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CosMc’s Field Trip: Does McDonald’s New Concept Have Escape Velocity?

R.J. Hottovy
Jan 6, 2024
CosMc’s Field Trip: Does McDonald’s New Concept Have Escape Velocity?

2023 was a year that forced restaurant operators to stay agile. Inflation was top-of-mind for most consumers throughout the year, resulting in a trade-down to value-oriented restaurants (or trading out to value grocery chains, dollar stores, and convenience stores). That said, value wasn’t the only factor driving visits, as new menu innovations (Taco Bell was a standout) or marketing partnerships (McDonald’s Famous Orders and “adult” happy meals helping the chain to outperform from a visitation perspective). While we’ve seen visitation trends for the morning daypart improve due to a steady recovery in return to office trends, we continue to see visits during late morning and early afternoon for coffee and QSR chains due to changes in consumer routines (not to mention a resurgence in late night dining). This has also prompted several chains to refine their approach to drive-thrus and pick-up windows (Shake Shack, Chipotle, Taco Bell, among several others). On top of these trends, we’ve seen massive changes in restaurant trade areas, driving many chains to rethink their expansion plans (including an emphasis on South and Southeast, which have seen population growth due to migration).

McDonald’s new exploratory restaurant concept CosMc’s sits at the intersection of several of these trends. The smaller-format (approximately 2,800 square feet, compared to 4,000-4,500 square feet for the average McDonald’s), drive-thru only concept opened its doors last month in Bolingbrook, IL, and is part of a “limited test run”.  Its menu heavily focuses on beverages, including four “Signature Galactic Boosts” (featuring Sour Cherry Energy Boost and Island Pick-Me-Up Punch drinks), iced teas and lemonades (such as a Tropical Spiceade and Blackberry Mist Green Tea), slushes and frappes (including a Chai Frappe Burst and Popping Pear Slush), and coffee-based products (highlighted by the S’Mores Cold Brew and Turmeric Spiced Latte). While beverages are the focal point, there are also a variety of breakfast and snack food options, including a Spicy Queso and Creamy Avocado Tomatillo breakfast sandwiches, McPops (filled doughnuts), Savory Hash Brown Bites, and Pretzel Bites. In addition to the experimental fare, the menu also features a host of traditional breakfast sandwiches and beverage offerings. 

Given the early buzz, we decided to check out the concept for ourselves this week. It was immediately apparent how much interest CosMc’s was drawing, as the drive-thru lane spanned roughly 80 vehicles upon arrival (which required use of a separate parking lot at the Maple Park Place shopping center, which also features Burlington, Ross Dress for Less, Dollar Tree, Aldi, and Best Buy stores).

While its unique menu has rightfully generated a significant amount of attention, it’s also clear that McDonald’s is also using CosMc’s as a test for other potential drive-thru only locations in the future. Customers order from dynamic menu boards and cashless payment devices are used to expedite the payment process. Visitors wait at the menu board until their order is ready, and then pickup windows are assigned when the order is ready.

Admittedly, it’s tough to make definitive conclusions about CosMc’s with the location being open for only a few weeks. Placer’s data suggests that CosMc’s saw more than double the number of visits that a typical McDonald’s saw chainwide during December 2023 (despite being open only since Dec. 7) and more than triple the number of visits per square foot (given CosMc’s smaller, roughly 2,500 square feet footprint). However, it’s also worth noting that CosMc’s visitation numbers would likely have been much higher if the location had additional capacity to satisfy the overwhelming demand. 
Still, Placer offers some other ways to evaluate CosMc’s early trends. Based on 2019 Census Block Group data, CosMc’s trade area size (using a 70% of visit threshold) was just over 155 square miles during December 2023 (below). This is roughly 2.5 times the size of the trade area for the average McDonald’s location during December 2023 (62 miles) and significantly larger than the average trade area for most coffee brands (25-35 miles for more urban focused brands to 50-60 miles for more suburban/secondary market brands). In fact, the closest recent comparison we could find for CosMc’s was Raising Cane’s Post Malone and Dallas Cowboys restaurant collaboration, which had an impressive 264-mile trade area during its initial month of opening (though also helped by cross-traffic from Dallas Cowboys home game visitors from across the state of Texas). In some ways, there were also similarities between CosMc's and the Hello Kitty Cafe Trucks, which the Blog team wrote about last September.

Given that McDonald’s also appears to be targeting a younger demographic with CosMc’s, we thought we’d also look at the age breakdown for the potential market trade area (the population living within the trade area for the CosMc’s store). McDonald’s collective potential market trade area largely mirrors U.S. trends given its reach (the company has previously stated that 85% of the population in its top five markets–the U.S., France, the U.K., Germany and Canada–are within three miles of a McDonald’s location), it’s interesting that the potential market trade area for CosMc’s does skew to a younger audience, particularly the 22–29-year-old cohort.

By the end of 2024, McDonald’s plans to open an additional 10 CosMc’s test units, including locations in the Dallas-Fort Worth and San Antonio markets (notably some of the fastest growing markets in the U.S.). Does CosMc’s have the potential to be something more than a 10-unit test over a longer horizon? McDonald's has attempted to differentiate its coffee business in the past with its McCafe menu and standalone McCafe locations in international markets, but competition with Starbucks and others made it difficult for the company to distinguish McCafe as a standalone retail brand in the U.S. CosMc's is interesting from this perspective, as it may allow the company to build a brand more naturally and stand out with a younger audience (which appears to be working). It’s unlikely that future CosMc’s will look or operate like the pilot location in Bolingbrook. Nevertheless, the excitement around new products, an expansive trade area, and potential to connect with younger audience make it a worthwhile test (especially with 2024 shaping up to be a strong year for unit growth within the coffee category).

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R.J. Hottovy

Head of Analytical Research,

R.J. Hottovy, CFA has covered the restaurant, retail, and e-commerce sectors for 20 years as an equity analyst and strategist for Morningstar, William Blair & Co., and Deutsche Bank. R.J. also brings a wealth of experience with early-stage investments as a committee member for the IrishAngels / Vitalize venture capital group. Over the past three years, he advised over 50 food service companies on more than $200 million in early-stage capital raises and M&A transactions.

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