"McDonald's - declined to sponsor the Paralympics or let Paralympic officials seek sponsorships from their competitors."
A bomb has damaged a new McDonald's restaurant in the Basque town of St- Jean-de-Luz in France, near the Spanish border. The attack was similar to others by the French militant Basque group Iparretarrak.
I never thought I'd be using the words "McDonald's" and "higher education" in the same sentence, but when I found out that there exists a place called Hamburger University, I had to take a look. What I saw there was impressive, serious, even sophisticated. And funny. And scary.
No sooner did I enter downstairs lounge of the Lodge, Hamburger University's form, than "Louie, Louie", that anthem of collegiate excess, came blasting out of the jukebox. The room, where about 30 to 40 people were avidly partying it up, looked like any "real" college rathskeller. So okay, I thought, it's just like being away at school, right? Then, a McDonald's commercial interrupted the basketball game on the large-screen TV. It was one featuring basketball superman Michael Jordan. Suddenly, a discernible hush came over the room. All eyes watched expectantly for Mike to bight into his McJordan, a special sandwich being offered for a limited time in the Chicago area. When he finally cracked an ear to ear smile, a roar of applause, screams and Arsenio-esque woofs erupted. Then I remembered where I was.
And over the course of my four day stay I never again forgot. The campus seemed designed to ensure that. The hallways of the dorm (actually a McDonald's -owned, Hyatt-run hotel) are bedecked with prints of famous artwork - Whistler's Mother, the Mona Lisa, American Gothic - cleverly altered to have the principals holding Big Macs, fries and soft drinks. A corridor in the University itself sports a life-sized Ronald McDonald made of Legos. Oh, need a ride from the Lodge to HU? Take the McShuttle. How 'bout a nice swim? Amble on down to the McPool. For those who want some fresh air, there's the winding network of walks in the surrounding woods called the McNature trail. When I flipped on the TV in my room, 8 of the 19 channels were occupied with McD's programming - riveting stuff like "Gas Grill Review." All this didn't seem to bother anyone but me.
On my first full day there, I got a little guided tour from Training Manager and Acting Dean Wayne Rohrbaugh, who explained the HU curriculum: "Half of it is transferring information, the other half is motivation." And after observing a couple of classes, I could see this was one motivated student body. At this University, everyone's a cheerleader, everyone's a star. Seemed like every time I turned around someone was being applauded, even if it was just for providing a correct answer in class.
On night number two, I experienced the Hot Hamburgers competition, a "Family Feud"-esque tournament. Complete with lighted digital scoreboard, an official judge and a quintessential articulate, well-groomed MC, teams of seven competed to determine which was most knowledgeable in McD's statistics and trivia. I was there for the finals, amid a standing-room only crowd. Questions ranged from the ridiculously specific ("What is the correct receiving temperature for Big Mac sauce?" 34 to 55 degrees) to the ridiculously general ("A fact has three characteristics. What are they?" True, specific, objective). A team named the McSweeps triumphed, to a frenzied standing ovation. Regrettably, the only question I've ever had about McDonald's ("What part of the chicken does the McNugget come from?") was not addressed, but I had a feeling it wouldn't be.
Hamburger University celebrates 30 years in operation this year. It was started in 1961, in the basement of a McD's restaurant in Elk Grove Village, Illinois, way before McDonald's became the corporate monolith it is today. The school's purpose is to prepare ambitious employees for the post of restaurant manager. Since it's inception, 42,000 have graduated; 3,000 more will take the two-week course in 1991 alone. (Sounds like a lot until you learn that a new McDonald's opens somewhere in the world approximately every 15 hours.) I was told that a McDonald's manager must complete 2,000 hours of training, nearly the equivalent of an average four-year college education. Not only that, HU is an accredited school and courses taken here are transferable to other institutions of higher learning. Lucky students are chosen by their store managers, and tuition is paid for by the corporation, and lodging and food expenses are picked up by the restaurant owners. Employees from all 12,000 outlets and 54 countries in McDonaldland are eligible. Language barrier? No problem - there are translators of 13 languages employed at HU, and all classroom auditoriums have sealed-off translator booths and headphones at the desks. We're talking high-tech, state-of-the-art equipment here.
Before I even arrived at the Oak Brook, Illinois campus, Dean Randy Vest made it clear to me that they don't teach courses like "Cheeseburgers 101"; the curriculum covers much more sophisticated stuff like Customer Appreciation and Advanced Management Techniques. The training consists of lectures, role-playing exercises and laboratory assignments, all leading up to that coveted degree, the Bachelor of Hamburgerology (No, I'm not kidding).
A typical school day starts at about eight in the morning and runs to the late afternoon. Classes are in large, wood-panelled lecture halls. Top 40 pop wafts through the auditorium speakers during between-class breaks. Role-playing takes place in "breakout rooms", where students are videotaped acting out routine workday situations. Later, they watch and critique their performances. I sat in on one which concerned the presenting of performance evaluations. Each student was given an information packet on two fictional employees named Connie and Lea. The teams "broke out" and debated what kind of review they'd give the make-believe crew people. When one would-be manager remarked that Connie's fries were undercooked eight times during her employment history, someone else pointed to her dossier and firmly retorted, "Yeah, but there were some equipment problems too."
There are also four lab rooms: Grill, Beverage, Shake/Soft Serve and Fryer. In one exercise, students are presented with a product problem (e.g., a shake that tastes both chocolate and strawberry) and must find what's causing it. They're reminded that problem solving takes three steps: checking operating procedure, raw product and, finally, equipment. Because finals were two days away, I only witnessed a sort of cramming session: the labs were open for students to stop in before the big test and pick professors' brains on anything they had questions about. I observed a student discussing fryer problems. She was distraught because the "Trouble" light on hers kept going on for some unexplainable reason. The professor earnestly queried, "Well, what are you cooking when this happens, McNuggets? Apple pies?" The conversation started getting bogged down in technical detail, so I didn't stick around to hear the solution.
Now, I realize that analyzing fryer problems is not too bizarre - after all, food is their business. It's the "motivation" half of the training that really freaked me out. Essential to that: a glaring, non-stop emphasis on teamwork. Class 453, for example, has three homerooms of 54 people each, and those homerooms are broken up into teams of around seven. Also harped on is the importance of their larger teams (the staffs at the students' home restaurants) and, most importantly, the global team that McDonald's has become. Definitely discouraged: any me-first, cut throat approaches to climbing the corporate ladder.
And more than mere company loyalty, there seems to be a belief system at HU, like some strange burger-based religion or, more accurately, cult. Yeah, making money is important, but there's far more said about perpetuating the ideals of McDonald's: "quality, service, cleanliness and value," or QSCV. These four letters are repeated incessantly like a kind of corporate mantra. There's even a semi-Godlike figure in the equation. That's McDonald's founder Ray Kroc, a shake machine salesman who, back in the mid-50s, was so impressed at the size of an order made by two brothers named McDonald for their San Bernardino burger joint that he eventually bought franchises from them and started a chain of hamburger restaurants, using their name. Later, he purchased the rights to that name, and the rest is history. And as the embodiment of dedication, perseverance and of course capitalism, old Ray is truly idolized here. In addition to the Ray Kroc museum, His image is everywhere. There are even two sculptures of the Multimixer, the five-headed shake machines He once peddled, in the clean-enough-to-eat-off hallways of HU.
All this high-minded hokeyness aside, I must say I admire the effort McDonald's makes to help it's employees build what's usually thought of as a good-for-spare-change-but-ultimately-dead-end job into a legitimate career. It's a little mind-boggling to realize that a person could conceivably start working in a McD's in high school and end up managing a $1.6 million business by their early twenties. What's more, though employees who make it to HU have spent two to four years in training at the in-store or regional level, no formal education is required to attend - or teach - classes there. Professor Faith Krebbs told me, "One of the great things about McDonald's is that they look at the individual and their capability for learning, and for growing in the job, versus saying that you have to have this degree in order to have this particular job." Righteous. The student body seemed to be a mirror image of the of the overall McDonald's personnel make-up: Half of McD's restaurant managers are women and, according to the press information I'm given, McD's trains more minorities than any other employer.
Also cool is the fact that nearly 60 per cent of top management positions in McDonald's Corporation are held by people who started as crew members in restaurants. Pam Dentino, a trainee from River Forest, Illinois, whose bubbly gushings were leaving her gasping for breath, testified, "I love the customers, I love dealing with my crew people - it is just home to me. It always has been, and it will be for a while. I've nowhere near outgrown it. My parents were kinda like, 'You're gonna outgrow this.' And I was like, 'God, you have no idea what this is - it's everything to me.' " Albert Dantzler, a trainee from Cleveland who began his McD's career at age 16, told me with button-popping pride, "I didn't want to go to a factory and work none to five and punch a clock and sit and do the same thing. Every day with McDonald's is a different experience."
Linda, a student from Singapore (where there are 34 McD's outlets, by the way), says, "People who are skeptical (about fast food as a career) are short-sighted. I don't think I'm going to stop at a store manager. It is not a dead end. This company doesn't offer you something fixed; it keeps on growing." In fact, Hamburger University's official colour is green because, I'm told, "When you're green you're growing, and when you're ripe you rot" (I'm gonna speculate what that means for McDonald's Corporation's official logo colour, red).
My last day at HU was graduation day, which began with the final exam in the morning. Following that was a 90 minute video presentation on the history of McDonald's, including a look back at their most memorable and moving TV commercials, which was a very big hit with the assembled student body. Personally, I left feeling this vague kind of sentimentality welling up inside me, and decided I was either getting in too deep with this assignment or I'd been hypnotized. Then, back in homeroom, with "Pomp and Circumstance" emanating from the auditorium speakers, students' names were called, and they made their way to the head of the class, where they were heartily congratulated by two faculty members. Some of the graduates embraced the professors, some brushed away tears. Finally, to the strains of Alice Cooper's "School's Out," everyone returned to their rooms to primp for the evening's gala banquet and awards ceremony.
These festivities took HU's feel-good, pep rally concept over the top. First, the dean's list was announced, and it amounted to about 50 people. Then came the winning Hot Hamburgers team, the three winning Lab-Challenge teams, the 21 winners of the Seminar Award, the Archie Award recipient, (i.e., the class valedictorian) and the three Gold Hat winners (awarded to the student in each homeroom who best exemplifies the McDonald's spirit). Just as it was occurring to me that their were more winners than non-winners, one of the professors began the closing speech by saying, "I'd like to remind the teams that didn't win that you're also winners" and that "there's never gonna be another Class 453." Duh.
Then I remembered the conversation I'd had with Professor Jim Janca, who informed me that the HU final exam doesn't determine whether someone "passes" or not: "We recognise that some people don't do well on tests, and test scores don't sell hamburgers. We place more emphasis on the total experience." In fact, despite all the nail-biting I saw during finals week and the subsequent hoopla and relieved satisfaction at graduation, it would seem no one has ever failed the HU "experience" or walked away without a BH. Oh. Okay.
When I got up the next morning, most of the students were already en route to their home bases, and I sat in the Lodge's deserted lobby, thinking of the success story that is McDonald's and the beaming grads returning home to destinations all over the globe with their Bachelors of Hamburgerology. And I realized how desperate I was to get back to the "real" world, where the streets are filthy, people loathe their jobs and nobody claps when somebody gets something right.