Flash ahead about 20 years. Adweek has recently bought Ad Forum magazine and I'm putting together the editorial plan for a re-launch of what is now Brandweek. I want stories that get inside the psyches of America's marketers. The first cover line on my list of sample stories? "What McDonald's Knows About Kids."
I never did get that story. In explaining what I was looking for to various reporters over the next couple of years, I'd always come back to the French fries. "They do something with those fries that makes them instantly addictive," I'd say. Not surprisingly, the folks at Oak Brook weren't talking about that.
When my own kids came along, we could not resist an, er ..., occasional, visit. Family lore is filled with stories that, in an earlier day, might be about Thanksgiving feasts with the clan. My daughter, a Chicken McNuggets and Happy Meal aficionado, also loved the play areas. The day she got her head temporarily stuck between the bars that held the Hamburgler at a Yonkers, N.Y., outlet, has taken on fish-story proportions. And my young son, inexplicably flipping though a magazine in his car seat, got visibly excited and nearly uttered his first recognizable word when he came upon a picture of the Golden Arches. "Blug-blug," my wife reports, was clearly meant to mean "Big Mac."
I was reminded of all this by two stories yesterday. The first, by Julie Jargon in the Wall Street Journal, reports that McDonald's is succeeding where other fast-fooders, as the trades call them, are flailing because of its increasingly diverse menu that not only lures cost-conscious consumers but also departs "from the days when McDonald's largely catered to so-called heavy users."
I think that you can read "heavy" several ways. Sometime in the Nineties, around the time that the phrase "Supersize Me" entered the vernacular, a lot of people took a look at their burgeoning waistlines, decided that too much of a tasty thing can be too much of a tasty thing, and discovered apples and leafy things.
In the second piece I read yesterday, chef Neil Ferguson says that he stopped eating At McDonald's entirely after reading Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation.
"Something clicked in my head," he tells John Bruno Turiano in Westchester magazine. I know I had a similar reaction after seeing Richard Linklater's movie version of the book, as well as Morgan Suurlock's "Super Size Me." Alas, I finally found out a little bit more than I probably wanted to know about those fries I was so enamored of.
But something started happening in our household about a year ago. We'd be coming home from a movie and my wife would suggest that we drive through a McDonald's for an ice cream cone. "It's only 150 calories," she'd report. Then she started coming home from the gym with a small McDonald's smoothie in tow. They don't compare to the concoctions I blend up in my Vitamix, I'll tell you right here, but at 210 calories, I'm betting they'll leave you lighter on the scale.
Then, a few months ago, I was on a long drive in upstate New York and I inexplicably -- there's that word again -- felt the sharp pang of an Egg McMuffin craving (caution: enticing picture ahead). Hadn't had one in at least 10 years, I'd say. I waited until I hit an intersection that didn't look like it led to the town recycling facility, made a right at the top of the ramp and, sure enough, there were the Golden Arches just a block up the road. Egging myself on, so to speak, by recalling that even Michael Pollan wrote that "obsessing over food rules is bad for you happiness, and probably for your health," I declared the glorious summer morning a "special occasion." So special, I ordered up two Egg McMuffins. Delirium ensured in one of the primal regions of my brain.
I don't know if attracting occasional grazers such as my family is the way Ray Kroc would draw up the business plan if he were getting started today but it's hard to argue with 30 straight quarters of same-store sales increases. The complexity of the new menu comes at a cost, of course, as Jargon reports. Franchisees must invest in new equipment such as the $100,000 McCafe coffee stations and $13,000 frozen drinks machines. They need more staff. It's easier to make mistakes, and sometimes it may take longer to get served.
But I will say this. If an ensuing cholesterol surge doesn't do me in first, I'll probably be back for two more Egg McMuffins on a special occasion some time in 2011. And there'll be a few wildberry smoothies and, yes, reduced fat ice cream cones in between.