Observations: Burger Flipper for the World

Causing drivers to make sudden unsafe exits from freeways, eliciting excited screeches from children, making the family dog whine and yelp in anticipation, yanking old men with canes and walkers into snowstorms to meet their cohorts for coffee and other tempting things: Ah! It’s McDonald’s Golden Arches at work.

The power this nearly universal trademark has on hungry people makes it seem as if the “M” of the arches should stand for “Magnet.” Possibly the most recognizable trademark in the world, it has been pulling humanity in for enough decades to make the company a phenomenon unequal to any other food service establishment. Most honest Americans willingly admit the restaurant chain has items they really love.

Ray Kroc proved himself a true visionary when he first went into a hamburger restaurant in San Bernardino, California, owned by Richard and Maurice McDonald. Ray was so impressed with the efficiency, cleanliness and food quality that from there he began, in 1958, to add his own ideas about developing a food service company. For anyone born after about 1965, it may seem unlikely that the idea of “fast food” was ever a new concept. So engrained has it been in our culture that most of today’s young people want only three food groups: hamburgers, chicken nuggets and pizza. There you have it: McDonald’s has almost all of the young population covered. Although many other fast food companies have since become huge successes, they cannot equal the impact of the Golden Arches.

Kroc’s philosophy about making his business successful is apparent in all of the company’s eateries world-wide, with few exceptions. Because a major tenet he introduced was the franchise, keeping owners and managers as the backbone of each establishment almost guarantees more hands-on management with a vested interest in making each succeed. For one thing, there usually is an abundance of friendly, helpful employees in McDonald’s, and in truth, I’ve rarely noticed any who seem to be “faking it.” It employs folks of all ages, and many older ones seem friendliest of all.  The employees also appear to have a strong work ethic: If they are not busy serving customers, there are few slackers; they dry trays, fill and clean machines, mop floors and take trash out expediently. (Expert management at work).

The latest up-to-date technology is another amazing part of McDonald’s. For someone like me whose knowledge and use of technology is fixated at about the fifth percentile, the restaurants seem to add new digital devices and other mysterious “machines” at breakneck speed. Recently I have been intimidated by these gizmos and displays, but the friendly employees are still behind the counter for the customer like me who wants to deal with an actual human instead of with a screen.

About a year ago, I went to the McDonald’s in Mentor, and after taking a parking spot, noticed there was a post with a device on top giving instructions on using a phone app to order. My first thought was, “Am I allowed to park here since I can’t do what it directs and have no apps at all?” Rethinking things, I thought it unlikely they’d kick out a customer, so I went inside.

Even more amazing observations were apparent in my favorite McDonald’s, which is south of the tiny town of Madison. Up front, I’ll be straightforward and say that I’m not a true devotee of McDonald’s and haven’t had one of their hamburgers in years, but I am absolutely addicted to their bacon, egg and cheese biscuits.  I have never made a specific trip to get one but find it very convenient to “just happen to stop” on my way to somewhere else, which is likely to be a shopping trip.

Shopping of any kind is near the bottom of my “like” list but am okay with it when in the mood. That motivation hit me, in advance of holidays coming up, one crisp, sunny day last November. The Madison McDonald’s at the Rt. 90 interchange is clean, free of noise, uncrowded and staffed by nice people. I entered in a blissful mood and ordered as usual, specifying two packets of ketchup and enough pepper to turn the egg black. The restaurants recently extended their breakfast menus to all-day options, which means I no longer have to break speed records on my country roads to arrive by 10 a.m.

Taking my seat by the window required passing a new kiosk right in the middle of the floor. Within five minutes, a tall, middle-aged man came in and bolted toward that kiosk like he hadn’t eaten in weeks.  His back was toward me, but I could see everything on the screen. He knew just how to access the display, which started with something like “Pep up your season, fast and easy, order here.” Following that was a long series of choices, including some written in Spanish and with pictures; the guy studied all of them intently as if this were a life-defining choice he’d have to deal with forever.

He saw NO ONE; he spoke to NO ONE. I really wanted to tap him on the shoulder and say, “Hey, fella; there are two pretty girls drying trays behind the counter who would definitely take your order if you’d notice them,” but I restrained myself. After at least 15 minutes, a window on the kiosk popped up with a picture of a fist, index finger extended, and directions about paying. I remember a question about where he’d be eating. Still, I was under the delusion that he’d have to deal with a human eventually. Wrong! That’s when he bolted out the door, and I assumed the food would end up in his car somehow, like from the drive-through.

I had finished my meal but made myself look busy by reading a book (with real pages and a cover) because the phenomenon I’d witnessed fascinated me. A couple of guys came in and placed orders with the clerks, but a 40-ish looking woman followed and hurried to the kiosk just like the first man had. She was nowhere near as knowledgeable as he had been and studied the display a bit before accessing it. She was quickly frustrated with whatever it showed and noticed me while pointing to the screen and asking if I knew how to operate it. I held up my clamshell phone and said, “Sorry, can’t do.” She muttered a “thank you” and said she was going to the car to get her daughter, who looked to be about 10 and was able to zap through the screen in a flash, of course. They did go to the counter to pay and then left with their order. I found this second scenario even more puzzling than the first since this woman was as much behind the technology curve as I am, but she still felt the need to make the attempt instead of talking to people.

Not wanting to appear like a lingerer who had ulterior motives, I decided I’d seen enough and picked up my paper tray liner on which I’d written down the above events. Even that liner is part of the company’s marketing master plan; it’s designed to fascinate kids and hence keep them in the place longer, causing parents to spend more. At the top of the liner is “CONNECT WITH HIGH-SPEED PLAY. Under the cartoon characters are lines saying, “Wi-Fi Hangout, Power up with the goodness of dairy, Connect 2 tray liners for even more fun! Become a friend of fruit with Apple Slices!”

Notice there are two commands giving token nods to healthful eating (but an even bigger nod to McDonald’s pocketbook). The back of the tray liner isn’t wasted space either; it has a map of the world with fun little quizzes about geography and languages. A sentence near the top says, “Once you get home, continue the fun and games when you download the FREE McPlay app.” The whole concept is based on a subliminal message to kids that might as well say, “Lest you forget, McDonald’s is everywhere,” which is close to being a correct statement. On the bottom of the tray liner is a statement saying, “The Happy character is a trademark of McDonald’s Corporation…”

Apparently, Ronald McDonald the clown has died and been replaced with a square containing a big grin, arms, legs and bulbous eyeballs – a concession to an electronic gizmo if there ever was one. Perhaps the executives in the company realized that many children are afraid of clowns and saw the need to modernize. The Happy Meal is a hugely popular offering, carefully designed to include a “toy” to entice children. The toys used to be simple things, like little plastic figures, but with advanced technology they became much more sophisticated.

Ordering a Happy Meal with an age-appropriate toy is an option. Even the meal’s box is imitation technology; it folds into a virtual reality headset, as if iPhones and Smart Phones aren’t sufficient to create techie- addicted kids.  Many recent studies have found that children’s and teens’ extreme use of technology leads to depression, emotional problems and discipline issues, all of which I find an appalling development that modern society has created. (I won’t expound further on the addiction topic because I might be branded as hopelessly out of touch with modernity and reality).

McDonald’s upper echelon has also listened to public criticism about the caloric and unhealthful fat content of their food. Salads, soups and fruit appeared in the restaurants quickly, along with public outcry that the salads have a large calorie count once dressing is added, which almost everyone does. All kinds of nifty, sugar-laden desserts appeared long ago too, complimenting the milkshakes and ice cream, which are fantastically tasty and have become an enticing temptation right behind my biscuit sandwich obsession.

So pervasive have the restaurants become that it’s an anomaly when one goes through a small town that doesn’t have one. Such a town is Orwell, Ohio, a few miles south of Ashtabula. I have reasons to frequent that town occasionally, and every trip through, I still keep a careful watch in case town leaders have weakened since my last trip. In fact, it has no fast food places at all unless you count the Dairy Queen. Orwell is surrounded by much farmland, and maybe residents are overly protective of their health, but I think it’s more likely McDonald’s just hasn’t offered the town enough money to break its will. It’s impossible to think the restaurant chain has overlooked fast food hunger in Orwell.

Speaking of pervasive, there must be only a few developed countries worldwide that McDonald’s hasn’t conquered. In 1977 my husband and I traveled to Europe on one of his business trips. We quickly tired of German and Dutch lunches consisting mostly of greasy sausage, mystery meat slices and slimy cheese. In the middle of Amsterdam, one of the most decadent cities in the world, the Golden Arches became an astonishing mecca for us: food the same as in the U.S. and restaurants with the same overall look except for being three stories tall.

Orders were taken on the bottom floor and seating was on the upper floors. The burgers and fries were like a gourmet meal to us. There the restaurant was, literally built in water like everything else in Holland, surrounded by polluted canals with barges serving as drug havens and brothels, and a massive population with scarce housing choices; but McDonald’s found an inroad. How was that possible there but not in Orwell, where the populace displays our flag liberally on every block? Orwell seems almost unpatriotic by lacking the Golden Arches.

As one final nod to the company’s ingenuity, its managers are hugely sensitive to their image and contribute liberally to worthy causes. Ads on television make the commitment to such efforts very clear. Famous for their incentive to gain hard-working young people, anyone familiar with discussions among high schoolers knows that the McDonald’s name comes up more often than any other.

I once had a student in my English class who talked about Big Macs so often that the burger was mentioned under her yearbook picture. Huge numbers of teenagers get their first work experience at the company. A current ad shows a Hispanic girl in her uniform, hard at work and dreaming of her future, and then it pictures her in a college class. The message in the ad says something along the lines of “launching careers with scholarships in the $$$$ amount” (too large for me to remember). Few would doubt the accuracy of the statement, and the message really is “flip yourself right into a PhD by starting at McDonald’s.” Masterful marketing!

The company’s strategy works; it’s almost time for my next shopping trip, driven by energy from a bacon, egg and cheese biscuit.







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