The Golden Arches are shining with even greater lustre than usual in Chicago these days.
McDonald’s, the world’s biggest food chain, has just opened its flagship restaurant in the town it calls home – and what a marvel it is.
More like an Apple Store than a fast food joint, the new outlet is described by designers Ross Barney Architects as an ‘oasis,’ a sleek glass cube the size of a city block with shared tables, ‘tapestries’ of living plants on the walls, an apple orchard and table service as well as automated ordering.
The new look will form the basis of redesigns for the majority of the firm’s 14,000 restaurants across the country, at a cost of $6 billion, meaning an oasis could be coming to a McDonald’s near you very soon.
The pristine cube marks quite a departure from the familiar brown mansard-roofed Maccy-Ds we have known and loved since the 1970s, which in turn replaced the original ‘Red and White’ design adopted by the McDonald brothers, Dick and Mack, in 1953. The brothers opened their first McDonald’s in San Bernardino, California, as a traditional diner in 1949, but with the invention of their ‘super-speedy’ service, they were ready for a new look.
One thing that hasn’t changed in the last 75 years and that’s the Golden Arches, the shape of which were suggested by Dick McDonald when the plans for the Red and White were being drawn up (the distinctive yellow neon shade was the choice of the sign maker whose name has not been passed down into history).
The excellent 2016 movie The Founder (ignore the lame name – it’s well worth a watch) tells the story of how, to their dismay, the chain was ultimately wrested from the McDonalds by the visionary former salesman Ray Kroc.
He was taken with the brothers’ introduction of a streamlined production-line system for serving a simple menu of hamburgers and fries while visiting their San Bernardino restaurant to sell them milkshake machines in 1954.
Becoming first their national franchise agent, he had seized total control by 1961, buying the business for $2.7 million, just over $25 million in 2018 money.
Today McDonald’s has a higher turnover than any food chain in the world, serving more than 69 million diners a day in nearly 37,000 restaurants in 120 countries, the most recent being Kazakhstan. An estimated one in eight American workers are thought to have been employed by McDonald’s at some point in their careers; the company is the second-largest private employer on the planet.
Ray Kroc was the Steve Jobs of the hamburger world. He may not have come up with the goods – it was the McDonald brothers who, as well as Speedy Service, invented the recipes for their iconic burger and fries, along with the notion of ordering at a counter rather than being served at a table – and various franchisees who dreamed up such favourites as the Filet o’ Fish, Big Mac and Chicken Nuggets. But he had the inspiration to see how he could elevate the McDonald’s brand with one simple concept: consistency.
Kroc once said he wanted a diner to be able to walk into a McDonald’s in Alabama or Anchorage and know it would always taste the same.
These days Kroc could expand his list to Amsterdam, Ankara, Asuncion, Abu Dhabi and the effect would be the same.
Bar some regional differences – beef is off the menu in India, for example, and there are soup and rice options in many Asian countries – you by and large still know exactly what you’re going to get when you walk into a McDonald’s anywhere in the world. And that confidence is priceless.
Such is the company’s reach that it has long represented so much more than the sale of reasonably-priced, and pretty-delicious-if-you-like-that-kind-of-thing fast food.
In the scale of its global influence McDonald’s embodies something larger about the influence of America on the world stage.
I can still remember the almost hysterical joy with which the first McDonald’s was greeted in my neighbourhood in south London the early 1980s: it was the cultural equivalent of the arrival of US troops during the Second World War, bringing glamour and modernity to a nation tired of fried breakfasts and fish and chips.
The same effect is repeated each time the liberating forces of Big Macs and French fries march into a new town.
In Eastern Europe, the emergence of McDonald’s came to symbolise the end of the Cold War, the first restaurant opening in Moscow in 1990. Muscovites who queued for six hours to order their Happy Meals knew they were buying much more than beef patties and fried potatoes: their purchase was a two-fingers to Communism, an embrace of liberty and the exciting future to come. And, to adopt one of McDonald’s most successful marketing slogans, they were lovin’ it.
At times McDonald’s is almost conflated with the US. It is no coincidence that when tensions surfaced between US and Russia over the latter’s annexation of Crimea, Moscow responded by closing several branches of McDonald’s, ostensibly for health and safety reasons, including the famous store in Pushkin Square, scene of those six hour queues.
But of course, McDonald’s has never been seen as a universally benign force, either at home or abroad. Over the years it has been accused of cultural imperialism, environmental destruction and of stoking the obesity crisis, allegations it has responded to with more or less deftness.
These days the company self-identifies as a global brand, perhaps best encapsulated by its recent advertising in the US around the World Cup, the international soccer tournament it has sponsored for many years, where its restaurants are shown as the ideal place to watch the ‘breakfast game’ over a McMuffin.
So if McDonald’s has come to reflect something of how Americans see the world and are seen by it, what does the new Chicago flagship tells us about the country’s future?
At a time when our politics seems in perpetual crisis and our society more divided than at any time since the 1960s, the fact that we apparently desire our fast food outlets to look like iPhone stores may suggest a rather comforting level of underlying stability.
What could be more aspirational than enjoying a quarter-pounder in an oasis of Muzak-fuelled calm?