Why the French Can’t Say No to the McCamembert

Stories from Roads & Kingdoms
Aug. 9 2013 5:15 AM

Why the French Secretly Love the Golden Arches

How McDonald’s conquered the world by becoming a defender of local cuisine. Anyone for a McCamembert?

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Cappucino and macarons at the Perpignon McDonald's

Photo courtesy Matt Goulding

But this is McDonald’s, so many of these maneuvers haven’t been without their critics and their controversies. “At McDonald’s our food has to be twice as good because people tend to discount it because of the image. We have higher hurdles to overcome,” says Chris Young. Those hurdles include people like 9-year-old Hannah Robertson, who recently called out the chain for “tricking kids into eating your food” during a shareholder meeting in May.

Predictably, McDonald’s efforts to tap into the local zeitgeist have been similarly scrutinized. When McDonald’s rolled out a “We Buy Local” campaign in Washington state, local and national media alike were quick to pick apart the fine print. After Italy’s former agriculture minister sunk his teeth into the McItaly burger for the cameras, Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini took to the front page of La Repubblica  to excoriate the politician for selling out Brand Italia. And when France debuted their line of hifalutin cheeseburgers in February, Patrick Mercier, chairman of the association of Camembert producers in Normandy, said, “We feel used. They did this without consulting us.”

“These efforts show that they want to sell people versions of food that they like already,” says Mark Bittman, who writes about food policy in the New York Times Opinion section. “They show that they know how to market locally. That doesn’t mean they’re supporting anything meaningful.”

People like Bittman and Petrini will argue that you can’t put lipstick on a cow, that no matter how hard they may try to appear otherwise, McDonald’s primary role is to flatten the world’s taste buds. But the numbers tell a different story. Many of McDonald’s most successful international campaigns in recent years have been based on local specialties: China’s red bean pies, Germany’s Big Rösti, and France’s McBaguette were all bestsellers in their respective regions.

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Perhaps nobody can appreciate McDonald’s homegrown strategy better than James McGowan, a 26-year-old Canadian living in Singapore, whose website travellingmcds.com chronicles the highs and lows of eating at the Golden Arches in more than 50 countries. He tracks new regional specialties using Facebook, asks friends and strangers alike passing through Singapore to bring him exotic McDonald’s entrees—recently, a colleague returned from Australia with a cooler stocked with burgers—and plans his flight schedule around the potential to try a new item. “I’d prefer a flight with four layovers than two—especially if there are new items to try.”

McGowan talks reverently about Tokyo’s Tuna McMuffin, with a note of disappointment about the thin pumpkin soup served in Hong Kong, and in general astonishment of the spicy stir-fries—a touch of fish sauce, shallots, and fresh mint—served at McDonald’s Thailand (his favorite McDonald’s country in the world).

Comb through McDonald’s menus and you begin to see a more adventurous way to eat in what many consider to be the least adventurous eating establishment on the planet.

For breakfast, why not a bowl of chicken congee with fried garlic and chilies by the beach in Bali? Or Gallo pinto—spice-charged rice and beans—on the streets of San Jose, Costa Rica?

Big Mac no longer holding your interest? Order the Bulgogi Burger in Seoul, a tray of Currywurst in Berlin, or a grilled chicken pita in the Middle East.

Customers finish their meal at a branch of McDonalds in Beijing, 20 June 2006.
A McDonalds in Beijing

Photo by Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

Don’t want fries with that? You can try caldo verde in Portugal, gallo pinto in Costa Rica, yucca sticks in Venezuela, cheese empanadas in Chile, or a block of DOP Parmigiano Reggiano in Italy. Late-night munchies? A heaping poutine in Canada will soak up a bit of that booze.

This isn’t just a matter of swapping ranch for chimichurri or subbing ground chicken for ground beef. These new additions represent a paradigm shift in the McDonald’s way: in the sourcing of ingredients, the assembly line preparation, and the local perception of America’s most famous export. Consider Israel, where McDonald’s offers 100 percent kosher restaurants, and the beef is leaner and grilled over charcoal fires—more in keeping with the local desire for a healthier meal. Or India, where beef and pork have never made the menu, McDonald’s is about to go one step further this year and open its first ever vegetarian restaurant. And in Italy, where the opposition to McDonald’s was once so fierce that it sparked the global Slow Food movement, the fast-food titan has joined forces with supermarket superpower Barilla to offer up a line of pasta dishes. The first creation on tap? Penne with tuna, tomatoes, olives, and capers.

Which brings us back to France. In 1997, when Burger King shuttered their final 39 French locations after 16 years of soft sales, analysts blamed it on the King’s reluctance to adapt to the local market. During the same period of time, McDonald’s grew from around 629 restaurants to more than 1,200. Burger King re-entered the French market last year, and you can bet they'll be paying attention to the MacDo lesson: They’re lovin’ it not because it’s American; they’re lovin’ it because it’s French. 

Matt Goulding is co-founder of Roads & Kingdoms. You can follow him on Twitter at @mdgoulding.

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