Pull into your neighborhood McDonald's drive-through and you'll notice it proudly features a few Hawaii-exclusives: The all-day breakfast staple Portuguese sausage or Spam, eggs and rice platters; saimin noodles for those spontaneous rainy nights; and the bubbly crisp fried apple pies of your youth.
That's right, we are the only state in the U.S. where McDonald’s still fries its pies—everywhere else, they’re baked. Like so many restaurants in Hawai‘i, from the Japanese to Filipino to American, which function as time capsules from the ’50s and ’60s, serving dishes and culinary traditions that the rest of the world has moved on from, McDonald’s Hawai‘i continues to serve a taste of the past.
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If the pies, with their crust bubbled up from their trip to the fryer, creating an extra crispness, taste like the pies of your youth, it’s because they are the pies of your youth. Well, the recipe, at least. “In Hawai‘i, they are the original formula of pies,” says McDonald’s Hawai‘i franchise owner Victor Lim, which means they go back to 1968, when the apple pie was first introduced at McDonald’s.
In 1992, McDonald’s had rolled out baked apple pies in response to health trends. “A lot of people moved away from fried products at that time,” says Lim. “So we did the same thing here in Hawai‘i. But initially the baked pie is more doughy. The fried pie is very nice and crispy. People did not like [the baked] as much as the fried pie … In apple pies alone—not even counting the taro pie and haupia pie—we outsell our counterparts on the Mainland. That’s the reason we’ve been allowed to keep our fried apple pies. Our results prove that there’s a customer demand here in Hawai‘i.”
It all comes down to the numbers: Each time a McDonald’s region wants to try a new menu item, it has to make the case to the corporate headquarters in Chicago. “That’s the same reason we get saimin, we get fruit punch, Spam, Portuguese sausage, eggs and rice,” Lim says. “We are part of the United States, but our culture is a little bit different.”
He says unlike with his buddy Eddie Flores’ L&L Drive-Inn franchises, the process of introducing new items as a McDonald’s franchisee is not so simple. “We have to make a business case, and it’s not something we can do individually as an owner,” Lim says. “We have to do it as a group in Hawai’i. We gotta collectively, here in Hawai‘i, all gotta be in agreement and say, ‘hey it makes sense here.’” In that aspect, Lim says Hawai‘i has an advantage. There are 12 McDonald’s owners in the state (McDonald’s corporation also operates just over 20 restaurants), and “we are a very close group of friends over here. We’ve known each other forever. Usually we have a good consensus. When businesses can get together to work toward a common goal it makes life easier.”
Next, the owners develop the recipe and make sure it can be executed consistently in the restaurants. "For all of the local products we write the operating procedures here," Lim says. "The guys on the Mainland have no idea how to slice the Spam or how to cook the rice.”
As for the pies, they’re shipped frozen from Bama Companies in Oklahoma. Lim says as of a few years ago, McDonald’s baked apple pies have improved greatly, so he’s considering introducing those to Hawai‘i. But while Hawai‘i has the option of offering both pies, it’s much harder for the Mainland to return to fried apple pies. “Their kitchens are not geared to handle all those extra pies [in the fryer],” he says. Adding an extra fryer is complicated. “It’s not so simple you can do fried pies again.”