonald’s into one of the world’s largest chicken retailers. The company did the same for pork. Mandigo told the Associated Press in 1982 that McDonald’s was buying up to 1.5 million pounds of pork shoulder a week from a nationwide supply of anywhere between 2.4 million to 4 million pounds.

“This seems to be the most successful new product McDonald’s has had since the Big Mac,” William Trainer, an analyst for Merrill Lynch, told the AP at the time. McDonald’s played into the uniqueness of the sandwich, running ads promoting “a new kind of ‘que.”

Despite the initial success when it was introduced in menus in the Kansas City area in 1981, its sales were slumping to the point that the company indicated that the McRib would never return.

“The ribs haven’t met our expectations as a sandwich, and McDonald’s is exploring other options for ways to make it work,” McDonald’s spokeswoman Stephanie Skurdy told the Toronto Star in 1983. “We’re trying to … decide whether to discontinue the product.”

It was one of many times the company said the sandwich was going away, only for it to return. The McRib found sustained success in Germany and Luxembourg and has come back to American stores as a special attraction. The sandwich got an advertising bump in summer 1994 during a promotion for the theatrical release of “The Flintstones.”

Since then, McDonald’s has had at least four “farewell tours” for the sandwich, in 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2022.

While some have tried to give Mandigo credit for inventing the McRib, the meat scientist has been adamant that Arend and McDonald’s made the sandwich. He just gave them the technology to do it amid a Chicken McNugget crisis.

“We played an important role in the technology to bind pieces of meat to each other,” he told the Lincoln Journal Star in 2010. “I didn’t invent the McRib sandwich. McDonald’s did that.”