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'Do we want to stop now? No, we don't want to stop now. This is good.'
About a year ago, Chuck Coolen was at his desk at McDonald’s headquarters when a text message came in from a franchisee.
“Did you see this?”
Coolen, head of marketing for McDonald’s in Eastern Canada, hadn’t seen it. But the Toronto Raptors had just traded star forward Demar DeRozan to San Antonio for a peculiar, injury-plagued superstar named Kawhi Leonard.
“I was shocked,” Coolen said.
Eighteen days earlier, Coolen and the Raptors had finalized a major sponsorship deal to give away free french fries in Ontario every time the team made 12 three-point shots in a game.
Coolen Googled “Kawhi Leonard.”
Then he called his contact at Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd., the Raptors’ parent company.
“Who is this guy?” he recalled asking. “What does it mean?”
Coolen was worried about the fate of the Raptors, and the brand, and his program, without DeRozan.
But his contact wasn’t worried, insisting the trade would take the Raptors to “the next level.”
Nearly a year later, the Raptors are indeed at the next level, ahead two games to one in the first NBA finals in franchise history — and McDonald’s is out more than two million medium-size orders of french fries.
That’s nearly three times the 700,000 orders the company projected its Ontario restaurants would give away during the promotion.
Coolen said they based the forecast model, in part, on a previous fry giveaway program with the Montreal Canadiens.
Judging by the previous season — in which the Raptors averaged 11.8 threes a game without Leonard or proficient three-point shooter Danny Green, also acquired in the Leonard trade — McDonald’s had figured the Raptors were likely to hit at least 12 three-pointers in about half of the 82 games in the regular season.
After the Leonard trade in July 2018, there was time to tweak the 12-shot threshold, since the program wouldn’t start until the fall season, but McDonald’s chose not to.
The Raptors’ three-point shooting, though slow in the early part of the season, outpaced the previous season, but not by much.
Last season, the Raptors hit 12 or more three-pointers in 43 of 82 games, and added another five games in the playoffs. This season the three-point threshold was reached 44 times in the regular season and another 10 — so far — in a much longer playoff run.
McDonald’s didn’t underestimate the Raptors so much as it did the appetite for free fries in Ontario. The regular season’s two million free orders — at an average menu price of $2.89 — was $5.8 million worth of fries.
While full tallies for the playoffs were not available, in Game One of the finals alone, where the Raptors hit 13 threes, McDonald’s gave away a record 80,000 free orders.
Asked if there was concern at head office as it became clear the giveaways were dwarfing forecasts, Coolen said: “Yeah, of course.” But, he said, the concern was about franchisees’ ability to handle the demand, not the amount of free fries.
At Mike Forman’s four franchises in Whitby, Ont., managers staff an extra fry cook for the lunch rush on “free fry days.”
“The managers will prep for it: ‘OK, it’s a free fry day. Let’s go.’” Forman said. “In some situations, it is quite nuts.”
Forman’s stores average around 500 giveaways per game record; the record is around 960 orders.
McDonald’s wouldn’t comment on the exact cost of the giveaway to franchisees.
But the upside, Forman said, is it attracts customers, who have to download and use the McDonald’s app to redeem their fries, which are only available the day after a Raptors game. In fact, McDonald’s said it chose the Raptors for a partnership over the Toronto Maple Leafs because it believed Raptors fans were more digitally inclined.
“We believe it will pay off in the future,” Forman said.
Forman was part of a group of franchisees summoned to McDonald’s Toronto headquarters — before the program was finalized or Leonard was traded — to approve the free fry program.
The marketing team knew they wanted to give away fries when the Raptors scored a certain amount of three-pointers. It was up to the marketing group, which includes a selection of franchisees, to figure out how many three-pointers would be appropriate.
“We’re sitting there, and you know, honestly I didn’t really have too many clues about how many three-pointers are normal,” Forman said. “All of us are on our phones looking up stats trying to see what’s what.”
McDonald’s settled on 12, after hearing arguments for 11 (since the previous season average was 11.8.)
After the meeting last year, Forman had to go around to other franchisees and get their feedback on the plan. A lot of them fixated on 12, he said.
“Where’d you get that number?” was one of the common questions, Forman said. Another was: “How many fries do you expect to give away based on that number?”
As the playoffs approached this spring, McDonald’s again summoned Forman and the group of franchisees to ask whether they wanted to continue the giveaways.
“Do we want to stop now?” he said. “No, we don’t want to stop now. This is good.”
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019