“Two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun.”
For anyone of my generation, the ‘soundtrack of our lives’ would surely include this jingle promoting the Big Mac, the iconic and enduring hamburger of McDonald’s, granddaddy of the American fast food industry. Remember when McDonald’s’ signs started boasting ‘1 million hamburgers sold?’ I do. Or, by the time you came along, was it already ‘Over 1 billion served?’ ‘99 billion served?’
Take a minute to enjoy this line-up of McDonald’s trivia. Did you know that the Queen of England owns a McDonald’s near Buckingham Palace? That they planned to open one restaurant a day in China over a three year period from 2012 to 2015? Or that McDonald’s is the world’s 90th largest economy? This last statistic reminds me of the fact that only 39 countries have won as many Olympic medals as Michael Phelps.
McDonald’s is serious business. When you order a Big Mac and fries you probably aren’t thinking about McDonald’s as a barometer of economic health. But the company is so thoroughly integrated with a host of other industries that it is precisely such an indicator.
McDonald’s reported slowing traffic in the 2nd quarter of 2016. More people, a little shy on consumer confidence, are choosing to pack a lunch and prepare dinner at home. The Chicago Tribune reports “A slowdown in the restaurant industry is one of the first indicators of an economic slowdown, because dining out is one of the first things people give up when they're feeling uncertain about the future.”
Consider this: McDonald’s requires food scientists, nutritionists, test kitchens, suppliers (of food, of course, but also myriad other things, from straws and floor cleaner to industrial kitchen equipment and barstools). They are one of the world’s largest consumers of marketing and advertising, one of its largest purchasers of beef, pork, chicken, and potatoes; the largest distributor of toys, and they own so much retail property that the majority of corporate profits comes from collecting rent rather than selling the burgers and fries. With the successful launch of the McCafe product line a few years ago, they made themselves critical to the well-being of coffee growers, wholesalers, and shippers. The demand of McDonalds for energy, transportation, and warehousing is staggering.
In a cultural landscape that has undergone sea-changes of disruption in the last half-century the Big Mac continues to anchor the menu boards at McDonald’s in a surprisingly durable fashion.
It’s been surrounded by an array of other, often shifting options: fish, chicken, wraps, salads, parfaits and so on, but though other items come and go—think McRib—the Big Mac continues to stand the test of time—it will turn 50 in 2017—begging the question, ‘Why?’ Recently Chik-fil-A replaced its beloved coleslaw with a kale-and-broccolini salad, to great public outcry, but the need to add new items and commensurately subtract others from its offering ruled the day. How is it possible that the Big Mac has not fallen victim to this arithmetic?
Few people would claim that it’s the yummiest burger out there; some don’t even consider eating one—ever. It doesn’t make the top-10 lists of consumers’ favorite burgers, although it comes close. It doesn’t meet the growing demand for more healthful options, which might justify Chik fil a’s kale experiment.
While some of McDonald’s peer competitors, Wendy’s and Burger King, do make the top ten, most of the other preferred options might be classed as ‘luxury burgers.’ They may be tastier, and boast of sourcing higher quality products: never frozen premium beef, locally sourced produce for toppings, buns baked in-house daily or specialized condiments, but such qualities make them the antithesis of low-end disruptors. They are not cheap—some costing twice as much as a Big Mac—nor are they fast, accessible and ubiquitous like McDonald’s. The trivia linked above points out that a small region in South Dakota is the only place left in the lower-48 that is more than 100 miles from a McDonald’s.
I have a friend who always uses it as the example to help illustrate the remoteness of her rural Idaho hometown: she lived 80 miles from the nearest McDonald’s, a measure of being really far-out-there that almost everyone can appreciate. And when she had driven over an hour to go shopping, she didn’t add extra time, distance and expense to her day trying to track down a Five Guys, though she likes their burger better; she ate a Big Mac at McDonald’s. McDonald’s is always near at hand when I require french fries, my favorite post-business meeting or speaking-engagement comfort food.
The Big Mac is an American marvel. No one would question that McDonald’s was a low-end disruptor, the rolling wave-front of a fast food culture that upended traditional family dinner and home-style cookin’ sit-down diners, along with American agriculture and a host of other industries and institutions. What amazes is that after 50 years no one has disrupted them—no one has created a burger that is cheaper, easier, and more accessible, one that gets the job done, better than the Big Mac. It still sits atop the fast-food chain.
This post originally published at Linkedin