McDonald's has issued a second warning on Q2 profits. The world's largest burger chain is blaming lingering consumer concerns in Europe over mad cow disease, but that isn't the whole story. McDonald's is too reliant on the core hamburger restaurant business. To boost its growth rate, the company really needs to turn some of its experimental new ventures into money-spinners.

McDonald's has announced that sales for the first five months of 2001 rose 2% in Europe, 3% in the US and an encouraging 7% in Asia, excluding the impact of currency conversions. But much of this growth was achieved through promotional linkups, including Beanie Babies and BBC children's series Tweenies. The cost of these promotions is one of the reasons why the company has downgraded its earnings projections from 38 cents per share to 34-35 cents per share and slowed down its restaurant opening program.

The company blames BSE (mad cow disease) for hitting sales in Europe, but the underlying problem is its heavy dependence on the original fast food restaurant business. McDonald's has been successful by producing a quintessentially American product, with highly efficient service and a uniform quality standard in a model that has been copied by many chains, from Pizza Hut to Starbucks.

Its core strength now should be to leverage its brand values into new markets, but the association with burgers and fries makes it difficult to win customer acceptance for new concepts. Despite these pitfalls McDonald's is pressing ahead with the American rollout of coffee bar chain McCafe and new restaurant formats, while also trialing a hotel offering in Switzerland.

The alternative is to run companies at arm's length so that customers are unaware of the McDonald's connection, as with Aroma coffee bars in the UK and at Pret A Manger, the sandwich bar business that McDonald's bought into earlier this year. But this makes it much harder to create a global chain and build up the low-cost infrastructure and standardized menu that has been essential to the company's success.

For the moment, McDonald's is set to continue its quest for the burger alternative, perhaps funding acquisitions through an $8 billion sell off of its property and equipment. But investors may begin to lose patience if recent ventures repeat the failures of now forgotten concepts such as Arch De Luxe, Big Xtra and McPizza.

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