The Weekly Eater

By Nadine Kam

Thursday, August 13, 1998

A McFlurry
of tasty ideas

The people of Nanakuli have no use for Spanish-speaking chihuahuas or talking antenna balls as fast-food pitchmen. They know a good thing when they taste it. We can thank them that McDonald's McFlurry -- the soft-serve ice cream dessert blended with candies -- didn't turn into McFlop.

As at any company, new product introductions are a big deal for the fast-food chain. One can just imagine the Oak Brook, Ill., test labs full of guys in white coats armed with buckets of Butterfinger bars, chocolate bars, Oreos and other sweets, trying to find the magic combination. Meanwhile, others equipped with little plastic spoons might taste and veto as they progress down an assembly line of McWannabes.

That's not how it works all the time. Sometimes, one of the McDonald's operators, or franchise owners, calls up headquarters to make a suggestion, like, "How about putting saimin on the menu?"

To which the big boys would respond, "Nah."

Francis Yamamura But when Francis Yamamura speaks, the regional bosses listen. The owner of McDonald's stores in Waianae, Nanakuli and Kapolei is also the guy responsible for introducing the fast-food chain to local successes such as the Portuguese sausage breakfast, fruit punch and saimin.

Last year, Yamamura volunteered for McDonald's National Advisory Committee task force on desserts, bringing the Flurries -- as the desserts were known then -- to his Nanakuli store in August. Oh, he had a choice of bringing back pies, cookies or even bagels, but he said, "This thing -- the Flurry -- I had a gut feeling about it."

The Flurries were a hit in Nanakuli, but bombed in other test markets. "If test results show the product is not viable, the company won't roll it out," Yamamura said. "But I was selling a lot, and because it was just a test, there were no commercials, no radio support.

"I went back to Chicago and showed my numbers to the chairman of the board. In March, they made it available to everybody."

Yamamura, a Maui boy, began working for McDonald's in Maryland in 1971, after serving in Vietnam. He moved back in 1983 with a franchise in Waianae.

"When I was growing up, the only thing we had on Maui was Dairy Queen. My generation grew up with plate lunches. Hamburgers were just becoming the 'in' thing. I saw it as a great opportunity."

Because of increased competition, McDonald's faltered a bit, but corporate restructuring last year led to a new openness to ideas and regional preferences.

"That's important because before, the bureaucracy's job was to say 'no,' " Yamamura said. "People forgot that successful items like the Big Mac and Filet O Fish sandwich were developed by operators."

So someday, the plate lunches (teri beef and/or teri chicken) being served at McDonald's at 2121 S. King St., Pearlridge Uptown near Liberty House, and Aina Haina Shopping Center, may be available at all local stores. My research tells me they need to go back to the lab for the teri chicken, which in McDonaldland is a breaded cutlet with a syrupy sweet sauce.

An ono li hing mui version of McFlurry is being tested in stores such as the one at 406 Kuulei Road in Kailua. McFlurry ala mode may also be a future option, according to Yamamura, who's also trying to work that island staple, Spam, into his menu. He knows it won't be easy. "I don't know how they eat Spam on the mainland," he said, "but they (mainland managers) think Spam is a night-time product."

This doesn't mean franchise owners will be running amok.

"We still have to go through the proper channels," Yamamura said. And try explaining poi mochi in Illinois.

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Nadine Kam's restaurant reviews run on Thursdays. Reviews are conducted anonymously and paid for by the Star-Bulletin. Star ratings are based on comparisons of similar restaurants:

-- excellent;
-- very good, exceeds expectations;
-- average;
-- below average.

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