Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Ronald McDonald stumbles

     You don't need shifting technology to rattle your industry. Tastes change. The world draws away from your product.
      Even something as popular as hamburgers.
      McDonald's is starting to sag, according to an intriguing front page story in Crain's Chicago Business. (The story isn't online, but if you want to subscribe to Crain's for $69 and read it, click here).
      "Ronald McDonald isn't aging well" writes Crain's Lisa Bertagnoli, noting that the share of McDonald's business represented by families with children under 12 has slid from 18.6 percent of McDonald's in 2011 to 14.2 percent today.  A small shift, but a shift nonetheless. Add to that, as the markets have surged this year, McDonald's stock has slid 4.1 percent.
     The burger giant is in trouble.
     Why? The short answer, the story dances around, is the food's crap, and parents are becoming wise to it. As are their kids, who increasingly want a burrito as a treat. Which I would file under "Refreshing Good News" for everybody who isn't a McDonald's franchise owner or investor. 
      They lost me years ago. As someone who has been eating McDonald's, less and less, for 45 years, I can vouch for the trend. The place used to be an exciting indulgence. You're on a trip, you slide by McDonald's for a burger and fries. An Egg McMuffin in the morning with a cup of coffee, maybe some hash browns, counted as breakfast. The stuff was also good for late night munchies, a milkshake and a couple cheeseburgers to sober you up for the drive home. Then the kids arrived, and they had to be brought for bribe lunches of Chicken McNuggets and Happy Meal toys. They still do big business. McDonald's still has 14,000 locations.  But the winds are shifting.
      If youth is lost, the future is lost. My boys, 17 and 18, were weaned on McDonald's, but now make a face if I were to mention McDonald's. I used to be good for a cheeseburger a year, but now I can project how I'll feel after eating that cheeseburger, the greasy-toothed, what-have-I-done feeling, and resist.
     When, during our summer vacation the family had to stop at at fast-food strip, McDonald's was scorned by the boys for Taco Bell and Kentucky Fried Chicken (I couldn't do those two either, despite being quite hungry. I pushed on to a White Castle, whose food, while no better than McDonald's from an objective point of view, still carries nostalgia and an emotional attachment. Loving White Castle is being hip to the siren lure of arcane Jack Keroac Americana. Loving McDonald's is just being a prole).
     McDonald's is actually worse than laid out in the Crain's article.  The restaurants themselves, which used to be these red and white tile gems, are uniformly ugly. You can't get out quick enough, which might be intentional on their part.
     Their graphics blow too. Who is this bag supposed to appeal to? It's just hard on the eyes. Any independent coffee shop has a better palette and more pleasing visuals.
    Plus service at McDonald's is a depressing parody of what the dining out experience should be. The one circumstance over the past three years where I might actually order something at a McDonald's is while waiting for a train at Union Station, where I might slide over to get their 99 cent vanilla soft serve cone. 
      Which you would think would be hard to screw up—frozen comestible substance balanced atop a dry sugar cone.  I'm not expecting homemade, and their cone is fine, once you get it.
     But first they have to give the assemblage to you, and here's where McDonald's really falls on its face. From the slurry mumbled greeting "Welkumcdonah, may-eyetekurder?" to the receipt wordlessly thrust in your direction, it's as if the process of buying food at McDonald's was designed to humiliate you, as punishment for eating there.
     The last time I ordered a cone at McDonald's (underline that "last" because I wouldn't go back) nobody even bothered to hand me my cone. It was just set, by a harried worker, down the counter, where it sat, while I listened to them calling out numbers, in the charmed notion that somebody would call my number and hand me the friggin' 99 cent cone. Eventually, when the numbers edged past the one on my receipt, I realized that the cone just sitting there must be mine, and snaked a hand in and took it, while the nine people behind the counter all looked at me like I was stealing the thing, and slunk off to eat it, feeling somehow debased and ashamed. 
     Half melted too. Though the worst part was just watching these miserable employees stumble about their business. I felt guilty giving money to that, like I was supporting some kind of crime akin to human trafficking.
     So good riddance to McDonald's—the downside is that it's very big, and will no doubt take a very long time to vanish. If it weren't so huge, and so dripping in bad faith and skewed values—they're the people who think Ronald McDonald is attractive—I'd hold out hope for a turnaround. Nobody wants to see a company die. But in this case, they had their run, and you can't say the world will be worse off when they're gone.

   A reader shared this video of Jim Gaffigan, America's funniest comic, nailing McDonald's. 



  1. The quarter pounder is better than the regular hamburgers.
    But that vanilla cone is a tasteless atrocity.
    There's absolutely no flavor of any kind in it.
    I was in Northwestern Station one hot day & decided to try it before I caught my train.
    Cardboard tastes better than the cone they use & the ice cream is a crime against food.

  2. McDonald's provides the nation with clean and plentiful public toilets. That's what I would worry about if they vanished--where to stop on a road trip.

  3. When I was in Australia, the customer service at McDonald's was amazing. That is because the people down under see it as a really good job, as it shows you know how to deal with people. That is what I was told by locals. Side note, if workers want to get paid $15 an hour, the customer service should be raised.

    Another side note, Burger King in Australia is called Hungry Joes. Some food for thought ...

    1. Or, to put it another way, maybe workers would be motivated to give better service if they were paid better and it was a good job you could live on.

    2. Minimum wage in Australia is US$16.88, which is probably another reason Australians consider McDonald's a good job.

  4. I think the franchise model is the root of their decline. Nobody seems to own just one McDonald's; it's always a dozen or so, thereby diluting the value of owner management, the only justification for their existence that I can see. When the franchisees are taking and not giving, something has to give, either the quality of the service or the quality of the product. It seems both are going fast. They may reach the tipping point faster than you imagine, Neil. And of course, the bigger they are, the harder they fall.


  5. This one's hard to understand, Neil. The hamburger is crap? The hamburger's ALWAYS been crap. "Parents are becoming wise to it"? Did they really not know before? Fact is, we've always known it was crap. Nor has anyone gone to Mickey D's for excellence of service. Or the ambience. It's always been what it remains today -- edible food, cheap and fast. Regardless what the geniuses at Crain's say (like nearly all business writers, they're expert at predicting what's already happened), the menu's gotten much better. Eg, southwest salad with grilled chicken, 290 calories. Parents are actually not getting wise with the newer franchises. A Chipotle chicken burrito and all the fixings (but without chips) can easily run to 1600 calories, more than triple McD's quarterpounder with cheese. And McD's coffee is twice as good as Starbucks' and less than half the price.

    1. Rich:

      That makes perfect sense. I guess I found the article intriguing -- it could just be a downturn and they'll introduce the quadruple cheeseburger and be going full bore again in 2015 -- and wanted to say something on it. I'm not a genius myself, just a guy saying what he thinks. Sometimes I look at it the next day and cringe a little. That said, yesterday's post, on Vent Haven, was sharp and thoughtful and well-written and just sat there, doing nothing, while this one is spiking, cause it's about McDonald's. I wish I were smart enough to plan that, but I'm not even that smart. Just looking over what's going on each day, like a guy surveying a box of Fannie Mae chocolates, and picking one that looks good.

    2. Writing a blog is like a box of chocolates, somebody said.

  6. Sounds like you've been once in last 3 years and had an ice cream cone.

    1. I actually ate the hamburger above after I photographed it. Meh.

    2. Whereas, the White Castle burger you got on your trip -- c'est magnifique, no doubt. ; ) I know, you already covered that -- it's the "nostalgia and emotional attachment" that puts White Castle ahead of McDonald's. It's pretty easy for me to see that there are a lot of people in this country who don't give a damn about "the siren lure of arcane Jack Keroac Americana." Perhaps they're proles, but McD's DOES represent nostalgia and emotional attachment to them. (It would for me, but the mediocrity of the experience of stopping there for lo, these many years, outweighs the nostalgia pretty heavily, alas.)

      I agree with Caren Tarvin and Bill Savage about the bathrooms, though. An essential national service, not to be dismissed lightly, that I credit Mr. Savage for supporting by buying something when he utilizes the facilities. (I can't say that I'm always so honorable...)

      Mentioned by Gaffigan, but nobody else here, it seems, are the fries. Pretty darn good (for an indeterminable, but very short, window of time) and not easy to make at home. Alas, on the rare occasions I hit McD's these days, it's for the southwest salad or a cup of coffee. The salad is okay in a pinch, though I'm sure there are healthier and tastier choices to be made in the world. Last time I got coffee, it was late at night, on a road trip and it was so bad I stopped at the next McD's I saw to replace it. It was only slightly better there. Such are the vagaries of my experiences with McD's -- they manage to screw up even the things that they're well-liked for, if you go at the wrong time of day.

  7. The most interesting thing about McDonald's for me is the demographics of the workers. You could teleport me anywhere in the USA and I could guess the politics and relative urbanization of the local area by the race/gender/age of the workers. I hit it for the bathrooms during road trips, and buy something to make that equitable (if they pay someone to clean the john, I should buy a damn Coke or fries). The redder the state, the older, whiter, and more female the workers at McD's. If the people working there are of both genders but mostly not white, you're in a city, probably a blue area. And this demographic is one reason why the minimum wage argument has so much bullshit in it: people now work these jobs because they have to as adults, not as entry level jobs into an economy that will someday pay this pimply teenager more.

  8. The McDonald's across from Wrigley Field is the place where many of my fellow employees (vendors and ushers) hang out at before games. Which is why I usually walk over to Starbucks. I do occasionally run in to the McDonald's for their coffee if I'm running late, but you wouldn't believe how many of the same people are sitting there, eating the food, day after day after day. I can hardly make myself look at them anymore, I just zip in and out as quickly as possible.

  9. The Union Station McDonald's must be hell to work at. I've been there many times, usually walking out because it's such a zoo and going down to the other places in the station. I go there maybe once a month and was at one in Elgin today. The staff was great. It was all hello sir, yes sir, thank you sir. I hope they are paid well.


Comments are vetted and posted at the discretion of the proprietor.