McDonald’s gets a lot of stick, much of it deserved. But critics of McDonald’s are often blind to the value it adds – in large part because we never knew (or have forgotten) the context it emerged in.
In the pre-McDonald’s era, I suspect more so than now, the quality of food and service available in local restaurants across small-town USA was highly variable: standard items were frequently unavailable; waiting times were unpredictable and often long; service was frequently poor. In the worst cases, unscrupulous owners of roadside restaurants would cut corners on quality and hygiene knowing that a few cases of food poisoning would make little difference to their bottom-line because few of their customers would be coming back anyway. Both good reputations and notoriety were hard to come by.
Into this context (which you can experience today by sampling the highs and lows of local restaurants in a city like Jakarta), came McDonald’s. Suddenly, without the internet or even a guidebook, you could walk into a restaurant a thousand miles from home and be sure of fast, accurate service, consistent quality, reasonable prices and food that was safe to eat.
All of which is to say that we make a mistake when we compare McDonald’s burgers to the locally sourced, idiosyncratic-and-artisanal, utterly delicious food of our favourite local cafes. We see McDonald’s as unfair (or at least unwelcome) competition to these local gems, but the comparison we should be making to all the bad local restaurants, most of which aren’t around any more.
To the best of my knowledge I ate my first McDonald’s hamburger in Tsim Sha Tsui, Hong Kong,* some time around 1985. It tasted exactly the same as the burgers available in McDonald’s on Australia’s Sunshine coast in 1995… and on a roundabout near Beccles, Suffolk in the UK in 2005… and in central Jakarta in 2020. Consider this – and bear in mind that most of us couldn’t cook a burger that tasted the same – or even make a coffee that tasted quite the same – two days running in our own kitchens.
Which brings us to this: McDonald’s is so successful because it solves a particular problem, and (along with other franchises that get a lot of stick) has solved it so effectively that we’ve forgotten that the problem even existed in the first place.
The burgers may be bland, and it should go without saying that they shouldn’t constitute a significant portion of your regular diet, but the fact that unskilled cooks separated by thousands of miles and thirty-five years could produce identical burgers is a minor miracle – and a recipe for nostalgia.
*The Peking Road branch – the one where you go downstairs.