Archive for Thursday, January 23, 2003

Time for fast food to grow up

January 23, 2003


How ironic all the old McJingles are sounding now! "We love to see you smile." Oh yeah? Then how come none of you are smiling?

"It's a good time for the great taste of McDonald's." The great taste of congealing grease?

"We do it all for you." What, precisely? Dawdle? Deep-fry? Get the order wrong?

McDonald's is a hap-hap-happy place these days only if you are 3 years old and painting a ketchup smile on mommy's purse. Otherwise, the fast-food empire is aging about as well as a french fry.

For the first time, McDonald's posted a net loss last quarter. True, it still feeds 45 million Americans a day, so this slip could be a blip. But when you consider that the corporation just lost its CEO and announced it may change the basic burger's flavor (or lack thereof), it becomes pretty clear that the chain is falling faster than you can say "twoallbeefpatties ..." and all that other stuff that used to seem so cute.

Why? Simple. It is a relic of another era, a fossilized nugget in a world of seared tuna on focaccia.

"McDonald's was born in a time when TV dinners and Tang were new and exciting," says Paul Jerome Croce, head of American Studies at Stetson University. And just like those wonder foods that now seem more tacky than trendy, "McDonald's is in danger of becoming a period piece."

The problem has less to do with any dumb moves McDonald's made than the fact that we Americans have grown up, dining-wise. Our tastes have matured but McDonald's still treats us like kids, right down to serving salad in a Coke cup. What normal adult would serve another adult that way? Mickey D's is the classic, clueless 1950s parent.

Mostly, it is clueless about how worldly we've become. "In the 1980s, we sort of reached a critical mass in our knowledge of food," says Brett Thorn, an associate editor at Nation's Restaurant News. "We started using Dijon mustard and eating spicy foods from other countries." That spicy food can now be found in many of the newer chain restaurants.

As can food that is healthy. "Back in 2000, healthy eating was a 6 percent consideration in terms of food purchase. Now it's 23 percent," says Robert Passikoff, president of Brand Keys, a firm that studies brand loyalty. The McDonald's menu, meanwhile, is still synonymous with artery-clogging death wish. Supersize.

Moreover, these days when we eat out, we want to do it with a little class. "When you compare McDonald's to a Panera Bread or Cosi sandwich shop, where you walk in and the lighting is great and they have these big couches -- it's like going into a living room," says John Goodman, a dad in suburban New York. "When I'm in a McDonald's, I can't wait to get out."

At the dawn of its existence, Mickey D's was every bit as exciting as any of those swanky sandwich shops. It was a destination. Even the counter help seemed psyched. But gradually, it has become a last resort, the place to go when you've got little time or money. Or, of course, if you have kids.

Alas, as even Ronald McDonald must know, most kid-friendly places are not places where unencumbered adults want to be. Think Chuck E Cheese's. Think school cafeteria. What was once a treat has become a generic, even depressing, experience.

As Americans eat out more and more, a restaurant meal is no longer a break from the family dinner table, it is the family dinner table. It's home.

When that home comes with hard plastic chairs, danger-frought fries and a parent corporation that just doesn't understand us, it's time to cut loose.

Lenore Skenazy is a columnist for the New York Daily News. Her e-mail address is

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