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Hamburger Diaries: McDonald’s

Saturday, 18 September, 2010

It is the name which defines the industry. Never first. Never best. Always reliable, predictable and clean. When traveling by road, sometimes nothing satisfies like the abject predictability of a McDonald’s breakfast. Not at all averse to regional or national variation. In New York City their Hamburger is not dressed with ketchup. Hormel cross-promotes the McSpamwich in Hawai’i. In north Texas and Oklahoma, Hot Links are on the menu. In India the sandwiches are served with either mutton or chicken instead of beef. In Israel only certain locations are kosher and are signed differently.

How it is we do not reference any quick-service restaurant as a McDonald’s like we get a Kleenex, make a Xerox or drink a Coke I do not know. Their formative and primary growth years coincided with the non-mythical 1960s, and your reviewer wonders how their identity as a clean, conscientiously mainstream, family-friendly place in those years has effected the company in the years since. Their first national commercial, outside the children-oriented McDonaldland universe although shot on the same set by the same director, appears peculiar today.

This ad ran consistently through the 1970s and introduced both the new, more sedate, mansard roof restaurants and the “You deserve a break today” slogan. In a time when quick-service food was novel to almost everyone outside the largest or densest cities, that’s a pretty good slogan. This was the start of promoting McDonald’s as an institution, rather than a restaurant. This commercial has exactly one reference to food. While it is a pretty safe bet most people know McDonald’s is a restaurant, perhaps encouraging something other than the mere acknowledgement of the institution might improve their ongoing fiscal problems.

McDonald’s believes they must compete in every single category of quick service food. A Wikipedia page exists delineating the many, many items, variations and failures over many years. They rather infamously do or have done none of these particularly well. This condemnation includes their signature Hamburgers, and I’m sorry to have to say this, their famous fries. During my days of contemplation following my meal at a McDonald’s restaurant, I consistently wonder what a McDonald’s Double Cheeseburger and French Fries must have been like in 1958 the year five McDonald’s restaurants opened in my home town. The focus could not possibly have been upon making the sandwiches like something McDonald’s would serve, and the Russet Burbank potatoes were not yet standardized to be flavorless. Absolute control over every element throughout the entire process from seed to tray is the essential part of the Speedy Service System which McDonald’s many imitators and more successful competitors simply do not waste the effort, time and money to implement.

I approached the restaurant approximately 5 PM on a Wednesday. I am being deliberately vague about the specific location, but the restaurant is within the city of Austin. The Redbox Video machine was doing more walk-up business than the restaurant. Although the drive-thru was consistently busy. I was surprised that the restaurant was doing so little business during the rush hour. This was not a conspicuous function of the location.

The menu was all but indecipherable. The value meals and 99¢ menu were quite clear, but everything else was a mishmash of color, flair and all but random Roman characters. Apparently I am supposed to know what McDonald’s serves by virtue of being alive. Of course, I just wanted a signature item. I ordered two. Eventually.

It was possible no more than four people were staffing the entire restaurant. The sandwich bins were not especially full. My counter worker could barely be bothered to take my order. I think I may have been getting a little of the “I don’t really speak English, so don’t fucking bother me.” game. Always played by people who prefer to use English with their coworkers.

When did they start putting televisions in McDonald’s? Within minutes I knew I was in the midst of an ongoing experiment gone horribly wrong. Every element on my do-not-want list for a QSR was present, with the exceptions of wild animals and filth. McDonald’s remains a very clean and relatively non-human-animal-free place to eat.

My order: Extra Value Meal No. 1, Big Mac Super Size, and a Double Cheeseburger which is presently on the 99¢ menu.

Since when do you tend to your own fountain beverages at McDonald’s? Why is the fountain inconspicuously around a corner? I guess I’m supposed to know that already because, hey, it’s McDonald’s. I only waited six minutes but it felt like forever. The newspaper rack was a mess. I had forgotten about the newspaper rack. Didn’t they used to throw out the papers after breakfast hours?

The Double Cheeseburger, wrapped in logoed waxed paper, looked like it came right out of an illustration. Every element had 70% of the flavor it is supposed to have. This combination of chemicals I cannot  otherwise describe must be flavor enhancers. It is this effect of the enhancers that I most associate with McDonald’s. Mustard, ketchup, pickle onion, two slices of American “cheese”, two patties. The bun is typically dense with 20% caramelization. Honestly, I’d rather have a Jack-in-the-Box Big Cheeseburger.

I would also rather have the fries from almost any other burger joint. The alleged former potatoes I was served were too salty and far greasier than I remember. These were also an improvement over the crisp and almost no starch, generic definition of a fry typically on offer. I wish I had more to say about it. Although I didn’t really get the flavor enhancer sensation with the fries.

McDonald’s Big Mac probably moves more units every year than every other Big Boy imitator and the Big Boy itself combined. I must confess I’ve never had a proper Bob’s Big Boy sandwich. I grew up in Frisch’s territory where your Big Boy features a distinctive tartar sauce instead of thousand island dressing.

Unlike the Cheeseburger, my Big Mac did not resemble a magazine illustration. It was wrapped in a different sort of logoed waxed paper than the Cheeseburger, and in a lushly illustrated presentation box. This sandwich has far more texture than flavor. Which is unusual, but not especially worthwhile. If the Big Mac was introduced today in the form I found, or McDonald’s itself for that matter, it would not matter. It would not be in anyway interesting or noteworthy.

Five hours after my meal, I wanted it again. Not in the sense that I enjoyed my meal so much I wished to relive the experience, but rather I experienced the pangs of chemicals leaving my system. That was especially unpleasant. As was the eventual visit to the water chamber during which the flavor enhancers clearly had not fully broken down while working their way through my system.

The Speedy Service System has become so convoluted that the entire experience of McDonald’s is a mess. I don’t see any reason to go there, especially considering the predictable breakfast is now available at any number of competing QSRs or even at places where you can get proper table service. They do not have a price advantage. They certainly do not have quality in the food or in the overall experience.

I’ll probably return, eventually. It would be nice to have a good reason to do so other than it’s been a long time and I can get two Big Macs for one money this month. Then again, if the sandwiches as flavorless as they are with the insultingly dramatic packaging and exasperated service …

I’ll just go across the street.

One Comment
  1. Graeme permalink
    Sunday, 19 September, 2010 18:59

    All of this is true. McDonald’s would not be the icon it is today had it been serving the kind of food it now serves.

    McDonald’s is the very essence of American capitalism: succeed to the point where you become a caricature of what made you successful.

    You’re absolutely right about the menu being a mess. It’s hard to order single items that aren’t from the value menu. Perhaps this is the new version of the dilemma both Bill Terry & I had at McDonald’s in the 1970s. Back then it was almost impossible to get a plain hamburger. My family would wait (and their orders would be getting cold) while they took 15 minutes to create a burger without condiments. Insane!

    Now they can do special orders quickly, but you lose the 15 minutes on the front end trying to read the menu.

    I do like their steak & egg bagel (sans sauce & cheese), though it’s hard for me to eat as I lose weight.

    I seem quite capable of digesting McDonald’s, but I also notice the cravings later. I assume it’s so much in the way of fat & carbs & ??? that is engineered to the human body. I am not generally a conspiracy theorist, but I see no reason why an operation with McDonald’s R&D arm could not accomplish this kind of reaction.

    Indeed, McDonald’s epitomizes the triumph of food science.

    Great review, Stan!


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