Wednesday, 22 May 2013
I want to talk about McDonald's, because, when you walk a lot in god forsaken places, you end up eating McDonald's a lot. It's just how it goes. Here are some notes I made whilst sitting in a McDonald's.
I am in a McDonald's at Bow flyover in East London. It is busy. It has just gone midday. The music is very loud. The service is really bad. The staff are extraordinarily ugly.
I'm eating a McFlurry and drinking a coffee. It is disgusting, but I know exactly what it tastes like before I eat it. That is the essence of McDonald's, predictability and ubiquity.
Incidentally, there is a bloke in a pearly king outfit sat at the table opposite me, he is eating a Big Mac meal with a coffee and he looks like he is enjoying it. I swear, this isn't what the East End of London is always like. Honestly.
It is no coincidence that this McDonald's is situated at the confluence of two main roads (The A12 and the A13). McDonald's are always at big roundabouts or junctions. This McDonald's is one of a few that open for 24hrs a day. Even on Christmas day they are open. It isn't the only one in the country to do this, but it is telling that the ones in central London are only open until 3 or 4am, reopening at 6 for breakfast.
The McDonald's at motorway service stations or in railway stations open early for breakfast, to catch early commuters and travellers. But have you noticed how rare it is to find a service station with a McDonald's?
Burger Kings outnumber McDonald's at service stations 6 to 1. And at train stations, often Burger King has the prime spot, the 'OhMyGodI'mGoingToMissMyTrainButI'mSoHungry' spot, while McDonald's is just outside, or maybe on a lower ground floor which takes a few minutes to get to.
There is a reason.
Burger King and McDonald's are both franchises. You apply to set up a franchise, and then agree to the terms and conditions of the franchise in return for a profit split with the advantage of a big name behind you. You have to agree to obvious things like using appropriate merchandising and buying your food from their approved suppliers. The difference between the McDonald's franchises and Burger King franchises is that if you set up a Burger King, you can effectively set your own prices.
This means that you can set up a Burger King in a pricey location (i.e., a service station or a railway station that charges premium rents) and then just charge whatever amount for your food that will still make you a profit.
Mcdonald's tightly controls their prices. Only allowing special dispensation for special 'prime' locations. Leicester Square and Oxford St, for example, have higher prices. But still, the difference is about 50p. Whereas Burger King can charge up to £3 more for their meals. I've been on many a train, staring at my £7.50 Burger King meal in disbelief.
This decision is a conscious strategy by McDonald's – it means that they can advertise nationally on price. But it has also lead to some strange side effects. It means that their natural home is not just the high street, but also strange hinterlands with cheap rent, where other businesses would struggle to turn a profit.
For example the McDonald's nearest my house while I was growing up was opposite the local Leisure Centre, next to a bypass. It was always busy.
So, that's why I'm in a McDonald's next to the Bow flyover, eating food that tastes predictably disgusting. It makes sense as a business strategy. Like I said – McDonald's offers predictability and ubiquity.
It is a modern day coaching inn. That's why it works on a big roundabout. Here is a list of people who eat here.
1. Workmen, in vans, packs of them. Eastern European guys chatting up the staff, people in hi-vis and helmets, people covered in paint. We are near the Olympic site so there are loads of labourers around here.
2. Police, security guards, night-shift Tesco workers. Where the fuck else can you eat at midnight on a Tuesday between Bow and Stratford?
3. Really tired parents with children in cars on the way to or from somewhere else. It is raining, it is night time, your Tom Tom has broken and you don't know where you are. You see a McDonald's sign, you are safe.
4. Drunk people. You got the wrong bus, then you fell asleep on the bus. You sort of know where you are but the next bus isn't coming for like an hour.
5. Me. I really like McDonald's. I like how the guy next to me is talking to himself, well, actually it is totally freaking me out, but it's alright, because we both came in here to be safe and to hide from the real world and eat food that was totally predictable and that we knew we could afford so I'm pretty certain that he isn't going to give me any trouble.
McDonald's is sort of like a sober Wetherspoons, which I also really like, for similar reasons. What large scale capitalism does well is provide a haven for travellers. Part of McDonald's identity is that it is predictable, they even have an advert based on that very premise.
The advert goes like this: a guy is on his first day at work, everything is new and scary – this picture is him being shown how to use the photocopier or something. So then at lunch he rushes off to McDonald's
which makes him feel really secure and great. This picture is him being really comfortable in McDonald's, and then he eats a Big Mac and everything is ok again, and why is that? Why is it so comforting?
It's because the Big Mac is just as predictably shit as he expects it to be.
I walk in some pretty grim places. Recently I walked with Mathilda Fowler and Colin Dilnot all the way along the Northern Outfall Sewer, ending at a place called Beckton Sewage treatment works.
After a long day of walking in the snow and rain, we just wanted to have a coffee and a sit down, and the only place we could find was a McDonald's at Gallions Reach Retail Park.
Gallions Reach Retail Park is right next to the sewage treatment works, and consequently, the whole place smells of shit. It's on the wind. Maybe the day we were there was particularly bad, but who ever designed the plans for the retail park must have been out of their minds. Or just completely unaware of the smell because they never visited the site before approving the plans.
The only other option for eating in Gallions Reach was an outdoor hotdog stand. I couldn't think of anything worse than standing in the freezing cold, eating a hotdog and breathing in tiny particles of human shit. At least McDonald's was inside.
Maybe that should be their new catchphrase
“McDonald's – its better than inhaling the stench of human waste”