QSR magazine has a keen interest in trends in the fast-food business, and publishes many articles by learned authors on the creation and life of those cause-and-effect little devils. Some go on to greatness, some reverse, and some just die out of old age or disinterest.
My editor and I were talking about subjects for this article and he suggested that it might be interesting to explore some of the trends I saw in my 32 years of walking the halls of McDonald’s, both there and in the industry at large. Just for fun. So, here goes.
Let’s start with the building. Way back in the Genesis of fast food, it was thought that for a serving counter you simply walked up to the window and got your food and that was all that was needed. But, as I have mentioned in a previous piece, this theory was dashed when the spring thaw came and we discovered several loyal customers in Fargo, North Dakota, frozen to the benches with empty french-fry packages. Probably better to enclose the front. That helped. But still, nothing but a couple of benches to sit on if I didn’t have a car or didn’t want to go home. So, the humble little storefront became a full-fledged restaurant with seats and everything. Problem solved.
But this is where trending comes in. Instead of enjoying their meal in the comfort of plastic seats and tables, with fake plants and the enriching aroma of french fries, people got in a hurry. No time to park, stand in one of six lines and get food fast, and leave. Oh no. I want to stay in my car, sit in one line through three shift changes, and waste gas. And so, the trendy drive thru was born. Now I can drive home to discover I have someone else’s order. But that’s OK, they ordered something better.
Then there’s the food. We used to have hamburgers, fries, drinks, and shakes. Enter another trend: eating more healthy. As Fred used to say, “What’s wrong with meat, bread, and potatoes?” Evidently a lot, because we now have to have salads that were packed during the last leap year. The good news is that we assuage mom’s guilt even though she gets two packets of the ranch dressing. But that wasn’t enough. We had to have a signature hamburger that was healthy. So, 93 percent fat-free and 99 percent taste-free. Add cheese and you could eat it, but there goes the fat reduction.
This is where Mr. Trend raised his ugly little cranium again. We moved on to portions. I want more. So, huge fries, triple-quarter-pounder sandwiches (that one is for the legal readers out there), and bladder-buster drinks. Happily, this has settled back to more reasonable sizes today, for the most part. Portion size is still a huge trend.
Staying with food, there was the ethnic trend. I am happily selling my cute little hamburgers, and along comes Mexican, pizza, bratwurst, falafel, fleas’ knees with choice of dipping sauces, and live culture yogurt. Well by cracky, I can’t miss a trend, so I try to sell them all. I quickly learn that anyone who wants fleas’ knees is someone I don’t want in my restaurant. Luckily, that trend is settling out into restaurants dedicated to that food. Although in Payson, you can find upward of seven Mexican restaurants in a 10-block area and not a pita anywhere. We do have buffalo burgers, and you can now find a lamb roast at the local grocery store. They thought it was ethnic food.
There are the easy trends like technology, sustainability, nutrition, and such, but let’s stay with the fun ones—like advertising.
It used to be all store oriented because nobody had any money to buy dollar-a-holler radio, much less TV. Then we got successful and suddenly we were spending more to produce the TV commercials than the profit on the item we were advertising. Huh? The media budgets looked like the receipt for Avatar. Then someone realized that technology allows viewers, about 30 percent of them, to buzz past the commercials, and now the trends are changing to, guess what, local-store marketing. I love payback.
And promotion. Boy, in the old days, all you had to do was put Charlie Brown’s face on a glass and you had instant promotion success. Now, you better not put any added cost on a promotion or the customer rebels. He figured out that he is paying for it, and it’s cheaper to buy it at the Dollar Store. So the trend seems to be to loyalty clubs, discounting, meals, dollar menus, and competitive comparisons that sometimes point out that I have twice as much meat in my sandwich, but fail to reveal that it costs twice as much, too. Where this one is going is up to the consumer, but we better start thinking about operator profit as well as sales. You can’t sell a $1 sandwich, huge $1 soft drink, and give away the fries and make any money.
Another trend from the old days was when people realized that fast food was for the most part a cash business, no accounts receivable, and began to figure out how to get some of that cash for themselves. You know, the hot coffee suit, or the one where an amoeba was discovered on a fry and the jury award was $5 million and lifetime therapy. Happily, that seems to be less of a trend as folks have figured out that all they have to do is fall through a skylight while trying to break in, and some judge will find the building owner at fault for not having a strong enough skylight.
The trend I saw happening not too long ago was a switch from operations and marketing to financial. But that’s a whole treatise for another day.
I hope you enjoyed our little trek through some trends that I lived through. Now you get to live through some of your own. Good luck.
Happy Trails, and a Peaceful Life.