We have a McDonald’s in the middle of our small Colorado town. The restaurant has been expanded over the years, to include double wrap-around drive-thru lanes and a “PlayPlace” for the kids. At some point in time, demand pushed the hours of operation to 7/24. So imagine my surprise last Saturday night around 6:30pm, when I passed by and didn’t see a single car – not one! – in either of the drive-thru lanes. Apparently my town is not “lovin’ it” so much these days.
The truth is, the fast food times they are a-changin’ and McDonald’s is struggling to move on from its burger-n-fries roots. It’s hard enough to compete with the Panera’s and Chipotle’s and other “healthy” alternatives. In this game, McDonald’s is either venerable or outdated – take your pick.
Growing up in California, the go-to fast-food restaurants were McDonald’s, Jack-in-the-Box, and Kentucky Fried Chicken. Not many weeks went by where my family didn’t make it to at least one of the three. In high school, my brother and I worked in a McDonald’s that drew busloads of patrons from the nearby interstate, and hundreds more from the adjacent movie theater. The lines to the counter would stretch into the seating area; a fury of a demand for fast-food. But my how times have changed. A few weeks ago I was shocked to discover another neighborhood McDonald’s had closed down completely. That’s no one-off; McDonald’s is shutting down hundreds of restaurants across the globe as part of a renewed corporate strategy.
I never thought I’d see the day where I question the long-term future of McDonald’s. Health magazine recently published a list of “America’s Top Ten Healthiest Fast Food Restaurants” – http://www.health.com/health/gallery/0,,20435301,00.html – and McDonald’s lands comfortably at #8. Dig deeper however and you’ll find the telling comment: “although McDonald’s made our list, this is still the land of supersizing and giant sodas.”
McDonald’s is trying new approaches to gain market share, and I’m not just talking new menu items (although “garlic fries” are fighting for a spot). In several of its Texas restaurants, McDonald’s is testing “fresh beef” instead of the “flash frozen” it has used for decades. McDonald’s also sponsored a nutrition push in schools, but their message of portion control couldn’t overcome their burger-and-fries stereotype, so they cancelled the program. McDonald’s latest proposed slogan is “The Simpler the Better”, but that’s more about a streamlined menu and faster service. It’s makeup instead of the face lift they really need.
I have a soft spot for McDonald’s because it was my first formal paycheck. I worked the grill and dressed the burgers and wore the uniform with pride. But I can’t tell you the last time I hit a McDonald’s drive-thru, let alone walked into the restaurant. Even the recent “all-day breakfast” campaign isn’t bringing me back. Yes, we all still “deserve a break today”, but it may be time to finally dim the lights on the golden arches.