Steinberg: McDonald’s goes into reverse

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McDonald’s is almost back-engineering itself into a real restaurant, Neil Steinberg says. | AP file photo

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These are dark days for McDonald’s. Sales are down 11 percent this year, profits down 30 percent.

Not that McDonald’s isn’t desperately trying to arrest its tailspin, tossing out qualities that once made it distinctive, experimenting with radical notions such as letting customers choose what goes on their burgers. Or, starting next month, serving breakfast all day. McDonald’s is almost back-engineering itself into a real restaurant, a version of Woody Allen’s joke about Noel Coward buying the rights to “My Fair Lady,” removing the songs and lyrics to change it back into “Pygmalion.” McDonald’s is transforming itself into Denny’s with a clown.

It doesn’t seem to be working, judging by a recent survey of American consumer opinion.

“Consumers don’t think the food is high quality, healthy or even that tasty,” began a scorching piece in Crain’s by Peter Frost. “The restaurants seem dated and unwelcoming. For a fast-food restaurant, it takes too long for customers to receive their orders. And even accounting for changes that McDonald’s is making or considering, nearly half of Americans say they wouldn’t increase their visits to restaurants operated by the nation’s largest fast-food chain.”

I sure wouldn’t. I’m sticking at zero. Why? I could list 50 reasons to despise McDonald’s. But, space being limited, we’ll limit ourselves to 10.


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Top Ten Reasons McDonald’s is Tanking

1. Ambiance. Ever since the cheery red-and-white tile outlets were replaced by horrible 1970s brown mansard roofed monstrosities, McDonald’s has been lost, decor-wise. Urban restaurants have a vibe that is half psych ward, half homeless shelter.

2. Omnipresence. There are just too many McDonald’s: 32,000 worldwide. The corporation seems to realize this, closing 700 McDonald’s stores this year alone, trying to cut their losses.

3. Ronald. Everyone hates him. He’s frightening. A scary clown. Those leering eyes. You never see a child holding a Ronald McDonald doll. And if you did, you’d pity that child. It would be disturbing, like a toddler cuddling a skinned goat’s head.

4. Marketing. The moment Burger King challenged McDonald’s to join them in creating a McWhopper for the International Day of Peace, I knew McDonald’s would pass. Slow on its feet. Compare the oafish, witless, nearly hysterical images that McDonald’s serves up to, for example, the humor in Geico commercials. Fifty years of watching McDonald’s ads and I couldn’t cite one specifically. They’re as bad as the food.

5. Employees. Harried cogs, desperately lunging to serve up the slop. Their “Guh-morn welkamtuh’m’donal” has the emotional heft of “Order ‘n’ geh-out!” This is not to besmirch the employees themselves — no doubt decent folk plunged into an impossible nightmare of minimum-wage slavery, fighting to keep a shred of humanity intact while endlessly repeating some mechanical functions. Does Amnesty International know about this?

6. Blandness. Nothing in McDonald’s is spicy. Their idea of acknowledging our nation’s rich ethnic diversity in their fare is offering green shakes at St. Patrick’s Day.

7. Happy Meals. Anyone who has ever had kids loathes McDonald’s for reaching over our heads and luring our precious children into their trap with cheap trinkets. They’re hooking the young on heavily breaded processed chicken.

8. McRib Sandwiches. No more need be said. Those responsible should stand trial at The Hague.

9. Competitors. Just as Detroit never got off its fat and satisfied posteriors until Japanese carmakers swept in and ate their lunch, so McDonald’s was satisfied with futile half measures — look, we’ve got muffins! — until Five Guys and Red Robin and all sorts of good-burger-at-a-good-price joints came along. The spell was broken and people suddenly realized, “Wait. I’m eating this garbage when I could be eating actual food?!”

10. The food. Last and least. The burgers are predigested mash. The fries are sugared. The shakes, frozen gray gruel. Believe me, I ate my share. No more. Now, if I enter a Metra car where someone is eating McDonalds, I have to hold my breath and hurry to the next car.

Don’t get your hopes up. McDonald’s still took in $27 billion last year, going gangbusters with those who don’t know any better. Once I was in Vilnius, and thought I’d visit the local McDonald’s — an ironic tradition of mine. I’ve eaten at Mickey D’s in Tokyo, in Paris, out of anthropological curiosity. But the one in Lithuania was so jammed I could not get in the door. A mass of people. Not that I was disappointed to go elsewhere.

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