It can be easy to criticise McDonald's, but in many ways, The Golden Arches is also showing the industry how to improve, says Marius Zürcher
Earlier this year, I was asked to sign a petition against a McDonald’s opening up in the city centre of Deventer, a historic Dutch city close to where I live. When I flat out refused, I was met with confusion. That wasn’t surprising. People often are confused, even shocked, when I defend McDonald’s. They shouldn’t be.
Of course, there is plenty to criticise about McDonald’s. The food is largely unhealthy. There are questions raised about the sources or conditions for some of the animals behind the animal products they serve. They often don’t pay their employees enough. They’re too unsustainable. All of that, and more, might be true. However, all of that is also true for the average restaurant. In that regard, McDonald’s is simply part of an industry that sometimes feels broken.
But in some cases, McDonald’s can also show the industry a better way to do things. One example is the toxic working environment present in a lot of restaurants and kitchens, a problem which I addressed in many of my articles. To illustrate: chef, restaurateur, and media personality Dave Chang once told a story of how he was standing in line at an airport McDonald’s. While doing so, he observed that, despite the enormous number of orders coming in continuously, the people behind the counter and in the kitchen weren’t screaming at each other. Instead, they all looked quite at ease.
If McDonald’s, one of the largest employers in the world, could do it, he wondered, why not him and his restaurants? He went to work and found out that he can. So can others.
Addressing the shortcomings
That is not all, however. Unlike many other businesses in our industry, McDonald’s at least tries to actively address many of its shortcomings, for example by increasingly using more humanely sourced animal products and by expanding their meat-free alternatives, by moving towards only using sustainable packaging and by raising minimum wages when governments won’t    .
If you want to see a striking example of this, go to your nearest McDonald’s an order a McFlurry, if you haven’t had one in a while. What you will encounter is an iconic product that has been drastically altered to become more sustainable. Many might say that what McDonald’s is not doing is not enough, and they might have a point. However, McDonald’s is not a speedboat, but an aircraft carrier. Turning around an aircraft carrier takes a lot of time, but at least this one is turning. Many others, aircraft carriers and speedboats, can’t say the same.
The Golden Arches and the community
But that is just one part of the story. In many cities, towns and neighbourhoods across the world, McDonald’s isn’t just another business or another source of fast food, but a de-facto community centre, a refuge, a safe space.
For old people looking for a cheap place to sit for a while to escape their solitude. For immigrant or working-class kids that don’t feel welcome or safe anywhere else, looking for a place to hang out, or to work. For women in patriarchal, ridged societies looking to be treated the same as anyone else. For homeless people who don’t feel safe in shelters. For mothers with children looking for a safe and clean environment in the middle of broken-down neighbourhoods plagued by violence. As British writer and photographer Johny Pitts writes about the McDonald’s in Parisian banlieue Clichy-sous-Bois in his wonderful book Afropean (2019):
“It was a new one, full of bright light and colour and glass, which seemed like rare commodities in Clichy. Inside the McDonald’s was perhaps the only sense of community […] in Clichy-sous-Bois, and it was being used more like a youth centre: teenage girls gossiping, weary looking parents […] and kids playing in the dedicated children’s area. The low-key cheeriness inside this drive-through, so missing in the immediate space outside.”
Surely, this is what the term ‘hospitality’ is truly meant for?
About the author:
The co-owner & founder of start-up 1520 in Apeldoorn, Netherlands, Marius Zürcher was a participant at FCSI’s ‘Millennials’ focused roundtable at INTERGASTRA 2018.