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What is it exactly that McDonalds is selling again?

November 17, 2008

20 years ago I worked in Fast Food. At two nationally known chains I became a manager, in one case supervising 7 stores for a franchise. In both cases, the owners felt they knew better than Corporate choosing to significantly alter some major business practice, usually to the detriment of consumers.

We joked about a training story, and I think of it often today, in which we said that consumers don’t go to McDonalds because of the great taste of the food. Consumers go to McDonalds because no matter where they walk through the Golden Arches they can expect exactly the same product and pretty close to the same price, always with friendly service. (I did NOT work at McDonalds, BTW.) In fact, many McDonalds commercials want you to believe it is a fun place to visit, and their employees are some of the best in the world.

Of course we all know that isn’t the reality! We’ve all had miserable experiences at McDonalds. Since there are so many of them, you may even know that you want to drive past 2 or 3 of them because they really are that bad. Sometimes I forget – there is a franchise owner in Racine, Wisconsin that owns a couple of stores that really top the list for being at the bottom. I hit one of those stores on Lathrop Ave. again today.

Back in the day our cost on a $1 mega-soda was around $.17 by the time you counted syrup, cups, etc. At the other chain, we shot for a FLC (food, labor and coupon) cost around 20-22%. Even after other overhead was covered, the profit margin is pretty high.

Still, most of us can empathize with the owner that says that “bathrooms are for customers only” or any of a number of other less than neighborly advances; because we understand that the store exists to make money. And while I just REALLY needed a cup of water today while being out I decided that since I had skipped lunch I could purchase a couple of burgers at McDonalds to get a glass of water.

“We don’t have cups of water. You have to purchase a bottle.”

Not that I particularly care if my water is in a bottle or a cup when I drink it, but I do care (if I were to extrapolate from this experience) that McDonalds corporate policy was to be as completely irresponsible as possible and put as much plastic into landfills as they can.

I know better – McDonalds corporate policy is to reduce their waste. (Says so on their homepage.) They’ve switched from the Styrofoam and irresponsible packaging of the past to slightly more degradable packaging like paper lightly waxed.

Maybe that it is just the whole idea that what I really needed was a cup of water, and I was being forcefully upsold to a product that itself was not what I go to McDonalds for. I could have ordered a soda I suppose; the cost would have been less than that smaller bottle of water. Generally, I avoid soda for the health risks, although I do occasionally have one. It’s just not my first choice.

OK, so if health was my main concern, I wouldn’t be ordering a burger at McDonalds in the first place, and my job requires me to drive in my car in such a way that I’m not always exactly the most eco-friendly traveler – but it’s the tone of the voice, and the message “we don’t HAVE a glass of water. You have to buy a bottle” that probably bothers me the most.

At this point in my life, I’ve eaten at McDonalds more than once or twice. I even tried to give up McDonalds for Lent once. Man was I glad when Easter passed that year and I was able to get a burger! (You miss it when you can’t have it. I suppose over the years I have HAD to eat at McDonalds so many times, I’ve developed a taste for it.) But at the end of the day, like most of us, regardless of MY corporate loyalty ~ this McDonalds didn’t care about me or any of those basic human needs like thirst.

This restaurant wasn’t in the best neighborhood. It was between a school I serve and the Boy Scout office I was travelling to. My local Fox affiliate just ran a story tonight entitled “Do corner stores really offer the freshest option?” (redirects to At the heart of the story is that many people who live in such neighborhoods often don’t have great choices to feed their families. I’d concur.

I wonder if perhaps the McDonalds in my neighborhood knows that we DO have choices, and they MUST try harder, or I simply will not eat there?

Maybe two years ago I took my case to the manager at another McDonalds nearby this bad one that I believe is owned by the same owner. I was told it was “corporate policy” not to provide “free” drinks, even with a purchase. (Apparently the cost on those paper cups has skyrocketed. Someone better tell Paper Machinery Corporation to stop making those cups out of gold.)

This time I simply left. I chose NOT to buy the bottle of water OR the burgers. Or the line of crap that this franchise was selling.

Last time I checked, the McDonalds in MY neighborhood still gave me a cup of water if I asked, regardless if I purchased food. (Which I usually do.) Moreover, they’re happy to provide complementary Orange Drink for our Scout functions, and provide coupons for free ice cream cones during civic events or to the local police who give them out to kids wearing their bike helmets around town.

Interestingly enough, a few hours later, since I still had not eaten, I stopped at a different McDonalds on Hwy 20, still in the city. I pulled into the drive through, and decided to just get a double cheeseburger off the dollar menu to tide me over until dinner. The person who took my order asked me if I wanted the $1 cheeseburger or the $1.25 cheeseburger. Huh?

The latter has a “second piece of cheese” she explained. (Hmmm… Once again, another franchise owner playing with the product.) One piece of cheese was enough for me anyhow, so I stayed with the “new” $1 version. At least I wasn’t charged for the cup of water that I just HAD to order to prove that indeed McDonalds did still have a “courtesy cup.”

Overall, McDonalds appears to have a pretty big problem. Perhaps they don’t realize how bad it has become. Before I drop $6 – $8 at a McDonalds on a couple of “premium” burgers or designer coffees instead of heading to a place I can enjoy a nice warm plate, a smile, and food that is perhaps just a little better for me I will ask myself exactly WHAT it is that McDonalds thinks they’re selling.

Yeah, I suppose if I’m in such a rush that I have to hit a drive through not knowing if I dare eat in any of the other more colorful local establishments that I can’t seek out an alternative… Because I’m not sure McDonalds understands that the core of their business is consistency. Serving the same meal at the same deal each and every time, no matter where you travel is essential to their product. Having a friendly smile to greet me, and understanding that corporations like theirs exist because of customers like me who return far too often than we should is more powerful than the tens of millions of dollars they must spend on advertisements trying to convince me that somehow this time, my experience will be better, be “different.”

By the way – if you treat a customer well – they might tell a friend. But if you treat them poorly, you can expect that they may very well blog on the experience and send out links to that blog post on Twitter, Plurk, and perhaps dozens of other social networks telling tens of thousands of others around the world just how bad your service is.

The problem is, you ruin it for the good franchises. If McDonalds would let me identify these franchise owners by name on this page I would. (C’mon! Do you REALLY think I need a restaurant locator? They’re on every street corner! What I want to know is how bad a particular restaurant is, and the opportunity to rate it on that page so YOU know what I know.) Without consistency the McDonalds brand is nothing.

I don’t think it will be quite so hard to give up my “little pleasure” for Lent this year. But again, I’m lucky. I have choices.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. rudimyers permalink
    November 18, 2008 1:08 pm

    Great blog. Stick any namebrand of food, toy, etc in for McDonald’s. What ARE they selling? For example, ToysRUs. If you want a cookie cutter non-imaginative piece of plastic that will last two days, shop at ToysRUs. Try purchasing something more creative. It is miserably hard. Don’t get me started on the sexist layout of the store in which the girls section glows a bright pink. My point is that all companies have lost touch with the consumers. Quality of service has dropped. Quality of product has dropped. Inept managers or other personel have risen. I think it will take a concerted effort on all of our parts to post to Twitter, Facebook, etc and let others know the places to visit and the places to avoid.

  2. November 18, 2008 5:20 pm

    You also have a good and similar point – the product that is being delivered is often less than what is expected by the receiving party because it is not “as advertised.”

    But the point I want to make is one just a bit different. I buy McDonalds sandwiches on a relatively regular basis. If I wanted to “roll the dice” on what I would get each time, I wouldn’t go to McDonalds. I have come to expect a product exactly like the product I had at 1000 other McDonalds, not one that the local owner has taken “creative license” with.

    When I worked in Fast Food, we literally had pictures of what the product should look like, and measures of what needed to go on that product to replicate the same taste and experience every time. It is the secret to McDonald’s success. And it is this that has become distressingly lax in the chain as they concentrate on McLattes. These franchise owners need to get back with the program, or buy a [insert name of other chain here] license.

  3. Kira permalink
    December 13, 2008 5:07 pm

    I worked at a McDonald’s back in high school. Was a terrific first job. Learned customer service, and the hard work/commitment necessary to get your assigned jobs done (like cleaning the machines at closing, ew).

    We had a terrific manager who accepted nothing less than perfection. Every sandwich was done right, and was not the least bit sloppy, or it didn’t make it to a customer… and the whole place was as spotless as could be.

    The McDonald’s I visit today seem to be run by managers who don’t give a crap. I’m appalled by the sloppy sandwiches I sometimes get, and the half-hearted, at best, customer service. Managers, do your jobs!

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