The year is 1996. Charles and Diana are divorcing, Jerry Maguire tops the box office, a Finn Dorset sheep named Dolly makes a friend made from her own mammary gland, and America’s favorite sitcom is a show about nothing in which four neurotic New Yorkers debate life’s finer points. Such sophisticated times, McDonald’s had determined, called for a sophisticated sandwich, one that would appeal to the urbane, discerning, and diet-conscious tastes of Gen X: the Arch Deluxe.
It was bold and upscale, featuring spices like pepper (ooh) and mustard (not yellow, but the stoneground kind — quelle magnifique). It was also the biggest marketing flop in McDonald’s history, with the brand spending an estimated $200 million to advertise a sandwich that very few people — especially not sophisticated urbanites — wanted to order.
Where McDonald’s went wrong has been covered at length. Mistakes include marketing to a new, disinterested demographic, while neglecting the brand’s core audience, overpricing the sandwich itself, some ad firm dram, and sweeping disinterest or disdain from franchisees. In 1996, the New York Times reported on a memo from the company’s then-president Edward H. Rensi, in which Rensi “tried to marshal market-research data in a defense of the Arch Deluxe to the franchisees, writing in summary: ‘Only those who expected a miracle were disappointed.’”
Rensi was underselling McDonald’s high hopes for the burger, which — per the New York Times — was originally projected to bring in $1 billion to the company. It wasn’t entirely unreasonable to expect miracles because on paper, the Arch Deluxe is one hell of a burger: crisp lettuce, mustard-mayo sauce, peppered bacon, tomato, and beef on a bakery-style potato roll. It was the creation of Andrew Selvaggio, a fine dining chef from Chicago’s legendary Pump Room. With all the talent and bona fides a McDonald’s head chef required and then some, Selvaggio spent months coming up with what he now describes as “something unique and different [to] set us apart from everybody. The Arch Deluxe was supposed to be the first entry into a better burger — premium burger — experience for McDonald’s.”
Selvaggio was hired as McDonald’s head chef in 1994 and flourished in the role. He reveled in the impromptu lessons in food technology, food science, and process technology from what felt like the control center of the fast-food industry. Two years into the job, he was approached about creating a burger with a distinctly adult taste to shift the perception of McDonald’s from a place for families to a place for anyone, childless grownups included. While this had actually been the case among working-class adults for some time, McDonald’s was now pursuing high-earners and young professionals.
For about a year, Selvaggio furiously worked from a glass-encased test kitchen, which looked like a lab out of Jurassic Park. “I tasted at least 30 or more mustards for the Arch Deluxe sauce,” he says. “I worked with the bakers to create potato rolls — not to mention a new salt-to-pepper ratio, and the development of peppered bacon procedures.” Along with recipe development, Selvaggio immersed himself in research, diligently investigating how competitors created and marketed their burgers.
In 1995, the Arch Deluxe debuted in test markets in Canada and in May 1996, it was added to U.S. menus nationwide for the cool price of $2.09 to $2.49. McDonald’s accompanied the release with an expensive marketing campaign that iterated, then reiterated, that this “burger with the grownup taste” was not for childish palates. In one commercial, two tweens, a boy and a girl, sit across from each other at a McDonald’s table; the boy dismantles his sandwich, grossed out by the sophisticated flavors, as the girl observes with distaste. “It’s true,” says the voiceover. “We do mature faster than boys.” In another, Ronald McDonald plays golf as if to say, “See? Even the clown can grow up a little.”
The public’s reaction to the $150 million Arch Deluxe campaign was tepid at best. In addition to its marketing failure, the sandwich struggled to gain support and enthusiasm from McDonald’s franchisees. “It was a new burger that required a new sauce, new buns, new lettuce, seasoning,” says Selvaggio. In the end, they weren’t seeing the return on investment needed to justify the specialty burger. From 1998 to 1999, McDonald’s kept the Arch Deluxe on the menu at select McDonald’s stores before removing it completely on August 18, 2000. “It was sort of hard working on a product so long and [to] see it not go anywhere,” says Selvaggio. “I learned not to get too attached.” He stayed on at McDonald’s for several years before leaving in 2009 and now works as a culinary advisor at Jollibee, the Philippine fried-chicken chain. But he is still proud of the Arch Deluxe and his time at McDonald’s.
The Arch Deluxe was not without its fans; McDonald’s even tested a revamped version of it, dubbed the Archburger, at a cheaper price point in 2018, though it didn’t stick beyond that. When Selvaggio rewatches old Arch Deluxe commercials — many of which he’s featured in — online, he finds himself mostly touched at the reactions from the masses. “You should see some of the comments. Everything from, ‘I really missed this burger’ to ‘this guy probably is just like Jared Fogle.’ But, man, I just start laughing when I read that stuff.” (He is not, he clarifies, anything like Jared Fogle.)
Had the Arch Deluxe debuted in a different time, and with a different marketing gimmick, there’s a chance it could’ve been a hit. Only three years after the burger’s discontinuation, McDonald’s — giving up on the marketing white whale of Gen X — hit gold among millennials with its Justin Timberlake-fronted “I’m lovin’ it” campaign. Younger generations typically don’t approach fast food with the same amount of scorn, and sandwich releases now come with celebrity endorsements and the same level of anticipation as sneaker drops.
Trends are currently geared more toward nostalgia, and reminding consumers what it was like to be a kid rather than highlighting the increasingly limited perks of adulthood (like paying $20 for a burger when you’d rather be ordering off the kids’ menu). Lauded chefs like David Chang are not only less scornful of fast food, but go as far as to celebrate it. But at least one thing is consistent between now and then: The type of person in search of a more sophisticated, elite burger experience probably doesn’t look to McDonald’s. And vice versa, a person craving a McDonald’s burger isn’t asking for the bells and whistles, but the comforts of a classic. In the endless search for hype, the Golden Arches has had better luck repackaging its consistent menu with in-demand celebrities like Travis Scott or BTS than it ever will with a mustard-mayo sauce, no matter how delicious it is.
Jeremy Glass is a freelance writer living in Maine where there are only 58 McDonald’s across the state. He’s on Twitter as @CandyAndPizza. Give him a follow and boost his serotonin levels. Eliot Wyatt is a freelance illustrator based in Bristol, United Kingdom.