A replica of the first McDonald’s in Des Plaines, Illinois

Big Mac and fries matter

Michael Collins on the issue-led rehabilitation of a fast food giant

This article is taken from the August/September 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

There’s a difference at McDonald’s these days. The fast food chain has gone through a metamorphosis, an overhaul of the brand that has made it less like McDonald’s by making it “Just like McDonald’s”. Big changes have taken place in the decades since I was a regular customer. Developments that have briefly transformed me into a regular again.

When I returned, I was reminded of my first time, in that blistering 1976 summer of punk and droughts, when McDonald’s was an oasis on London’s Haymarket. It was exotic to those of us raised on the wrong side of the river and reared on Wimpy. More importantly, it was American. “The most beautiful thing in Tokyo is McDonald’s,” Andy Warhol once said. “The most beautiful thing in Stockholm is McDonald’s. The most beautiful thing in Florence is McDonald’s. Peking and Moscow don’t have anything beautiful yet.” My fortuitous return occurred in Vienna.

I was staying at the Grand Ferdinand on the Ringstrasse, a secret service building that morphed into a hotel a few years ago. It was lit by Lobmeyr chandeliers. Dining tables were laid with Wiener Silber Manufactur cutlery. The menu offered “Emperor’s soup” and “fritters à la Metternich”. I slept in a bunk in a dorm equally as lavish, despite costing a paltry £28 per night. The catch being you had to sleep with strangers.

My fellow travellers were young, Japanese. Two men. One woman. I assumed their indifference to me was generational rather than cultural: a bald, middle-aged man wearing Wäscheflott pyjamas and watching “Giri/Haji” on his iPhone, as they headed out at midnight. We rose early and were reluctant to pay 32 Euros for the hotel breakfast. Someone mentioned McDonald’s. Finally, a common bond that broke through generational and cultural barriers. We were speaking a universal language in a city that famously housed an Esperanto museum. McDonald’s.

I’d not been inside McDonald’s for years. I harboured fond memories of my first time. The cheeseburger with the gherkin, something the British tucked into at Christmas; a milkshake as dense as quicksand, and rumoured to consist of lard, which made it oddly comforting and homely.

The young trio became animated on arrival, enthusing about the rice burger bun, glazed with soy sauce, launched at McDonald’s back home in Japan weeks before. Individually they listed the varieties of this burger: rice teriyaki, rice bacon lettuce, rice fried chicken. “These are on the ‘‘Night Menu’”, they chorused. This summoned the Tokyo of Haruki Murakami’s After Dark. That twilight world of 24-hour cafes, love hotels, and McDonald’s outlets that according to Warhol introduced beauty to that city. Home to these midnight children.

The fast food chain is an oasis, to a stranger alone in a foreign city

Some years ago I read David Byrne’s account of his first trip to IKEA. He compared it to entering the world of video games. I had a similar experience returning to McDonald’s. The rebrand has seen the famed gold and red theme heightened to become as vivid as anything in Disney or American pop art (“We are a Golden brand accented with Red accents”). The photography focuses on those enjoying the food rather than the food itself. It could have been any one of those cities that Warhol mentioned, but for the familiar McDonald’s phrase in an unfamiliar tongue on the packaging and merchandise: Ich liebe es. I’m lovin’ it.

There are approaching 40,000 McDonald’s restaurants throughout the world, with about 1,300 in the UK. The last county in England without the fast food franchise succumbed last year when, despite some opposition, Oakham in Rutland gave the green light. The fast food chain is an oasis still, to a stranger alone in a foreign city, where they become part of a communal ritual among tastes, scents and imagery that’s immediately familiar.

There were young office workers collecting their breakfasts. Night workers now relieved of their shift. Students. Pensioners. The restaurant remained the great leveller I remembered, from the days when Princess Diana accompanied her sons to McDonalds on Kensington High Street — although when it first came to Britain in 1974, the company chose Woolwich as the ideal locale for its first franchise.

The origins of McDonalds have been documented at length. Perhaps most comprehensively in the 2016 film The Founder, with Michael Keaton as the figure synonymous with its success, Ray Kroc. The title is a misnomer, and knowingly so. The founders were two California-based brothers, who ran the business at the start of the 1950s. Kroc supplied them with milkshake machines and spotted the potential for a franchise and, ultimately, a global empire.

Stories of McDonald’s superfluity spread like folk tales, reaching those of us landlocked in an austere age where the magical phrase “all you can eat” was an anomaly. As I say, McDonald’s was exotic. Mind you, to those of us growing up off the Old Kent Road, so was Woolwich.

Throughout the years I exhausted the changing menu. As actor James Franco has pointed out, “when I needed McDonald’s, it was there for me.” I was not one of the many millions that worked at the franchises, or for the brand’s suppliers, but I witnessed and participated in its evolution from the early arrival of the Big Mac, through the debut of McNuggets and Happy Meals in the middle of the 1980s. When my taste for the meat on the menu waned, I moved on to the singular fish dish that began as the “McMariner”, and matured into the cheese-covered Alaskan pollock that is “Filet-O-Fish”.

When my interest in McDonald’s waned, I can’t say it was due to charges levelled by alternative comedians, celebrity chefs, environmentalists, anti-capitalists, animal rights activists or anarchists. I simply discovered restaurant experiences in which waiters took your order, and other people often paid.

The class-based snobbery that persists around McDonald’s was evident from the beginning. I recall in the 1990s an editor comparing its customer base to a Pulp lyric of the time: “We can’t help it, we’re so thick we can’t think / Can’t think of anything but shit, sleep and drink.” A resident of Hampstead, he supported the liberal agitators opposed to McDonald’s moving into the high street. The franchise had finally arrived in Beijing and Moscow but not NW3. Not-In-My-Name. The well-heeled locals won the battle, but lost the war. A subtle McDonald’s emerged; the junk-food loving masses were herded behind a black door and kept below stairs.

McDonald’s is becoming something it has never been fashionable

Yet still the snobbery persists. It’s at its most vehement on Twitter of course, where a battle commences whenever McDonalds’s news is trending. Piers Morgan retweeted to his seven million followers a photograph of himself seated at a McDonald’s tucking into a Big Mac at breakfast time. It had been taken by a member of the public, to shameto “out”the TV presenter, as this was a crime as great as voting Leave or Tory. “Mate, you can’t shame me,” wrote Morgan. “I’m proud to be here!”

Whatever the preconceptions about those that patronise McDonald’s, there’s been a shift in the demographic. One that continues to evolve. For me, this became apparent in Austria, where I found myself returning to the McCafe and its established elder for breakfast, dinner and afternoon tea.

A younger, student-led demographic has returned. Clearly the meatless burgers first promoted in Germany and Israel were directed at this market, as is the vegan P.L.T. (plant, lettuce tomato) given its dry run in Canada (perhaps Animal Rebellion’s demand for the company to be fully plant-based by 2025 is not as fantastic as it sounds). Moreover, McDonald’s is becoming something it has never truly beenfashionable.

By which I don’t mean current, or popular, but actually courted by couture and elevated to the catwalk. I believe it was Moschino that started the trend, re-designing the brand’s logos for handbags. Vetements launched its Spring/Summer 2020 collection by way of a fashion show staged at the McDonalds branch on the Champs-Élysées. Alexander Wang collaborated with McDonalds on luxury items designed to hold Happy Meals.

Although the fast food chain will never court the animal rights activist, like many a major corporate entity it’s become part of an unholy alliance with those championing other causes. These two tribes have something in common: contemporary capitalism will overlook many crimes and misdemeanours in pursuit of profit; the seasoned protestor will overlook similar to prove a point. Chances are McDonald’s will never win over the Labour party; it was banned from the conference in 2016. But you get the impression that McDonald’s and Black Lives Matter have each other’s back.

In the wake of the death of George Floyd, the colour black replaced the company’s signature red on its social media sites. Floyd along with other black men and women that died at the hands of the US police were namechecked by the company in its stance against “systemic oppression and violence”. It informed us that each of these characters is among McDonald’s customers. They Were One Of Us. Somewhere, a red-haired, white-faced clown was taking the knee. Like I say there’s a difference at McDonald’s, but it remains the great leveller.

I’m seated at a franchise somewhere in the UK writing this. It could be anywhere in the world. Woolwich. Wuhan. New York. London. Paris. Munich. The diversity of the staff and the customers is far greater than on the marches or at the dinner parties of the middle and media classes that rail against it.

All human life is here: a British princess, a TV anchorman, Japanese tourists and a martyred felon said to have threatened a woman with a gun while burgling her home. Ich liebe es.


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