McDonald’s trots out fresh-baked breakfast treats

I got to know the Muffin Man ;a little bit today. Turns out he is a she.

Kimberly Shelton of Crestone Group Baking Companies led 14 bloggers through a tasting of McDonald’s new bakery offerings this morning at the Seaport Hotel in Boston. She was joined by Sylvia Becker, marketing manager for McDonald’s, the purveyor of five of Shelton’s creations: Banana bread, cheese croissant, blueberry muffin, multi-grain berry muffin and miniature vanilla scones.

In typical Commuter Daddy fashion, the day started before the sun was up this morning as I departed Middletown, NY, at 5 a.m. My goal was to blow through Hartford before that city’s rush hour and hopefully catch a break as I neared Boston during the peak morning traffic, all in an effort to make it to the tasting by 10.

I must have made the correct ;sacrifices ;to the commuting gods this week. Even with some traffic on the Mass Pike at the Newton and Allston tolls, I made the trip in under four hours, gaining me an hour to do some day-job work. Score one for productivity!

Most of the 14 bloggers in attendance were women, but it didn’t feel like a mom-specific event and therefore I didn’t feel out of place. We’ve all got to eat, right? We’re all looking for variety in ours and our kids’ diets. If we can sneak some fruit into a baked good, that smells like victory to me.

When I first arrived, I set myself up at a table near the rear of the suite. I wanted some room to spread out, take some photos, do some writing, sip some coffee, etc. Soon, I was joined by two moms and their children. I had established the kids table! It turned out to be fortuitous. One measure of culinary success can be accomplished via the mouths of toddlers. Would the kids like the baked goods?

A 19-month-old daughter of one blogger tried playing peek-a-boo with me, but her hands were occupied by the banana bread, so she simply turned her head side to side in a modified version of the game. Her mouth was occupied too, seeming to savor every bite of the banana bread. I had to agree with her. It was pretty tasty, with just the right amount of crunch on the crust surrounding an otherwise moist bread. Shelton said they used as little flour as possible among the 12 ingredients, which at times meant the bread would barely hold together during testing. The banana taste was faint, but it still was my favorite among the five offerings.

It didn’t taste nearly as sinful as the cheese croissant. ;”It’s butter,” Shelton said about the croissant. “It’s a lot of butter.” It was fabulous, but it couldn’t possibly be in my regular breakfast rotation, in much the same way the beloved sausage biscuit is not on my personal menu regularly. My daily fight against cholesterol would surely be lost if the cheese croissant was in my commuting breakfast repetoire. It has 14 grams of saturated fat, which is 70 percent of the recommended daily allowance, according to the nutritional labels that were shared with us. Be still, my clogging heart. The way Shelton described the ingredients — a “big block” of croissant dough, a “big block” of butter and sweetened cream cheese — made my LDL dance with joy. Don’t get me wrong. Each bite was a dreamy mouthful. Even before Shelton described the care that went into making the croissant light and airy, I could tell this was no ordinary fast-food croissant. It will be interesting to see how airy they are at the restaurants when I do get around to indulging in such breakfast decadence once in a long while.

The aforementioned 19-month-old also appeared to like the miniature vanilla scones. They were a shade too sweet for my taste. Nevertheless, I know our small army of boys will love the scones when they have a chance to try them. I will describe them to the boys as iced Munchkins — two words that go very well with their palettes. One bite, and they will be hooked and learn to connote the word scone with other breakfast treats they like. The 3-scone serving size packs a caloric whallop, though. They make the cheese croissant seem light by comparison: 420 calories for the scones serving, 380 for the croissant. I am already feeling as if I can increase my croissant allowance.

The lightest item among the offerings is the 280-calorie multi-grain berry muffin. It also has only 6 grams of fat total, with 1 gram being saturated — a much better fit for my diet. It would be impossible to eat cleanly while driving, though. As it was, I got a small berry stain on my pants while sampling in a much more controlled setting than my driver’s seat. No wonder I was at the kids’ table! That said, this muffin ran a close second to my banana bread favorite. Anytime you can mix crunchy grains with a moist breakfast food, I am all in. One bite and I was immediately ;nostalgic ;as my culinary imagination whisked me to Fog Island Cafe on Nantucket for my favorite “Trail Cakes.”

I have to bet the McDonald’s multi-grain muffin and its simpler blueberry sibling are much better for me than the Fog Island breakfast, and more cost effective too. Becker said McDonald’s restaurant operators have been advised to price the bakery items between $1.59 and $1.89. Bundle it with a small coffee (Newman’s Own Organic, of course, already a regular staple in the Commuter Daddy road diet), and you’ve got breakfast for under $3.

The better news? The bakery items are available all day, unlike most of the rest of the McDonald’s breakfast menu, which is unavailable after 10 or 11 a.m., depending on where you are and whether it is a weekday or weekend.

One blogger pointed out that the items being showcased were akin to offerings at Panera, with the added bonus of the McDonald’s drive-thru. No longer is a sports parent required to shepherd some or all of the family from vehicle to restaurant and back again to get some something other than Pop Tarts and sugary cereals into the kids’ gullets. Drive up, place order, get served, distribute food, and voila! Multi-tasking zen achieved with at least twenty minutes gained. Becker said 60 percent of McDonald’s business is conducted via its drive-through window. We parents and commuters can vouch for that.

One of the bloggers in attendance asked the McDonald’s representative whether the company has added the baked goods as part of a strategy to compete more directly against Starbucks or Dunkin Donuts. Becker deftly side-stepped the question twice, bringing focus back to the McDonald’s variety, affordability and all-natural ingredients, without explicitly stating against whom those value propositions should be applied.

But make no mistake. The breakfast and freshness race is on. Certainly Starbucks perceives McDonald’s as infringing on its market share. If I were a betting man, I’d wager that similar feelings are held by McDonald’s executives.

Bad news for those outside of New England, though. These baked goods are strictly a Northeast offering for the moment. Becker said breakfast tastes vary greatly by region, and while McDonald’s would like to test something in Chicago based on their New England success to-date, they are proceeding slowly and cautiously. It’s not often that McDonald’s offers regional products (plus or minus a ;McLobster), so there seems to be an extra dose of caution being applied.

From the commuter perspective, these offerings are not ideal drive-and-eat fodder. They won’t score well on the Commuter Snack Index that is in the works (more to come), but not many baked goods will score highly, no matter the origin. So that’s not a knock on McDonald’s. These latest offerings are, however, ideal grab-and-go food for everyone else in the car. There’s sure to be something that finnecky kids will like and can pair with a smoothie for a pretty well balanced meal when contrasted against other McDonald’s breakfast options.

Sure, they look and are delicious, but for my long-term health give me the multi-gran berry muffin any day.

Also in attendance today:
As Cape Cod Turns
Being Loopy
Capability : Mom
Charlene Chronicles
Don’t Mind the Mess
MommyCosM
Natick Patch: Weekly Bites
Pragmatic Mom
Providence Journal Food Blog
Stowed Stuff
The Coupon Goddess
The Frugalette

Disclosures: I was not paid to attend today. Our hosts, SHIFT Communications, did pay for parking, and ;food and coffee were supplied for free. Each of us was also presented with a thank-you basket, containing a McCafe apron, small spiral-bound notebook and coupons. I would like to give away the coupons to the first 9 new people to like our Commuter Daddy Facebook page. Please send an email to commuterdaddy@comcast.net to let me know you’ve added yourself among the Facebook fandom, and whether you’d like a free smoothie (2 available) or a free bakery item coupon (7 available).