The question of the day is: Can you envision a future world without the McDonald’s restaurant chain?
Yes, I know “restaurant” may not be the best way to describe McDonald’s franchises. It is their label not mine. The point is, whatever you label them – what would happen should they disappear from the landscape? Would life as we know it change all that dramatically?
McDonald’s has a rich history that goes back to 1940 when it started as a single site drive-in, car hop style restaurant in San Bernardino, California. At that time it was called McDonald’s Bar-B-Q. In 1948, it became a self-service drive-in renamed to McDonald’s Famous Hamburgers that had a nine item menu of burgers, beverages, potato chips, and pie. It’s signature item was its 15 cent hamburger. The following year McDonald’s replaced their potato chips with fries and added milkshakes to the menu.
Ray Kroc didn’t enter the scene until 1954 when he visited the original McDonald’s and heard about the owners desire to franchise McDonald’s. Kroc opened his first McDonald’s in Des Plaines, Illinois in 1955. This was the birth date for the mega-chain we know today.
Over the next ten years, 700 McDonald’s were opened across the United States. 1965 was the year of the first public stock offering at $22.50 a share. McDonald’s went international in 1967 with restaurants in Canada and Puerto Rico. There are now McDonald’s in 119 countries. Next year, McDonald’s will celebrate its 60 year anniversary.
Over time, McDonald’s has evolved. It’s menu items, marketing, and look have changed. It has become a major player in the charitable giving arena. The menu has increasing leaned toward inclusion of healthy and niche market items (e.g., coffee specialty items). The chain has periodically updated its look and redesigned facilities to appeal to both the young urban demographic and families. It has sold the message that it is a community member with an assortment of efforts that have supported the charity efforts in each individual community and across its entire market with corporate level giving.
The McDonald’s chain has enjoyed a long prosperous life. But times change and consumers are fickle. The days of large cookie-cutter menus and convenience are being replaced with greater niche marketing in regard to establishments serving specific and often discrete functions. An offering for every meal and a wide-assortment of offerings for every taste is too common and predictable these days. Consumers are seeking out the more personalized experiences available in smaller, local businesses. Today’s successes are akin to McDonald’s original model – the small menu and dedicated burger and fries experience.
McDonald’s is starting to feel the pressure of change. Sales are dropping more than expected. Could this drop signal the beginning of the end for McDonald’s? Is it even possible that a mega-corporation such as McDonald’s could disappear from the landscape? It is difficult to imagine.
Alas, McDonald’s has taken quite a few hits over its alleged role in the obesity epidemic. I say “alleged” because I am not willing to overlook the role of individual choice in this epidemic. It has tried to be responsive to its critics by providing nutrition and caloric labeling for its menu items. It has expanded its menu to try and hit the “light and healthy” market. It has tried to evolve to meet the expectations of its changing demographic. It has not abandoned its quick and easy message or its reasonably priced message, but it has tried to emphasize the fact that it offers choices.
I confess, I still eat the occasional Big Mac. I will also grab a Happy Meal at an airport when I am in a hurry. But, I do not think McDonald’s when I think healthy food. I do not think of McDonald’s burgers or sandwiches when I think of food that I would go out of my way to buy. McDonald’s remains in my world based almost entirely on convenience. Unfortunately for McDonald’s there are dozens of other choices out there clamoring for my drive-thru or deliver-to-my-home dollar – choices that seem healthier and more appealing than the mass production burgers of my childhood.
What will become of McDonald’s? And do we care? If McDonald’s goes away will we even miss a beat?
Well, some folks may. Especially the folks who work with the charitable side of McDonald’s. Ronald McDonald House Charities (RMHC) impact the lives of 7 million children and their families annually. This is made possible by both corporate commitment, franchise commitment, and patron donations. What will happen if the support from RMHC disappears? Who will pick up the slack? Is that something we should be concerned with as consumers? Does that make McDonald’s food offerings any more palatable?
I always find myself reflecting upon the unintended consequences of such things. I believe in a product and service market where the fittest survive, but I know that the consequence of such a system is a ripple effect across many layers of society. When major corporations go down, so too do people and communities. I think folks forget that these industry giants are held up by more than just their high-paid CEOs. Across the world there is a McDonald’s family that depends on the chains’ ability to remain viable in an ever-changing market.
Does this mean I will dramatically change the frequency with which I visit McDonald’s? I think not. What it does is remind me that we live in a world where the threads of connectivity are multi-layered and complex. The loss of a business, be it small or large, has an impact that is farther reaching than just the closing of doors. This is about more than hamburgers, coffee, and Egg McMuffins – this is about communities.
Day one thousand three hundred and forty-three of the new forty – obla di obla da