In late September 2008, when global stock markets fell off a cliff, a funny thing happened to McDonald's. While the financial industry and consumer goods were cratering, same-store sales rose 8.2 per cent the next month. And remember Morgan Spurlock's damning 2004 documentary, Super Size Me, which painted the fast-food giant as the corroded heart of America's obesity crisis? Since then, the company's share price has nearly quadrupled, making MCD's stock ticker look more like a hockey stick than the peaks and valleys of the Golden Arches. While the opening of a new McDonald's (there are already some 33,500 in 119 countries and counting) might not have the buzz of an Apple Store launch, Mickey D's is a Wall Street darling and a savvy customer, too, constantly tweaking providers to lower costs while passing the savings on to budget-conscious consumers.
McWorld may not save us from global jihad, the ravages of interstate conflict or the eurozone financial collapse, but in a cow-hungry world, the plastic contours of the planet's largest restaurant chain shimmer with promises of long-term prosperity. After weathering everything from scalding-coffee lawsuits, cringe-inducing calorie labelling and tides of anti-globalization food rioters, the evil empire of burgers and fries finds itself in an excellent spot to prosper in nasty and brutish times. The sad truth is that in most of the world, the McDonald's menu doesn't scream antibiotic-addled livestock and high-cholesterol death diets; instead it whispers of middle-class aspiration. Who in Sao Paulo or Shanghai has heard of Jonathan Safran Foer, much less his plea: Can't we all be vegetarians and get along?
Still, skeptics ask: Haven't we hit "peak burger?"
The question implies an egregious misreading of McDonald's philosophy and history. A long time ago, burgernomics evolved into chickenomics. Today, McOptimization of priorities has cooked up a feast of cross-cultural patronage: In New Delhi, you'll find the McAloo Tikki spiced-potato sandwich, and in Tokyo, the Ebi Filet-O shrimp burger. McDonald's is no longer foisting burgers and American values on its booming numbers of international patrons; it's offering burgers and local fare and, yes, value.
McDonald's understands the wellsprings of its success, which is why it has seen its stock rise more than 500 per cent in the past decade. The top burger brass has learned to listen to the mothers who called for salads, snack wraps, oatmeal and apples. And McDonald's listens to Wall Street, where the message is just as clear: Drive down costs. Make efficiency your god. Deliver value. It has jettisoned other chains such as Chipotle, Boston Market and Pret A Manger, which means no more distractions from border skirmishes with Panera, Burger King and manifold franchises. And though seven per cent of Americans ate at a McDonald's yesterday, there are a lot of Chinese folks who haven't had the pleasure. So the Golden Arches announced last year that it plans to open 700 new restaurants in the Middle Kingdom by 2013. Plus, in these tough economic times, it's hard to hate a company that hires more than a million workers in North America each year.
Of course, tough times lie ahead for ingredient purchasers of all stripes, as agricultural futures spike for the third time in five years and speculative profit-grabbing takes over grain markets. But MCD's global risk-management acumen matches its global purchasing power. U.S. and Russian grain may be scarce this fall, but Brazil will post a great harvest -- and no hamburger bun I've ever seen has noted its point of origin.
There will be headwinds, for even fast-food giants rely on inputs subject to the whims of climate change, speculation, biofuel mandates and flavours of the month. But while mango pineapple smoothies and a tanking euro may come and go, the human body's demand for cheap, tasty food endures -- recession or no recession. Today, there's a percolating spring of profit in McCafé lattes -- not to mention a quarter of the daily calories a human being requires in a single chocolate chip frappé. Macroeconomics is one thing; stomachs another -- and that may be the most important reason the ghost of founder Ray Kroc can sleep easy.
Ronald and friends fight hard on behalf of their customers' wallets, in good years and bad. The day a Big Mac costs $20 isn't the death of the McDonald's business model, nor the demise of the brand. The day a Big Mac costs $20 will be the end of the world.
Frederick Kaufman is the author, most recently, of Bet the Farm: How Food Stopped Being Food.
-- Foreign Policy / Washington Post / Bloomberg
McDonald's has more than 32,000 locations in 119 countries, and part of its international success is due to clever attempts to appeal to local customers by inventing food tailored to their tastes. From Paris to Delhi, here's a list of the Top 10 McDonald's meals Americans are missing out on.
India: BigSpicy Paneer Wrap
This fast-food take on a common Indian street food is both spicy and vegetarian, making it a hit at the 271 McDonald's locations in India. Made with breaded paneer, a type of South Asian cheese, the BigSpicy Paneer Wrap is one of many vegetarian McDonald's innovations, which have been so successful that the chain plans to open two all-vegetarian locations in India next year.
Japan: Ebi Filet-O
Part of McDonald's Japan president Eikoh Harada's push to tailor food to Japanese taste, the Ebi Filet-O generated sales of 10 million in the first three months after its launch in October 2005. Made with breaded shrimp, this Japanese version of the classic Filet-O-Fish is modelled after the traditional Japanese dish of shrimp tempura and costs around $5.70 in Tokyo.
The Kofteburger is the McDonaldization of kofte, a type of Turkish kebab made with mint and parsley. So authentic that even the bun is sprinkled with parsley, the Kofteburger has been a hit with Turkish customers, and as one American visitor put it, "it's good but it doesn't taste like a burger... it tastes very... Turkish."
Thailand: Samurai Pork Burger
The name says it all. Featuring a pork patty marinated in teriyaki sauce and smothered in peppers, the Samurai Pork Burger is McDonald's attempt to put a Thai twist on the classic Big Mac, although the fast-food giant may be a little off the geographical mark on this one. As one customer asks, "Why does it have a Japanese name when I'm in Thailand?"
Morocco: The McArabia
Priced at about $6.50, variations on the McArabia are available in countries across the Middle East. But Moroccans, especially, seem to have taken to this cumin-spiced flatbread beef sandwich. As one customer told the Global Post, "Honestly, it tastes Moroccan."
China: Prosperity Burger
A seasonal item only available around the Chinese New Year, the Prosperity Burger is made with beef smothered in black pepper sauce and onions. Customers in China and other East Asian countries can also enjoy local delicacies such as taro pie, a variation of the classic apple version, as well as red bean sundaes.
France: Croque McDo
The country that immortalized the "Royale with Cheese" in the classic film Pulp Fiction has another local McDonald's creation to boast about. This take on the croque-monsieur, the classic French open-faced ham-and-cheese sandwich, is popular with Parisians and tourists alike. As one American visitor to France exclaimed about the breakfast sandwich in her blog: "This was no American Happy Meal."
Poland: The WiesMac
This quarter-pound beef patty, translated into English as the "Country Mac," is served with mustard and horseradish sauce on a sesame bun. "Every time I eat WiesMac... I want to die," says one Polish customer in an online discussion, "but it is very tasty." Apparently, McDonald's guilt transcends differences of language and culture.
The Mexican version of a McMuffin minus the egg, this international McDonald's breakfast creation consists of refried beans, cheese and pico de gallo, or Mexican salsa, atop a muffin. The dish takes its inspiration from molletes, a classic Mexican comfort food.
The Netherlands: McKroket
When McDonald's first moved to the Netherlands in the 1970s, they tried to tempt Dutch customers with erwtensoep, or pea soup. Although that venture was unsuccessful, the McKroket has proven a much more profitable local item. A deep-fried patty of beef ragout on a bun, the McKroket costs roughly $2.50 and is McDonald's take on the traditional Dutch croquet.
-- Foreign Policy / Washington Post / Bloomberg News