The golden arches are sagging. “McDonald’s is in an absolute free fall,” says Quartz, citing a “long and worrying decline” in the chain’s same-store sales growth. “McDonald’s is having an identity crisis,” writes the New York Times, in an article detailing the chain’s hapless efforts to compete with more “upscale” restaurants like Chipotle and Smashburger. “The two key words in fast food are fast and food, and McDonald’s is no longer fast, and its burgers ranked last in a Consumer Reports survey recently,” a former exec told the Times. Burn!
Don’t spend too much time fretting for Ronald McDonald & Co. The company may be taking a beating on Wall Street and in the press, but it’s still the biggest restaurant chain on Earth. It wasn't too long ago that McDonald’s was being hailed as an unlikely turnaround story, its success a lesson for other global brands. The company boasts more than 36,000 restaurants worldwide. Simply being there when people get hungry can get you pretty far in the restaurant industry.
But in the “changing with the times” sense, McDonald’s hasn’t been going anywhere either, and that actually might be the problem. Fast food isn’t just for children, poor people, and aspiring diabetics anymore. As the success of quick-service restaurants like Shake Shack, Five Guys, and Chipotle has shown, there is a burgeoning market for restaurants catering to the sorts of eaters I like to think of as sloppy locavores: People who are more than happy to eat fast-food hamburgers for dinner as long as the ground beef is sustainably raised and hormone-free. This mindset is itself problematic, or at the very least obnoxious: Fast food is inherently unsustainable, whether you’re eating a Big Mac or a Shake Stack. So while McDonald’s suffers through its long dark night of the soul—Steve Easterbook replaced Don Thompson as CEO this month—the rest of us should re-evaluate not just the fast-food chain, but the ascent of its fast-casual tormentors.
McDonald’s holds no appeal to the sloppy-locavore demographic, and its executives want to change this. In a recent press release, the chain announced its intent to become “a true destination of choice around the world and reassert McDonald’s as a modern, progressive burger company.” This is a horrible idea, and not just because it is unlikely to work. The world doesn't need another bourgeois burger place that pretends it isn't serving fast food. And McDonald’s shouldn’t pretend that the company that brought us Mayor McCheese and sells soda in small vats will ever be mistaken for “progressive.” Despite its aspirational ambitions and its would-be all-American image, McDonald’s is a lowbrow fast-food restaurant that symbolizes excess and bad decisions, and the company should embrace it.
The problem with McDonald's, insofar as there is a problem, is that its food is low-quality. That doesn’t necessarily mean the food tastes bad, just that it isn’t gourmet. For decades, that was a good thing. Historically, the hamburger demographic has consisted of eaters who value affordability and portability over quality: laborers, travelers, children, poor people, others who just needed inexpensive, salty calories. Hamburger patties were ground from less-than-prime beef, and the seasonings and toppings were meant to impart flavor to inherently wan meat. Burgers were unapologetically lowbrow food meant for common people, and that was OK. Not everything has to be prime rib. Fast food tasted good when you ate it. You felt bad afterward. It didn't immediately kill you. It was the gustatory equivalent of a one-night stand, at once sordid and euphoric.
Then, sometime over the last 20 years, foodie culture invaded America, with its postmodern zeal for blurring lines between the lowbrow and highbrow, turning disposable menu items into haute cuisine. When did the burger first become an object of foodie lust? Maybe in 2001, when celebrity chef Daniel Boulud put a $27 one—made with foie gras and various high-end cuts of meat—on the menu at his New York restaurant db Bistro Moderne. Since then, the humble hamburger has been endlessly elevated. The rise of chains like Shake Shack and Five Guys over the last decade brought higher-end burgers to a national fast-food context. These places proved that 1) fresh-cooked burgers taste better than McDonald's burgers; and 2) there are plenty of people willing to pay $6 for a fast-food hamburger.
And that's fine. There's a lot to be said for $6 fast-food hamburgers. They taste good. They are more filling than the cheaper ones. But if we get to the point where you can only pay $6 for a hamburger—we’re not nearly there yet, despite McDonald’s high-profile woes—then something will be deeply wrong with America. Even though Five Guys and Shake Shack cook the burger in front of you and tout the provenance of their beef, they're still selling hamburgers, which are greasy and bad for you. People know this, of course; no one could actually be under the delusion that a Five Guys burger is actually good for him. But people do assume that purportedly higher-quality ingredients that are relatively transparently sourced somehow legitimize their choice to eat burgers and burritos for lunch and dinner every day.
McDonald's probably can't play that game. It would have to overcome its lowbrow reputation and convince the world its ketchup-and-mustard corporate color scheme now signifies gustatory enlightenment. Historically, the chain has not had much success courting the upscale demographic. (Arch Deluxe, anyone? Anyone? Anyone at all? Sigh.) Its biggest menu innovations in recent years are a wrap sandwich and chicken wings, both of which failed to land. (The New York Times, writing about the problematic McWrap sandwich, noted that “it took McDonald’s two years just to establish a supply chain for cucumbers, which it had never used before, and the wraps proved devilishly difficult to assemble.”) And while McDonald’s has recently pledged to stop using chicken treated with “antibiotics that are important to human medicine”—which is good! Good for McDonald’s!—the company’s website still touts the chain’s use of flash-frozen beef “to seal in flavor,” and notes that “it usually takes about two to three weeks” for a burger to be served after it is frozen. Modern, progressive burger joints don’t use frozen burger patties that have been sitting around for a fortnight.
I wish McDonald’s wouldn’t bother trying to convince the world that it’s something it isn’t. For all the bad things that have been said and written about McDonald's both recently and through the years—about its food quality, its production processes, and so on—it has always sold hamburgers, not mission statements. Its nouveau competitors want you to eat bad without the guilt—a stance that manages to confer guilt and judgment. But if you want to eat sustainably, maybe the food you're eating shouldn't come on a bun. Or, I don’t know, maybe you shouldn't be eating at a quick-service restaurant in the first place.
I don’t want fast food to feel legitimate. I don’t want to be fooled into thinking that one publicly traded restaurant chain is somehow more progressive or sustainable than another. I want to feel bad after I eat a hamburger. I want my fast-food experiences to be guilty pleasures.