A few months ago, McDonald’s ran an advertisement that was nothing more than a collage of its various signs in different cities, with community-focused messages highlighted. Some of the messages, like “Boston Strong,” would be understood globally, while others were locally focused – high school football championships and Happy Birthday messages. The commercial struck me, even though it has been years since I set foot in a McDonald’s for anything other than a cup of coffee. I grew up in a small town, and for a long time the only fast food restaurants we had were McDonald’s, Burger King and maybe Arby’s? Taco Bell didn’t come around until I was in high school, and it was a really big deal when it did, that I remember. You can watch most of the ad, and the Today Show commentary, here (I couldn’t find an unedited version):
I found this commercial so effective because, where I grew up, restaurants like McDonald’s and Big Boy were anchors in the community. We rarely, if ever, ate dinner at McDonald’s as a family, and I was a senior in college before I tried an Egg McMuffin, but occasionally on Sundays after church my mom would take us to McDonald’s and I can still feel the anticipation in the car as we drove home, the smell of French fries moistening the air, running into my room to change my clothes so I could devour a cheeseburger and fries at our kitchen table before starting homework or heading off to hang out with friends (for the record, coming home from church and changing my clothes is still one of my favorite things in the world.) I spent the majority of my time at McDonald’s in high school, when our local chain hosted all-you-can eat pancake dinners to support various causes around town – our football team, the high school choir, my theater troupe. These dinners were ubiquitous, and fueled more dance and play rehearsals than I can count. Sometimes my entire family would go, other times, I would go with group of friends, and even now I can taste the crisp-yet-gooey pancake dough, the tang of the artificial syrup, the gristle of the three-sausages we were given (sausage, alas, was not all you can eat). These are, by far, some of my best memories of growing up in a small town – the convivial air inside the restaurant on winter nights as the wind from Lake Huron beat off the lake. Much better than the slow-simmering racism, sexism and homophobia, to be sure.
I have virtually no memories of McDonald’s from my mid-twenties – first in North Carolina and later in Pittsburgh. By its very nature fast food needs to be convenient, and after high school I never lived near one that was terrible close, and as we began our series of school-dictated moves, we never lived close enough to one to make it on our radar. The lack of proximity, coupled with a heightened sense of our wellness, meant we saved McDonald’s meals for long car rides, and now we’ve even eliminated those. Evangeline hates McDonald’s – we’ve taken her on a few occasions and she refuses to eat the chicken nuggets, the apple slices, the french fries, the cheeseburgers. Because she dislikes it so much, and because Sam and I are convinced Duncan would love McDonald’s too much, we’ve removed it as a dining option altogether.
Following a 400 million dollar quarterly loss, McDonald’s has been in the news a lot lately. I oddly read quite a bit of business news because of my job, and I know criticisms of McDonald’s range from not changing with the new, more health conscious America to not sticking with what it does best – burgers, fries and fountain Coke. According to The New Yorker, it has suffered even further from the rise of “fast-casual” chains like Chipotle and Panera, which offer better quality food for a small percentage increase in price.
It makes me a little bit sad. To be sure, I don’t think McDonald’s always played fair – they may have manipulated their food so customers developed a kind of addiction to it – and with all we know about health and wellness, it’s hard to rationalize eating regularly, if at all, at the chain. But the company also gave so many of my friends their first jobs, and in my hometown it provided a reliable and safe place to meet up with friends before or after a movie. The restaurants make wonderful pit-stops on long road trips because the bathrooms are clean and bright, and their coffee is good. I hope the chain finds a way to be solvent while still remaining true to itself – I read somewhere they want to introduce an artisan chicken sandwich, which I would never order. There’s a lot of good behind the organization, especially for kids growing up in small towns with limited job and social opportunities. But then again, I guess that’s the paradox – I love it enough to want it to succeed, without having to support it myself.