McDonald’s coffee in the U.S.

by on August 17, 2009

Background
When McDonald’s introduced its Premium Roast coffee in 2006, it was selling 500 million cups of coffee a day in the U.S. alone, or one out of every ten cups sold outside the home. On the heels of that success and that of the growing high-end coffee market, McDonald’s in May 2009 launched its McCafe line of espresso drinks nationwide. These drinks are based on beans from Latin America and Indonesia, and are currently available in over 11,000 U.S. locations.*

Across products, the company has a diverse and complicated supply chain, as you might imagine. They favor multiple suppliers which often vary geographically. This is true with their coffee: McDonald’s does not roast its own coffee, so it obtains its beans from other roasters.

Fast food coffee: how does McDonald’s coffee compare?
Personally, I rarely drink coffee outside my home. Quality and taste issues aside, if I don’t know where it comes from, I don’t want to drink it. But when I think about other ubiquitous fast food outlets and their brewed coffee, I think about Folger’s being served at Wendy’s, about Dunkin Donuts being owned by three creepy private equity firms (providing little or no information on where their coffee comes from), and another of the “big four” corporate roasters, Sara Lee‘s Douwe Egberts division, supplying Burger King’s coffee. These are horrible choices, driven by profit. Quality and environmental sustainability not top priorities. Or if they are, none of those companies are making any effort to disclose to the public where they source their green beans and what environmental protection (or producer compensation) measures they undertake.

McDonald’s coffee suppliers
In comparison, the identity of McDonald’s major coffee suppliers are known, albeit with a little digging. Information on the the sourcing policies of those suppliers varies (discussed below). I’m most impressed with Green Mountain and Distant Lands. Those of S&D and Gaviña are more opaque.

The roasters below supply beans to the McDonald’s McCafe drink line. The first two also did/do supply beans for drip coffee. That is generally done on a regional basis, so I presume that the espresso line is supplied regionally as well.

S&D Coffee
This Concord, NC-based company is one of the leading roasters to the food service industry, supplying tens of thousands of commercial customers with coffee and allied products. S&D has supplied McDonald’s with coffee for over 30 years, and in 2008 was named McDonald’s supplier of the year. It was founded in 1927 and is still privately held by the Davis family. It is much more difficult to find out how privately-held companies source their coffees. A look at their line up reveals that they have several dozen wholesale coffee selections, including a few that are certified by Rainforest Alliance (at the 30% level. e.g., the products contain only 30% certified beans). While some coffees are single origin, little to no detail is provided, at least on the web site.

Gaviña Gourmet Coffee
Gaviña is based in southern California. Founded in 1967 by Cuban immigrants, it is still privately held by the Gaviña family, and currently roasts 32 million pounds of coffee annually. Gaviña has supplied McDonald’s since 1983, first with drip coffee and now with beans used in the espresso-based drinks. McDonald’s represents 15% of Gaviña’s sales. Other big commercial customers include 7-Eleven and CostCo. Gaviña sources coffee from about 40 different countries. Gaviña doesn’t divulge the three or four Latin American nations used in McDonald’s McCafe drinks; they say that’s proprietary information (but see below). Guess that means we can’t narrow it down to the cooperative or farm level! Gaviña’s web site indicates they have a limited selection of organic coffees, and a search for other certified coffees comes up blank.

Distant Lands Coffee
Distant Lands Coffee is one of the newer McDonald’s suppliers. The original roasting plant is in Texas, and recently they added another near Seattle. Among other places, Distant Lands supplies coffee to Safeway supermarkets and Panera Bread. In my post about Panera’s coffee, I went into some detail about Distant Lands and had good things to say about their commitment to quality and sustainability, which you can read about there. The fact that Distant Lands also owns or manages the farms they source from (such as chairman Bill McAlpin’s well-known La Minita in Costa Rica) was appealing to McDonald’s.

According to a Chicago Tribune article, at least one McDonald’s rep traveled to Distant Lands’ managed farms in Costa Rica, Brazil and Guatemala (as well as Indonesia), thus revealing the origins of at least three of the Latin American countries McCafe drink beans come from.

One other McDonald’s coffee supplier is worth noting. Vermont’s Green Mountain Coffee Roaster has been supplying Newman’s Own organic and Fair Trade certified coffee to around 650 locations in New England since 2005. Unlike the other suppliers, GMCR is publicly-traded. They have a great corporate responsibility record, source a lot of sustainably-grown coffee , and have many initiatives in coffee-growing communities. GMCR only supplies coffee to McDonald’s for drip, but it’s probably one of the most responsibly-sourced cups you’ll get at any fast food establishment, if you are fortunate enough to live in the region supplied by GMCR.

 

McDonald’s and Rainforest Alliance outside the U.S.
In smaller (and some would say more eco-conscious) markets, McDonald’s has gone a step further. All McDonald’s coffee in Australia is Rainforest Alliance certified. The web site specifically says, “Every bean we grind at McDonald’s Australia is made using 100% Arabica coffee beans sourced only from Rainforest Alliance Certified farms in Brazil, Colombia and Costa Rica that meet strict environment and social standards.”

In the UK, where as of early 2007 McDonald’s was selling 143,000 cups of coffee daily, the company also uses Rainforest Alliance certified coffee exclusively. There, they source through Kraft under their Kenco brand. According to McDonald’s, they are expanding certified coffees throughout Europe, where all their coffee will either be Rainforest Alliance or Utz-certified.

As a reminder, neither of these certifications is specifically geared towards shade or biodiversity. More on Rainforest Alliance shade standards here and Utz environmental standards here.

Where does this leave us?
Getting coffee at a fast food chain is not the usual or best path to uplifting farmers, preserving the environment, or even appreciating great coffee. That being said, if I had to do it, my conclusion is that I’d feel least guilty getting a cup of coffee at McDonald’s than at other big fast food chains.

Perhaps, we can make it better. One thing on the McDonald’s corporate responsibility web page caught my eye:

“Other McDonald’s markets such as McDonald’s USA are working with suppliers to learn more about sustainable sourcing options for coffee. They will continue to monitor customer preferences and develop their coffee sourcing accordingly.”

McDonald’s has responded to consumer pressure in the past (albeit prolonged and crushing). Let them know that you want to see all of their U.S. coffee come from sustainable sources. Here’s how you can contact them:

Phone: 1-800-244-6227
Snail mail: McDonald’s Corporation, 2111 McDonald’s Dr., Oak Brook, IL 60523.

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*About half of McDonald’s 30,000+ locations are located outside of the U.S., and while I’ll discuss their sustainability efforts in other parts of the world — notably the U.K. and Australia — this post focuses on the coffee in their U.S. stores.

First two coffee cup photos by Majiscup, last by Avlxyz under Creative Commons License.

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Revised on March 23, 2014

Posted in Corporate coffee

Patrick August 17, 2009 at 10:59 pm

Great post. I had only ever gotten McD's coffee on a road trip to New England. When I tried to buy it here in NJ, I realized it wasn't the same Newman's coffee. I actually wrote to Green Mountain a few months ago asking them if they planned to have the Newman's coffee at more McD's. They said there were no plans to expand. What a shame.

Amber Coakley August 21, 2009 at 11:45 pm

Thanks for this great info. I too almost always drink coffee that I make at home, using beans from the awesome Grounds for Change roaster. While on a road trip, I will try to find a Starbucks (is that bad?) – but if I can't find one, I usually get coffee at McDonald's. It's yucky, really – at least that has been my experience so far. That said, it'll go down easier knowing that they are making an effort.

Julie August 22, 2009 at 9:39 am

Starbucks is way better than many other choices — I have a Starbucks category for some additional info, with more on the way in the future.

Tom August 28, 2009 at 1:26 pm

What brand/variety of coffee does McDonald's sell in the midwest/Chicago?

Julie August 28, 2009 at 2:21 pm

I assume that it is primarily Distant Lands in the Midwest, but that there is a lot of redundancy built into their supply chains so that they never get caught short of a particular product.

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