All Commentary
Friday, February 1, 1991

Lessons from the Road: The Evolution of an Eatery

Dr. Baden is Chairman of the Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment (FREE), with offices in Seattle, Washington, and Bozeman, Montana. Dr. Marotz-Baden is Professor of Health and Human Development at Montana State University, Bozeman.

We spend much of each summer traveling from Bozeman, Montana, to academic and environmental conferences throughout the West. We’ve had a lot of experience eating on the road. Unless we are in areas noted for fine food—Seattle or San Francisco, for example—our choice for breakfast and lunch has become McDonald’s.

Many of our academic, intellectual, and environmental friends view McDonald’s with disdain. They see the arches as a font of cultural sin rather than a source of nourishment. Some would rather be seen entering a porn shop than passing through the Golden Arches. Others view it more acceptable to have breakfast whiskey on their breath than a McDonald’s shake.

To many of these people, McDonald’s symbolizes what they find so objectionable in America. The arches mean plastics and conformity, dead-end alternatives to unionized jobs for the masses. McDonald’s represents the antithesis of the sticks, twigs, and sprouts that make up seven-grain vegetarian organic sandwiches.

McDonald’s succeeds by identifying a market and evolving to give people what they want as tastes and sensitivities change. However, many environmentalists imply that people want the wrong things. To them, McDonald’s success assaults refined tastes and ecological sensitivity. It takes some courage for academics with an environmental bent to defend McDonald’s. We do. Here’s why.

First, one of Ramona’s graduate degrees is in nutrition. She spent several years studying people whose diets contributed to their death. She was delighted when McDonald’s hired Hazleton Laboratories, a nutritional testing firm, to prepare McDonald’s Food: The Facts . . . . a complete booklet on the nutritional composition of every item on their menu. It guides her choice of a Chunky Chicken Salad with low-fat dressing, an apple bran, no-cholesterol, oil-free muffin on the side, with perhaps a low-fat frozen yogurt for dessert. While major portions of their menu are as bad as Ben & Jerry’s premium high butterfat ice cream—e.g., the McD.L.T. with its 580 calories, 36.8 grams of fat, and 990 milligrams of sodium—their muffins, salads, and yogurts may be eaten with a clear conscience.

McDonald’s has responded to changing nutritional preferences and knowledge by adding items to their menu, while subtracting saturated fats. Since one American in seven eats in McDonald’s each day, these changes are significant.

Second, while we don’t have a wide variety at McDonald’s, we like to avoid nasty surprises when eating. We appreciate the company’s quality control, and we know that we will be served in less than three minutes, will soon be back on the road, and are most unlikely to get food poisoning.

Third, we learned that McDonald’s service is usually fast, friendly, and competent. The facilities will be reasonably clean, and our car will be safe while on their lot.

Fourth, it is a pleasure to watch a firm with a commitment to being “the world’s best hamburger store” impart a respect for standards to employees. If we had to choose between hiring a youth certified by McDonald’s or by a public high school, McDonald’s wins.

Finally, whatever their motivation, McDonald’s believes that it is good business to stress good corporate citizenship. During the past few years, they led the introduction of more environmentally responsible behavior in the fast food industry. They reduced volume, reused containers, and were working toward recycling plastics and paper. The company’s recent decision to renege on commitments to experiment with recycling foam containers, however, was a disappointing concession to environmental symbolism. McDonald’s now emphasizes paper packaging for its public relations value, whatever the facts. Scientifically oriented environmentalists lament this lost opportunity for a major national company to experiment with recycling.

We can understand why few academics cheer McDonald’s progress and leadership. Many intellectuals and environmentalists are distracted by image and ignore substance. The symbol of the Golden Arches provides a wonderful backdrop to demonstrate one’s aesthetic, cultural, and environmental superiority. For some, this imagery is too valuable to yield to mere facts.

The number of these critics, however, is small. McDonald’s needn’t worry about market share missed. But the critics have influence, and as their numbers grow, McDonald’s will respond. We might even see the option of an organically gown, whole-grain vegetarian sandwich in a recyclable wrapper. Knowing McDonald’s concern about pleasing people, it will even taste good while reflecting America’s changing sensitivities.