mcdonald's golden arches

McDonald’s Ain’t What It Used to Be

So I had a bachelor weekend recently and watched a lot of movies. One was The Founder, the biopic of the Ray Kroc, one of the co-founders of McDonald’s as we know it today.

Let me get this out of the way first — I LOVE McDonald’s. I love it for the nostalgia, the family quality, the food, the decor, the smells. Those were the days of the styrofoam clam shells. I LOVE the fish sandwiches, mostly because of the tartar sauce. I would get a fish sandwich in place of a hamburger for my Happy Meal (my Dad would eat the hamburger). The house I grew up in was very close to one, not exactly walking distance but enough to get it about once a week. I had about 70-80% of the Happy Meal toys in a set. There were bins of them. (And my Mom sold them all at a garage sale for 25 cents.)

mcdonald's menu 1980
This was on Reddit’s r/nostalgia page a few weeks ago.

In fact, I wouldn’t be here if not for McDonald’s. My parents first met while working there, at the one in Bloomington on Nicollet Ave. It’s still there, next to Groth Music (which was a PDQ when I was growing up) and a 7/8 Liquors and what used to be a 1-Hr Martinizing. My Mom met Ray Kroc once (near the end of his life, when he was very old — his daughter was with him). Anyway, this is my way of saying McDonald’s and my life are intrinsically linked.

And watching the history of McDonald’s, from the SpeeDee system to a massive franchise, was fascinating. The way Dick and Mac McDonald saw a need and filled a need. They saw desire for family friendly venues (not places where hotrodding teenagers hang out). They saw a need for fewer mistakes, so they eliminated drive-ins and extraneous menu items (and equipment, like plates). And these weren’t business geniuses or trust fund babies. They had to come up with this stuff with classic “guess and check”.

It wasn’t without hiccups, it wasn’t without disasters, it wasn’t without do-overs. They started with goals and engineered solutions to fulfill those goals. It was so different, they had to lead customers by the nose at first (“no, you get OUT of the car to get the food”) but the cream rose to the top, and they started making money like a cliché involving hands and fists. It inspired me to go to McDonald’s and get a hamburger, just for a taste of that wistful time in the fifties.

It’s changed, man. It’s not the same system that made McDonald’s its money. It’s not even the same as when I was a kid. I don’t think it’s even nostalgia goggles, it’s that it’s too complicated. And that’s irony because that’s exactly what the McDonald brothers were forever trying to avoid.

McDonald’s started with only two things: Hamburgers and French Fries. That’s all you could get. That’s all they offered. Now the menu is a mess, filled with junk. What are these “artisanal burgers”? You pick a bun, a “protein”, a sauce. What is this? Creating a character in Skyrim? Why are you making me make the hamburger? Isn’t that your job?

And McCafe. This is their attempt to compete with Starbucks. Half the menu is McCafe stuff I don’t care about because I’m always there past 11:00 AM, which is not the time for coffee. It’s time for lunch, and I don’t want a 960 calorie caffeinated drink for my lunch. I mean, yeah, I don’t mind that the breakfast menu is available all day. It would have been more useful when I was younger (like most adults, I’m not so into breakfast anymore). But now it overburdens the menu even more. So much that I couldn’t even find the listings for just a hamburger and fries. Am I supposed to just know that’s an option? Do you think you’re so ubiquitous, McDonald’s?

Even the menu of my days seems like overkill now. Certain things came and went, like the McDLT, the Arch Deluxe, and the Big N’ Tasty. But how about you not make eight of the same chicken sandwich. Is there any fundamental difference between a Big Mac, a Quarter Pounder with Cheese, a Double Cheeseburger, and a McDouble? And don’t forget the extra junk, like Chicken Selects, McSkillet Burritos, Mighty Kids meals, and McFlurrys. And the thing is, they don’t NEED any of this stuff. It’s still a good burger. Convenient, easy to hold. The bun is a little dry and rubbery, but the meat and condiments are good.

The french fries are… well, I remember those being better. But maybe I’m influenced by this irritatingly melodramatic podcast that doesn’t shut up about the good ol’ days. The reason they taste different now is to make them healthier. They’re no longer fried in beef tallow. So it’s better for those people who have McDonald’s fries for, like, every lunch. Those fast-moving businessmen going state to state.

I admit, I see both sides of the coin. Healthier is fine, but if you’re eating french fries at every meal, you deserve what you get. Why punish the rest of us? Back then, there weren’t as many quick service options. I don’t know why McDonald’s thinks they were responsible for the health of America because one person complained. I say, why not offer both options — old way and new.

Of course, I’d more prefer that McDonald’s offered a better variety of sides in the first place. Even with all the other changes, you can’t get anything with your sandwich besides fries. They can’t figure out anything different to put with them? They shouldn’t be worrying about fattening their customers, they should be worried about this fat ass of a menu.

And because there are too many choices, now I have to wait for my food. WAIT. They give me a number and I have to step to the side. What is this, a deli? This is supposed to be fast food. I don’t remember getting a number when I was a kid. Is this my new Happy Meal toy? I am supposed to get my food almost immediately. Now, if I order a fish sandwich, there’s a 50% chance I’m going to have to pull ahead into the parking spot of shame. Is this what made Dick and Mac successful? Because it seems pretty much the opposite.

One thing they did right was staying a family place. They’ve still got the Happy Meals and Playlands. The problem is, I know no one cleans those Playlands, so I wouldn’t let my kids inside one now. Not to say Playlands have no place at McDonald’s. I have very fond memories of the playground behind mine. It was outside and had hard ground to fall onto, but at least you could hose down the fiberglass Mayor McCheese (BTW, Mayor McCheese was before my time, so I had no idea who Police Hamburger was when I crawled into his head).

mcdonald's playland
The Hamburglar slide! I ‘member that.

But a Playland means bupkiss if you don’t have a reason to go in the restaurant, and that’s what these new fresher places are doing. If I want a burrito, I will go to Chipotle, because that is the only thing they do and they do it well. If I want a deli sandwich, I go to Subway. If I want deep-fried shit, I go to Popeye’s. Chinese food — LeeAnn Chin’s. Soup and sandwich — Panera Bread. Ice cream — Dairy Queen. Coffee — Starbucks (or Caribou Coffee if you live where I do). Why does McDonald’s want to be a one-stop shop? You end up falling short in every category. They feel they have to compete with EVERYBODY. That’s why the menu is an indiscernible mess.

You want to see what McDonald’s used to be? Go to Five Guys. What do they serve? Just burgers and fries (and hot dogs, but no one gets those). Are they healthy? Hell no. But I don’t go to Five Guys to be healthy. I go to Five Guys to get a tasty burger (which is why I used to go to McDonald’s). These burgers are delicious. They’re thick and hot and freshly cooked. You drive while you eat them — they’re too big. They offer a combination of flavors and textures you can’t get at McDonald’s (like cheese, mushrooms, bacon, steak sauce, mayo, tomatoes, lettuce).

How can they do this? Because this is all they do. And they do it well. It’s not fast, and the site decor looks awful (the wait line is blocked off by boxes of peanuts). Nonetheless, the principles are the same — it’s what’s inside the bag that’s important. But as Levar Burton said, you don’t have to take my word for it.

McDonald’s has become a far cry from the one of my youth and an even further cry from the genius and hard work it started as. In software engineering, we call this “feature creep”, when your project managers start thinking “wouldn’t it be nice to have this” or “what if we added this” and “as long as it’s doing this it should do this” and now you’ve got a big bloated thing that’s difficult to maintain and hardly efficient. McDonald’s keeps tweaking things for the sake of appearing new and improved. The problem is, they became too big to fail. Maybe someday they’ll go back to their normal ways. Maybe they’ll make a “McDonald’s Express” that goes back to the nitty gritty of the good ol’ days.

Eric Juneau is a software engineer and novelist on his lunch breaks. In 2016, his first novel, Merm-8, was published by eTreasures. He lives in, was born in, and refuses to leave, Minnesota. You can find him talking about movies, video games, and Disney princesses at where he details his journey to become a capital A Author.

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