We are drinking more coffee drinks than ever. It’s our morning eye-opener, our midafternoon pick-me-up, our casual date with friends, and even a traditional way to end a family meal.
While more people have recently embraced brewing their coffee at home, many of us still grab a quick caffeine boost from a coffee shop during our day.
Starbucks may be the most famous and largest coffee chain in the world, but it has serious competition from an unlikely place – McDonald’s.
The fast-food giant first introduced McCafe in 1993 to join the growing coffee market. The McCafe coffee brand expanded in 2009 to include specialty drinks, including lattes, cappuccinos, and mochas.
The McCafe isn’t a fad. They have invested in new coffee makers and added more training for crew members to ensure a handcrafted, cafe-quality taste.
The famous food joint is taking on the coffee giant.
Both companies strive to combine taste, value, convenience, atmosphere, and socially relevant trends to win the hearts of coffee drinkers everywhere.
Starbucks? McDonald’s? Which coffee joint will you choose?
A Good Cup of Coffee
Nothing says comfort like old-fashioned cups of coffee. Hot, black, and aromatic. How do these coffee rivals stack up on taste?
McDonald’s aims to “elevate our coffee experience” by brewing a fresh pot of premium-roast coffee every 30 minutes. Committed to using 100% freshly ground Arabica beans, the final product is described as simple and satisfying.
Since McDonald’s uses a medium roast instead of a dark roasted coffee, people describe the flavor as nutty with chocolate undertones and minimal bitterness.
This makes sense for a fast food restaurant that tries to appeal to the largest number of people. Nothing too bland. Nothing too bitter. The flavor is fresh and just right.
A hot cup of Starbucks Pike Place Roast has a similar description: “a smooth, well-rounded blend of Latin American coffees with subtly rich flavors of chocolate and toasted nuts.”
But Starbucks also features a blonde roast with a more mellow flavor and a dark roast shot of espresso with a bold and robust flavor. Its mission is to appeal to every coffee drinker’s personal taste.
They do not take a one size fits all approach but offer a variety of flavors.
That said, Consumer Report Magazine conducted a blind taste test between McDonald’s and Starbucks, and surprisingly, McDonald’s came out on top.
In March 2007, the magazine reported that McDonald’s regular brew was “decent and moderately strong,” while Starbucks was described as “strong, but burnt and bitter…”
McDonald’s may be the safe bet if you need a regular coffee fix. On the other hand, Starbucks may meet your personal preferences with its wider variety of roasted beans.
Sourcing the Beans
Before your coffee is sweetened, creamed, or whipped, the quality of flavor is determined by the quality of the beans.
To make the best-selling cup of coffee, you need the best beans. The best beans thrive on farms with just the right soil type, temperature, rainfall, and sustainable farming methods.
Like all major coffee shops, McDonald’s and Starbucks source their coffee beans from various tropical countries found in the “coffee belt.” The best coffee farms are located in mountainous regions around the equator.
Central & South America
Latin American countries produce the most coffee beans worldwide. These beans include flavors of nuts, cocoa, and spices and provide the foundation for most coffees.
- El Salvador
- Costa Rica
Beans harvested from East Africa provide unique flavors, including citrus, berry, and spice with floral aromas.
Southeast Asian countries produce beans with a full-bodied and earthy flavor.
- Papua New Guinea
Regardless of where the beans are grown, Starbucks and McDonald’s ensure they only use arabica beans farmed following sustainable and strict methods.
When we think of McDonald’s, we usually don’t think “gourmet.” It may surprise you to learn that McCafe has partnered with Gavina, one of the world’s leading producers of gourmet coffee. Gavina purchases and roasts the beans and then passes the coffee on to McDonald’s.
Gavina prides itself on producing top-quality coffee. They have earned and maintained a Safe Quality Food Institute (SQF) Level 3 certification, the highest level awarded. McDonald’s may be a cheaper option than Starbucks, but it’s not because they are skimping on quality.
Starbucks also provides high-quality, gourmet coffee. However, they keep the roasting and blending processes in-house.
To produce their different flavors, they roast each batch of beans slightly differently (varying amounts of time & temperature). Then they expertly blend the different styles to create a new and unique combination of coffee flavors.
Although their process is different, the end product (gourmet coffee) is similar.
Choosing between McDonald’s and Starbucks cannot be determined by quality. They both boast high-quality products.
Some days we just need more than a regular cup of coffee.
We need something with higher caffeine content. Something jazzed up with exotic spices or something icy to cool us down. Maybe we’re feeling the non-dairy options or a seasonal flavor.
One look at the Starbucks menu of beverages tells you that they win (hands down) the battle of coffee variety.
In fact, in a 2008 interview with the Wall Street Journal, Starbucks spokeswoman Lisa Passe commented, “It’s something a statistician put together, based on our menu board.
If you take all of our core beverages, multiply them by the modifiers and the customization options, you get more than 87,000 combinations.”
We could guess that there’s even more variety today. Let’s just consider the enormous amount of seasonal flavors they boast.
- Fall brings us pumpkin spice, apple, & caramel
- Winter is known for eggnog and peppermint
- Spring brings lighter flavors such as pineapple and green tea
- And summer refreshes us with strawberry funnel cake and passion fruit
We haven’t even mentioned Starbucks’ variety of exotic-sounding hot teas and iced teas, including things like “Jade Citrus Mint,” “Peach Tranquility,” or “Iced London Fog.”
McCafe offers a smaller variety of specialty drinks, including lattes, cappuccinos, macchiatos, frappes, hot chocolate, and even smoothies (strawberry/banana and mango/pineapple).
In the past, they have also made a seasonal White Chocolate Mocha served in winter-themed cups.
But on the whole, the McCafe menu cannot even compare to the never-ending variety of Starbucks coffees.
Which one to choose
If you are looking for something simple, comfortable, and soothing, a McCafe beverage may be just right.
If you are looking for an adventure, wanting to try something new, or going out for coffee with a large group of caffeine fiends who all want different things, Starbucks may have the better menu to excite and delight everyone.
Fast food has rightfully earned a bad reputation for delivering high-calorie, low-nutrient food and drinks. Many people even blame places like McDonald’s for society’s elevated risks of obesity, diabetes, and overall poor health.
If we look past the food, however, how healthy are the coffees at McDonald’s? Or Starbucks?
We might automatically assume that Starbucks coffees are healthier than McDonald’s, simply based on their reputations. But a closer look shows it’s not so much about where you get your next whipped, swirled, or iced coffee, but what you order that matters.
Let’s compare the highlights between:
|McDonald's Medium Mocha Frappe||Starbucks Grande Mocha Frappuccino|
|500 calories||370 calories|
|66 grams sugar||51 grams sugar|
|13 grams saturated fat||10 grams saturated fat|
|125 mg caffeine||100 mg caffeine|
This snapshot of the nutritional value of each beverage may lead us to believe that choosing Starbucks over McDonald’s for a Mocha Frappuccino is the “healthier choice.”
It does have 130 fewer calories than the McDonald’s version. For anyone counting calories, that’s a big save.
However, patrons at either location can lower the calorie count in their coffee drink purchases by requesting sugar-free syrups, low-fat milk, or omitting the whipped cream.
In the larger picture, anyone counting calories as part of a weight loss program or interested in a healthy beverage choice would probably not choose to order either of these drinks due to their high sugar, fat, & caffeine levels.
Despite McDonald’s past reputation of selling unhealthy food and Starbucks’ reputation of providing a healthier popular option, their coffee menu is quite comparable.
A health-conscious coffee fan can order a zero-calorie large black coffee without cream from McDonald’s.
Someone looking to splurge on a special treat for their coffee habit could load up on a Venti Mocha Frappuccino with a whopping 470 calories from Starbucks.
For health concerns, it’s not so much about the place. It’s about the item you order.
The Rest of the Breakfast Menu
Many coffee addicts use a drive-through restaurant for their morning coffee on their way to work. It’s also where they buy their breakfast sandwiches.
McDonald’s has always been the most popular fast-food chain for breakfast. When they recently began serving breakfast all day, other fast-food chains jumped on board to get in on the action.
Nowadays, you can get breakfast items at Subway, Wendy’s, Burger King, Sonic, Chick-fil-a, Taco Bell, and more. Suddenly your coffee choice may not just be about the coffee.
McDonald’s excellent breakfast menu items lean more towards traditional eggs, bacon, and hash browns. They have recently updated their expansive food menu to include healthier options such as Fruit and Maple Oatmeal and bakery items like their Blueberry Muffin.
Starbucks has a few traditional items like their Sausage, Cheddar, & Egg Sandwich. However, this “neighborhood gathering place” is banking more on trendy foods, including Kale & Portobello Mushroom Sous Vide Egg Bites.
Whether you’re in the mood for a hearty Sausage Egg & Cheese McGriddle (550 calories and made with “melty American cheese”) or Starbucks’ new-age Spinach, Feta & Egg White Wrap (290 calories “vegetarian and protein-rich”), a cup of steaming coffee from either restaurant will go great with your order!
This one is easy. Based on price alone, McDonald’s offers an excellent product for a much better price.
Medium Black McDonalds Coffee: $1.29
Grande Black Starbucks Coffee: $2.10
Medium McCafe Latte: $2.89
Grande Caffe Latte: $3.65
Each chain was built on a specific business model. McDonald’s prides itself on a quick and affordable meal. Starbucks touts a trendy product and uses higher prices to boost its image of only serving high-quality products.
However, many people are beginning to realize that a higher price does not always mean a better product.
Regardless of price or other menu options, many people make their morning coffee decisions based on which fast-food chain is the most accessible and provides the fastest service.
We may love that local coffee shop with all the charm, but we’re probably not going to drive across town to get there on a Tuesday morning. Most of us use the speedy drive-through at whatever national chain coffee shop is on our direct route to work.
After some observation driving around nearly any suburb in America (or walking the downtown area of the nearest city), you can easily find either fast food restaurant near your home, your work, and in between.
Speed of Service
As previously discussed, one major part of McDonald’s success is its ability to deliver food to a customer just minutes after they place their order.
On the other hand, Starbucks has been plagued by a reputation for long lines, a confusing order/pick-up sequence, and the occasional hazard of someone else mistakenly taking your special-ordered coffee.
Mobile Ordering and Payment apps that you can download on your phone have changed all that. Now you can order ahead and skip the lines at both these fast food places using their mobile app.
Depending on your background, age, and where you grew up, you may have a natural preference for the atmosphere and company culture of McDonald’s or Starbucks.
McDonald’s has been a significant part of American culture since its founding in 1940. This burger joint is well known for its kid-oriented atmosphere, affordable and tasty meals, the Happy Meal, and its charity work through Ronald McDonald House.
The golden arches bring back happy memories that include more than just crispy fries and nuggets for an older generation.
For some, it provided their first job, a place for teens to hang out on a Saturday night, or an inviting place for kids to climb and slide through the McDonald’s PlayPlaces.
Such a rich history makes stopping by for a quick cup of coffee that much sweeter. This restaurant has fiercely evolved throughout the years to stay relevant, but its history is part of what we love about McDonald’s.
It’s not just a cup of coffee; it’s a part of our American culture.
This swanky coffee shop originally opened in Seattle in 1971. The founders focused primarily on bringing the “warmth and artistry” of Italian coffee shops to Starbucks. Once the coffee became a hit, it expanded.
Based on the number of people sitting at their neighborhood Starbucks with an open laptop and nearly empty cup, these coffee shops absolutely have become a neighborhood gathering place – for a younger generation.
Starbucks has followed a business model based on investing in people, neighborhoods, and humanity itself.
It offers benefits like health insurance to both full-time and part-time employees. They offer employees assistance with college tuition through the Starbucks College Achievement Plan.
A Starbucks coffee may represent more than a caffeine spike for a younger crowd. It feels good to support a company that supports your community.
Which Coffee Is Right for You?
There are many reasons to stop in for a McDonald’s or Starbucks coffee. Whether it’s flavor, price, convenience, or culture – there’s a good choice for everyone.