Today I bring you a guest post from My Dear Wife. She takes a look at our recent dining experience at McDonald’s on the night we conducted our research shopping trip to Walmart. Since she is a graduate student in Sociology, her view of the event is through that lens. She made some very keen observations and came up with some excellent insights. Enjoy!
We went to a McDonald’s restaurant the other day. It wasn’t an elaborately planned expedition. We were heading over to Wal-Mart for a comparison shop. It was quite a typical (or stereotypical) American family adventure. Hubby picked me up at work with two kids in tow; we then went and picked up the third child from an extracurricular activity. We were going to do the week’s grocery shopping before we went to an event that night. The wrinkle in the plan: what was for dinner? How would it fit in, and when? We know better than to grocery shop (especially at the largest retailer in the world) when hungry. Our little town has limited dining options for those on a budget. We were near our destination and knew there were only a few fast food choices between Point A and Point B. Hubby suggested, since we were already going into the belly of the beast, why not go whole hog (or whole cow in this instance) and eat at (what was then) the world’s largest restaurant chain. Not only is it the largest restaurant, it is one of the most recognizable brands in the world. If you live in or have visited the U.S., I am sure most readers have driven past a McDonald’s. And if you don’t live in the U.S., you still have a pretty decent shot at getting a Big Mac.
I will admit we are not fast food purists. We have spent our fair share of time with the rounded headed guy. We have been seen in the Taco Bell drive thru line, until we discovered that their refried beans may or may not (depending upon some arbitrary decision somewhere in corporate headquarters) have red dye. Our sweet boys turn into absolute hanging-off-the-ceiling-swinging-from-the-chandelier maniacs in the presence of red dye, so now we say, “No quiero Taco Bell!” For the most part, when grabbing fast food, though, we try to keep it local like this place in our old town or regional like this place in our new town. I think we did take the kids to a McDonald’s once and a Burger King once, but in both cases, we found the food to be overpriced and the experience left us wanting to take a shower. So we usually zoom right past them. However, in the spirit of the experiment, we decided to not only eat at McDonald’s, but go in, sit down, and “enjoy” a meal.
We parked in the convenient parking lot. The McDonald’s is located in the far reaches of a shopping plaza, with frontage road visibility and access. The plaza has Rite Aid and Ace Hardware as the anchors. There is also an Arby’s in the parking lot. On the sidewalk, there is covered bike parking and also a pay phone (!) that is splashed on both sides with red background and golden arches. Inside, I didn’t notice any signs of Ronald. Perhaps he was on the big poster about the McDonald’s charitable giving, but his presence was not overt. The first thing I noticed was the bank of circular booths. My first reaction was one of joy, then confusion, then sadness. Joy: they are big enough for our family to sit together, and the circular nature keeps us all cozy. They are very cool looking, and add a layer of awesomeness to the usually dull fast food layout. They were similar to this but there were higher walls around each of them to give a feeling of privacy. Confusion: That feeling of privacy is not existent in the first berth though, which opens into the line and is right across from the front counter. Why, if they were building booths for privacy and comfort, would they position one so that it is so open and vulnerable? Sadness: there are only three of these cool booths, and two are taken. We went up and ordered our food and then dispatched the youngest to go and choose a seat. While he was doing this, I walked around to get a feel for the place. At first glance, it was quite bland and tasteful. However, a second look revealed that underneath the staid, subdued color palette lay the heart of schizophrenia. It is as if the restaurant is trying to walk that delicate line between a new, healthy, heart smart, environmentally friendly, hip, family lifestyle location and an old, classic, juicy, salty, sugary, indulgent, addictive fast food joint. Their new ideology is capture in a quote from this article: “McDonald’s, with its wide variety of menu choices at various nutritional profiles, now also offers a variety of activity for children that promotes exercise and physical fitness,” said Bonnie Modguno, registered dietitian and McDonald’s consultant. “It’s important for kids to eat a well balanced diet but it is equally important for them to play. Now, parents can bring their kids to McDonald’s to accomplish both.”
We will start with the Playland (What I will refer to Kids Zone). I have spent very little time in fast food restaurants. I always assumed that the Kids Zone is a place for kids to stay busy while their parents are ordering and waiting for food, and then to burn off some excess energy while the parents are finishing up their meals, since kids tend to finish sooner than parents. However, I think I was wrong. The Kids Zone is now a destination. In a small town with a cold winter, it is one of the few big spaces that kids can run in during the cold months. While some smart parents may be able to go in, grab a coffee and a juice while their kids run around, I am guessing that the sights and smells of food are a bit too much for the average family to resist and so a trip to Kids Zone equals a meal and maybe a dessert. While I don’t fault parents for this and while I am sure there are parents who are able to resist the temptation, I am bothered by corporate shilling under the guise of community spirit. It is akin to Slavoj Zizek’s discussion, “First as Tragedy, Then as Farce.”
Back to the restaurant. It seemed to be broken into lifestyle zones. The Kids Zone is on the outside wall of the restaurant. It is in a separate room with doors so that people without little kids can eat undisturbed by the shrieks of joy. The Kids Zone was the area that was most typical of the McDonald’s image in my mind. The tubes were brightly colored reds yellows and blues, the booths were generic, and the view was of the parking lot. The sign on the door to the zone tells visitors that socks only must be worn, and that socks are available at the front desk. However, the tubes and booths were the only things that fit into my conceptualization of what a McDonald’s playland is like. There were positive, healthy outlets. A stationary bike with a video on it is obviously a promotion of child fitness! There is an air hockey game for interactive fun and bonding. There are also video games to indoctrinate our youngsters with the importance of technological literacy and show them how addictive such games can be. There are two touch screen game consoles, with games like Bejeweled and Dinosaur Dig. The physical background frame on one of the consoles is a McDonald’s soda cup. Subliminal suggestive advertising? Not too subliminal though. The air hockey game did have an image of Ronald, according to my youngest.
Next to the Kids Zone is the area I will call the Active Zone. This is where we sat and ate. It is near the drink station. There is only one table in the Active Zone. It seats 6 and has a game cling on it. What is a game cling, you ask? Well, it is similar to a window cling, but it is stuck to the table. This is to promote family fun! I am deeply offended by the idea that McDonald’s can try to dictate what my family does for fun, but maybe that is just me. The diners are to use an empty milk jug as a spinner.(Get it, Spin the Bottle-esque jug!! Wink wink nudge nudge. All you parents who have arrived in your swagger wagons remember being young, right?) If a milk jug is not available, it is suggested that the diners use a straw. I suppose each player spins on this cling and then does the activity the jug points to. I don’t remember what the activities included except that one of them has something to do with a staring contest, another was a name-that-tune game, but the descriptions are quite hyped up to make these common games come across as more FUN! and DYNAMIC! Not just a game, but a lifestyle enhancing, family bonding experience!!
There is also an eating counter in the Active Zone. There are about 6 chrome and black bar stools attached to the floor. They swivel, very sophisticated in appearance. The bar is S-curved and made of dark wood. Above the bar is a television playing ESPN. This is the active zone, after all. Also in the Active Zone is the drink and condiment station. The drink station is another example of McDonald’s schizophrenic approach to their new concept. The drink station is quite large and efficiently laid out. I remember the water being relegated to a side tab of lemonade or tea. But not at the new McDonald’s!! Water is front and center with its very own fountain labeled “Fresh Filtered Water.” The image is blue with white bubbles. However, Coke and Pepsi are not taking a back seat to water by any stretch of the imagination. Now the soda machine is flanked on BOTH sides by Coke, Diet Coke, and Pepsi, so all the caffeine and sugar junkies can still get their fix. There are two ice dispensers for maximum efficiency. Even the straws had an exclamation point because eating at McDonald’s is fun!
Next to the Active Zone is the Coffee Lounge Zone. This is the area that is closest to the parking lot door. It is where the booths are. Starbucks lovers can sit in two leather chairs and read the New York Times (as long as they bring their own copy; such things are not readily available in the McDonald’s).
Finally, in the back corridor, on the way to the restrooms are the more traditional booths. It gives the feeling of an airport, due to the presence of CNN on that screen. That’s right, this fast food restaurant with seating for about 60 people has two separate televisions showing two completely different things!
Oh gee I forgot one critical piece of information! The food. Did we eat? We must have. First, the point of this experiment is to eat more locally. How did we do? Well, let’s see. According to this site, McDonald’s is a locavore’s dream. Yay! We can feel great about eating here. The food came from our state. They must have these for each state. Oh. It seems that they only offer this page for Washington. It is for apples, potatoes, fish, and milk. The potatoes are an impressive figure. But of course, Washington grows a lot of potatoes, so that makes sense. According to this video, these Oregon fries can be shipped anywhere in the world, so it is not of a matter of “grown local, stays local.” It also says that the apples for the apple dippers are from Washington. Impressive until I realize what a small part of the menu the apple dippers are. We didn’t have any during our time there, as we ordered grown up value meals and there was no apple option. The milk facts are good and I will applaud them for that. However, many are calling foul, saying this is local-washing. I am not sure why they started this campaign in Washington. Maybe it is because they do buy a lot of products from here. It almost seems as if they are trying to compete with Burgerville, but there aren’t many Burgervilles in Washington. The bigger issue of course, is what was actually on our trays. We got 2 Big Mac meals, 1 Big Mac, 1 McChicken meal (in small), 1 cheeseburger, 1 large Coke, 2 medium Cokes, and 1 small Coke. Where did the beef, chicken, wheat, cheese, condiments, and soda come from? According to this video, it looks like the beef might come from Oklahoma. I can’t find any information about where the wheat comes from. The cheese may also come from Washington dairy, but I can’t find any info on that. So, overall, the meal doesn’t fall into the category of local or regional.
We are also trying to be frugal and cost-wise it was not bad. Our total was around $22, which is comparable to Zips and less than we spend at Burgerville. Although Zips is a regional fast food chain, it does not seem to use local ingredients. That is a harder thing to find in the fast food realm, which is all the more reason to love Burgerville. However, since the closest one is 207 miles from us, we couldn’t pop over for dinner and driving there for a meal would kind of defeat our vision to shrink our footprint.