SF Bay Area
Food and drink that has us seeing gold
We entered the town of Pomeroy ecstatic and hungry. Having finally reached our ultimate destination—the fast food jewel of Ohio, no, America—we were about to experience why Pomeroy put the gold in the golden arches. Or so we thought.
The McPizza is a fabled item of legend. Like a woolly mammoth or pterodactyl, some have a hard time fathoming that such a thing could have ever graced the planet. But for a fleeting moment in the 1990s, McDonald’s did indeed serve pizza. Its life was short and ill-fated. Within years, McDonald’s pizza was relegated to the culinary graveyard, joining the likes of Zima and Spice Girls lollipops. And because it was never given a proper send-off, it towers over the McRib with legendary cult status.
Like a lot of misguided ideas, the story of McDonald’s pizza begins in the 1980s. Given the rise of Pizza Hut and other chain pizzerias, McDonald’s decided to fill in this crucial gap in their menu as a way to fend off competitors. However, pizza isn’t exactly the fastest fast food to make. Its slow cooking time is quite the liability for people looking to eat on the go, making it a counterintuitive choice for McDonald’s to invest in. The ability to mass-produce a consistent product that doesn’t easily lend itself to automation like burgers and fries, posed the first obstacle in getting McDonald’s pizza to market.
As a result, the company spent years developing a quick-cook oven, one that could turn frozen dough into crispy crust in six minutes. While it worked efficiently enough, it cost McDonald’s tons of money to install the behemoth into franchise kitchens. They also had to re-install new drive-thru windows to ensure pizza boxes could fit through them. Another ungainly financial expense. They tested the concept by updating 24 restaurants in 1989, most of which were in the Midwest, specifically Indiana and Kentucky with tepid results.
Despite the high costs, slow cook times, and Pizza Huts’ endless smear campaigns which dubbed the dough as “McFrozen,” McDonald’s remained steadfast in their conviction that pizza was the future. A 1989 headline in the New York Times declared “McDonald’s Hopes Pizza Will Be the Next McHit.” They were wrong. By the early ’90s, pizza made it to about 40 percent of Micky Ds in the U.S., with marginally more success in Canada. Probably because Howie Mandel was pitching them in commercials.
But the investment never fully paid off. With a price range of $5.99 – $8, customers just weren’t willing to spend that much and wait 10 minutes when a quick, dollar menu burger awaited. And thus, they were pulled from the menu almost as swiftly as they arrived.
Two towns, however, never got the memo, or rather the obituary. The McDonald’s in Pomeroy, as well as its sister franchise (50 miles away in Spencer, West Virginia) continued to sell pizza over 20 years after their demise, as if the Clinton administration never left office. Both locations are owned by Greg Mills, a man so mysterious he has refused to grant any interviews to the press or offer any explanation for this business decision. Let’s just assume he really likes pizza.
But why would anyone actually want to eat pizza at McDonald’s? And why would someone want to eat one in 2017?
For me, the appeal extended beyond novelty. While McPizza (which was never its official name by the way) never made it to my part of the country growing up, I was hungry for nostalgia. I wanted to remember something I never had the chance to forget. I wanted to turn my stomach into a time capsule.
So strong was my determination and single-mindedness that over the course of a Midwestern road trip from New Jersey to Indiana, Pomeroy was the only planned stop for that entire damn state of Ohio. (Who needs the dining meccas of Cleveland or Columbus when McDonald’s pizza awaits?) My husband and two friends were equally on board with this itinerary and our enthusiasm could not be quelled.
Rationally we suspected the sub-par ingredients and frozen dough to barely elevate it above the monstrosity that is Ellio’s, but there is no room for reason when the heart wants what the heart wants.
As fate would have it, our attempt to eat McDonald’s pizza was as brief, challenging and disappointing as the food experiment itself.
We arrived in Pomeroy following a three hour drive from Pittsburgh, where we spent the previous night following a strenuous trek across the entirety of Pennsylvania. Our Holiday Inn was not without food woes of its own. The breakfast buffet included pancakes that were batched out of machine, which was not unlike an office printer (especially given its tendency to malfunction all the damn time).
We had to press eight buttons to get one silver dollar, but then, without prompting, a doughy crepe bigger than our plate spat forth. Seriously, the Popcake (as I later learned the machine was named) has a mind of it’s own. While disappointing in its flavor and texture, it did strengthen my belief that we have a long time left before robots take over the world. Because they can’t even make breakfast right yet.
If anything, these failed pancakes only increased our drive and desire to scarf down the most mythical fast food product of all time. We sped, oh how we sped, however those 200 miles separating us from the McPizza might as well have been an ocean. The void was darker and emptier than we imagined.
The Pomeroy franchise is perched upon the Ohio River. Bad vibes emanated from its shore as we pulled into the McDonald’s parking lot. Something just felt off. We walked inside. It looked normal. Too normal. We spied families eating burgers and fries in the plastic booths without a pizza in sight.
And it looked too modern. The flashy digital menu above the counter was out of place for restaurant beloved for selling relics that pre-date the first Iraq War.
But how could we be wrong? We read countless Yelp reviews and a flurry of Wikipedia entries. Hell, a man dedicated over 50 episodes of a podcast to this place (48 at the time of our trip). The internet wouldn’t lie to us!
It turns out we weren’t wrong. We we were just late, as some depressing signage was about to inform us.
“Our menu is always changing, and we will no longer be serving pizza at our locations. However, we continue to offer a wide variety of items for our customers to try and enjoy.”
Many aspects of this statement are sad and some are purely false. McDonald’s has one of the most stable roster menus on the fast food market. New offerings are usually changes to toppings or sauces, not new products in their entirety. It’s not like the McPizza is being replaced with a McTaco.
Upon further research I discovered that this was a purely corporate decision and beyond the franchise’s control. As of Sept. 1, 2017 the two lone holdouts in Pomeroy and Spencer were simply forced to give in. We had visited in October, barely a month after the new policy went into effect. No further explanation was given for McPizza’s final death knell.
I should note the one strange outlier though. A rogue McDonald’s in Orlando sells totally unsanctioned pizza of their own. It’s made in a wood-fire oven and seems suspiciously artisanal for a restaurant with a clown mascot.
In the meantime, we were left to wallow in the futility of our journey. Our pilgrimage was for naught. Charlie Brown Christmas music might as well have been soundtracking our abrupt exit as we shuffled back to the car without ordering a thing. We opted for lunch at the Taco Bell across the street.
Header image courtesy of Collecting Candy.