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09/04/01 . Bellos, Borger, Harding, Howard . The Guardian . UK
Every day, on average, 4.2 new McDonald's will open across the world. Tomorrow the golden arches will light up over branches in Brazil, Greece, India and the US. Will Ronald McDonald be welcomed as a provider of tasty, cheap food - or resisted as a symbol of rampant globalisation? And, more importantly, what exactly is in a Maharaja Mac? Our correspondents found out.
Cachoeirinha, Brazil: a vote of confidence
When Brazilian footballer Ronaldo and his wife Milene were choosing a name for their child they wanted something that sounded like the father's name but was a little different. "We chose Ronald," says Milene, "It fitted perfectly. And also, Ronaldo and I love eating at McDonald's."
Since Ronald McDonald arrived in Brazil 22 years ago he has made a big impression on Latin America's largest nation. Brazil has 554 McDonald's restaurants, a similar amount of McDonald's ice-cream kiosks (the number varies according to the season), and the total is growing at a rate of 70 restaurants and 50 kiosks a year.
Tomorrow, a Drive-Thru outlet is due to open in Cachoeirinha, a satellite town of Porto Alegre in the south of the country. It is part of the second wave of McDonald's' expansion in Brazil. The first was to the main cities. The second is a push inland.
A big party has been arranged that will include musical performances with gaucho men and women in regional dress and, less traditionally, a belly-dancer. The local priest, Father Dionisio Kemper, will bless the establishment. Four hundred customised metal badges have been ordered to share between the employees and special guests.
"Even though McDonald's is a multinational," says Shioji Honda, the 29-year-old manager, "people see it as a local company. It helps the whole community, with local labour and jobs. It unites the community."
A week ago there was nothing at the site along Cachoeirinha's main street where McDonald's now stands. Then the prefab building with cream walls and a blue roof was delivered and put up in 72 hours. The highest point visible in the town is a 16m pole supporting a pair of golden arches; one more town colonised by the Big Mac.
Honda interviewed more than 350 young people for the 53 jobs. "Everyone wants to work at McDonald's," he adds. McDonald's is well-known for not insisting on previous experience and is an established route into the workplace for tens of thousands of young Brazilians. About two thirds of McDonald's' 36,000 employees started their working lives there. Almost 90% are under 21.
When the branch opens it will be the first job for Márcia de Oliveira Trinidade, aged 18. "My friend worked in a McDonald's in a shopping centre, she said I should do it. She said it's a really good place to work. Most of the others are my age, it's a good atmosphere."
Márcia's starting salary is £36 a month for a four-hour day, which works out at less than 45p an hour. It doesn't sound like much but the national minimum wage is £49 for twice as many hours. Many entire families survive - albeit in abject misery - on the minimum wage. A Big Mac costs £1.16, meaning that Márcia has to work more than three hours to be able to afford one.
Brazilian McDonald's uses exclusively Brazilian ingredients and has developed its own products, such as passion fruit juice, banana tart and guava sauce for ice cream. Brazilians have also embraced the Americanisms, abbreviating a Big Mac to a "Big" and introducing terms such as McDuplo, McMilla and McOferta. Quarter Pounder has been officially adapted to the nearest word, Quarterao - a bizarre choice since its literal meaning is a person with a quarter black blood.
Brazil is the world's largest Catholic country, and over Easter the Cachoeirinha branch will - like the others in the chain - be promoting its line of McFish. Even so, Father Dionisio says he has no intention of staying on after his blessing.
Brazil is no stranger to anti-imperialist sentiment. The area around Porto Alegre, in fact, was the focus for violent protests against biochemical giant Monsanto's genetically modified soya seeds this year. Yet McDonald's has not attracted the same anti-globilisation resentment.
The widespread poverty and unfair distribution of wealth in Brazil has meant that the decision to open a McDonald's store in the town is seen as a welcome vote of confidence. Edir Oliveira, a local leftwing councillor in Cachoeirinha, said he was proud that the chain was coming to Cachoeirinha. "There is lots of unemployment here. The more work that comes the better."
Before each McDonald's opens, there is usually a family night, in which parents of the employees are asked to attend the restaurant and be served a meal by their children. "This is very emotional. In Brazil most first jobs are part of the informal economy. It's important for a mother to see that her daughter has an honest job," says Ayrton Kanitz, a McDonald's spokesperson.
The growth of McDonald's in Brazil has been in parallel with the fate of the currency, which after years of hyperinflation is now stable. The effect was to give the poorer sectors of society more disposable income.
This is perhaps best seen in a favela shantytown in Rio de Janeiro, which this year became the first in Brazil to have its own branch of McDonald's. As well as demonstrating the urbanisation of slum areas, it shows that McDonald's is the multinational best-placed to step in where others fear to tread.
The favela branch does so well that it does equivalent business to the kiosk at the glitzy Barra shopping mall three miles away, which is frequented by the richest sector of Rio's population.
In Porto Alegre, where Carlos Henrique Silva Alvares looks after seven outlets, he has seen a move from McDonald's opening in shopping centres to less heavily urban areas like Cachoeirinha. "The Drive-Thru is an evolution. Before, cars were a luxury. Now they are a necessity."
The McDonald's identikit Drive-Thru restaurants may look plastic and ugly, yet they can hardly be said to disfigure places such as Cachoeirinha, which are often randomly planned and an untidy mess of odd-sized buildings anyway. Cachoeirinha is only 35 years old, making it younger than McDonald's itself.
One McDonald's promotion that has gone down especially well in Brazil are the McHappy Days, in which Big Mac sales are donated to cancer charities. In a McHappy Day last year 5.3m Big Macs were sold - making the Brazilian McHappy Day the most successful in the world. "Brazilians really go in for this type of solidarity," said Honda.
Maryland, US: still hungry for more
It is hard to imagine anything less noteworthy than the appearance of a new McDonald's franchise in Solomons, Maryland. The construction of the red-roofed white box alongside its rival and twin, Burger King, completes the normal landscape of contemporary America. Its absence is more cause for comment than its presence.
The Solomons McDonald's near the end of a peninsular jutting out into Chesapeake Bay, is the 12,900th in the US, approximately (McDonald's head office is not entirely sure of the exact figure). Yet the market is clearly not yet saturated. Forty six years after its founding, the fast-food chain is still growing in its home country. In a crowded and competitive market, amid changing consumer tastes and trends, 175 new branches in the US last year. According to a new book about the fast food industry, more American schoolchildren can identify the McDonald's golden arches than can recognise the Christian crucifix.
The country's newest McDonald's is set at one end of a strip mall, a line of generic shops that give the US highways their uniform appearance. Preparations were underway up to the last hour before the ritual blessing from Ronald McDonald, the company's ever-smiling mascot. This will be one of three actors who inhabit Ronald's form at any one time across the country, who appear at outlets and hospital wards where they trigger ecstasy among small children. Before Ronald's coming, there is much to be done. Inside the restaurant, the staff are sampling the french fries while county inspectors ensure that hygiene standards are met. Outside, a crew of landscape artists are on their hands and knees ensuring the plot conforms to a rigid set of rules governing how many bushes and how much lawn should surround each restaurant.
Steve Bugge, the crew foreman, said his firm maintains 150 such McDonald's gardens in the Virginia and Maryland region with occasional flashes of individualism; a myrtle tree here or a yew bush there, but essentially, Mr Bugge says, "they are all the same blueprint".
He has been landscaping McDonald's outlets for 19 years, and each year, he insists, "they get a little bit better, a little more responsive to the consumer".
The Solomons restaurant does indeed show distinctive touches of the new century - a lot more glass and light than in former years, and comfortable cushioned seats. But the place would nevertheless be immediately recognisable to Ray Kroc, McDonald's legendary Founding Father. The Kroc story, reverently told on the McDonald's website, parallels the extraordinary rise of fast-food in America and the consequent transformation of a culture. Back in 1954, Kroc was a salesman peddling milk-shake mixing machines, when he heard about a hamburger stand in San Bernardino in California, which was using eight of his products, turning out 40 shakes simultaneously.
He flew out to witness this phenomenon and found a pair of brothers running a perfectly synchronised operation, consistently turning out the best french fries Kroc had ever tasted. The brothers were called Mac and Dick McDonald, and Kroc offered to buy their franchise rights. The rest is culinary history. The McDonald's chain appeared just as national life was being transformed by the consumer-driven economy. Americans suddenly had more mobility and money, and less time. Ray Kroc's company exploded like a chain reaction.
McDonald's and its imitators gave the people exactly what they wanted - and the fast food industry consequently grew into a juggernaut. Americans now spend $120bn a year on hamburgers, hot dogs and pizza, more than on colleges, computers or new cars. One in four Americans eats a fast-food meal every day.
But the nation is paying the price of satisfying its own cravings. The "perfect" chip engineered and mass produced by Ray Kroc turned out to be the perfect vehicle for delivering tasty fat, as did the 20%-fat ground beef in fast-food burgers.
McDonald's and the other fast-food chains are now being blamed for the US obesity rate, the highest in the world - an epidemic affecting half the country's adults and a quarter of its children. According to an excoriating analysis published this year in the book Fast Food Nation, McDonald's is also the lead culprit behind many of the ills besetting corporate America - from the chronic low wages and benefits paid to its staff to the uniformity its mammoth purchasing power has imposed on the countryside.
"The low price of the fast-food hamburger does not reflect its real cost," Eric Schlosser, the book's author argues. "Profits of fast-food chains have been made possible by losses imposed on the rest of society." Fast Food Nation has caused a moderate stir in the national press, but in Solomons, Maryland, the tangible promise of the golden arches still looms higher than its theoretical costs. Even Suzie Price, the manager of the neighbouring Burger King, says her new competitor, was a plus for the neighbourhood.
"Its more jobs, and more money in people's pockets and more choices of what to buy with it," she says, pointing to the perfect symmetry of the industry in which she works. It provides cheap meals for the increasing number of people working in low-paid service jobs, like those offered by the new McDonald's. It completes its own circle.
Vikas Puri, India: an aspirational
Rising like a yellow and orange cathedral into the air, the new cinema complex at Vikas Puri has a lot to offer. There are three giant screens showing English and Hindi movies. There is state-of-the-art air-conditioning, a feature that works even when the power in Delhi fails, which it often does.
And there is the latest branch of McDonald's: India's 27th McDonald's restaurant and the world's 29,000 and something-th. The McDonald's golden arches, one of capitalism's most instantly recognisable symbols, have not yet been erected above the front entrance. But they soon will be.
We are in suburban Delhi, some 40 minutes by car away from the centre of town. Vikas Puri is an anonymous sort of place: its streets full of homeopathic doctors, suit and dupatta houses, and unfinished flyovers. The two-storey restaurant is nearly ready. The kitchen is pretty much done and the ice-making machine has arrived. Women labourers in saris are busy hefting the last floor tiles into place, carried on their heads in baskets. The ground floor is enveloped in drilling and banging. Upstairs, a woman is busy scrubbing what will soon be the dining area. She looks thoroughly pissed off.
In many ways, it is appropriate that McDonald's should have chosen this as the latest staging post in a seemingly endless journey of expansion. Vikas Puri is pleasantly mundane. And like many other parts of urban India, it has a lot of cows. But none of them will find their way onto the trays of hungry diners when the branch opens next week.
When McDonald's came to India almost five years ago following economic liberalisation, the decision was taken – uniquely – not to serve beef. The cow has been revered on the subcontinent for thousands of years. Local managers reasoned correctly that any attempt to offer cooked cow would have been greeted with firebombs from irate Hindu protesters. Because of Muslim sensitivities, pork was off the menu too. That left chicken and lamb – the ingredients of McDonald's flagship Maharaja Mac (which, I can reveal, tastes remarkably similar to the original Big Mac).
McDonald's started modestly in India. The company felt that if it could succeed in a country that did not eat beef, it could succeed anywhere. Using a local marketing strategy developed elsewhere, McDonald's offered distinctly Indian flavours – such as the tantalising McAloo Tikki burgers and vegetarian pizza puffs. "Beef was a complete no no from the start," Vikram Bakshi, McDonald's managing director in India, says. "We have to be sensitive to the culture here. Using beef would have taken us away from 80% of our customers."
But there are other differences, too. McDonald's in India is only really frequented by the well-off. As such, tucking into a Maharaja Mac at lunchtime is a strangely aspirational experience: all the other diners are well-dressed, have nice table manners, and often spend long periods talking into their mobile phones.
A lot of teenagers use McDonald's as an illicit venue to meet their boyfriends/girlfriends, still a tricky operation in middle-class India. "Many of the young people who use our restaurants, especially the young women, are in jeans," Mr Bakshi says. "They are superficially westernised but they are still very much focused on their studies and on their parents."
Those behind the counter doling out the McChicken Kebab burgers, meanwhile, are also educated. "We get a lot of people doing law MBAs working for our organisation," he adds. It is not clear whether this top-end strategy has succeeded. McDonald's hopes to expand to 80 branches in India by 2003.
But the figure is tiny compared to the 260 restaurants already open in China, or the 3,000 in Japan. The main difficulty is that while India potentially offers a market of 1bn people, most of them are far too poor to ever afford a Maharaja Mac – not least the 300 labourers currently putting the finishing touches to Vikas Puri's Notre Dame-like superplex. The workers earn around 100 rupees a day (£1.50), just enough to get them a burger, medium soft drink and medium fries. It is this and other somewhat embarrassing facts that have been seized on by anti-globalisation protesters, who argue that McDonald's food is "bad", "expensive" and "un-Indian".
"India has a very ancient food culture. We are not going to change to American patterns of consumption. McDonald's will never become part of mass culture here because most people can't afford to eat there," says Dr Vandana Shiva, director of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology.
This view was echoed by Satish Kapaur, who runs a modest food stall directly opposite Vikas Puri's new McDonald's. "When the cinema opens in May, more people will come and eat at my stall. Only the rich can afford McDonald's," he says. Mr Kapaur offers me a plate of rice, chana masala and chilli. The cost of this delicious meal was a mere 10 rupees (15p).
Critics of McDonald's in India say the firm is not making a profit. Certainly, the company globally has had a poor first quarter – largely because of consumer fears over BSE and problems with the euro. Anti-McDonald's campaigners would say the general public is growing more discerning. But in Vikas Puri the sums seem to work out. "We expect 5,000 people to visit on weekdays and 10,000 on Saturdays and Sundays," the complex's marketing manager, Rajesh Chauhau, says. "We expect middle-class sort of people to come here. Personally, I like Maharaja Macs," he adds.
Greece: getting the fast-food habit
Tomorrow, in the hectic heart of the Greek capital, McDonald's opens its first ever Olympic Games theme restaurant. Between now and the start of the Athens 2004 Games, Greeks and tourists will chomp their way through thousands of tons of "Olympic burgers" as famous Olympians past and present stare down at them from the walls of a restored neo-classical building on Omonia square. The fast-food giant became a global sponsor of the Games in 1997, a deal it recently renewed until the end of 2004, to the tune of some $50 m. McDonald's will be the exclusive retail food service provider for the 2002 Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City and the 2004 summer Games in Greece.
The new restaurant in Athens is also the spearhead of an "aggressive local development plan" over the next three years that will see the multinational chain double the number of - mostly franchised - outlets in the country to 100 by August 2004, an investment of around 18bn drachmas (£33m). The company sold some 5m Big Macs and 2,300,000 Cheeseburgers in Greece last year - not bad for a population of just 10-and-a-half million.
Greece's first McDonalds opened in 1991 on Syntagma square, opposite the Greek parliament building - an omen to the MPs looking out that the forces of globalisation were finally knocking on Greece's door. (Wendys had actually made it into Athens a couple of months before the Big Mac.)
Greeks have taken to fast-food with such relish that the burger is now as much a part of daily life here as traditional souvlaki and pitta. McDonalds is not even the market leader; in an increasingly competitive industry, that position is held by the Greek chain Goodys, which enjoyed more than a 50% market share last year (McDonalds has 35%.)
Fast-food chains, both domestic and foreign, are reaping the benefits of two decades of increased prosperity in Greece. Changing lifestyles have meant changing diet in this formerly impoverished Balkan nation.
As nutritionists in the West have been extolling the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet - fish, salads, pulses, olive oil, vegatables - Greeks have more than doubled their consumption of meat and sugar. And according to a recent survey by the Consumers' Institute in Athens the share of fast food in Greeks' daily diet has increased by a Mcwhopping 213% in the last five years.
McDonalds' entry into the Greek market has not been easy. Its image as the battering ram of unchecked, Americanized globalisation did little to convince suspicious Greeks who still blame the US for its backing of the Colonel's junta that ruled Greece from 1967 to 1974. Indeed, McDonalds restaurants in Athens have been the target of several firebomb attacks by anti-Western protestors.
The company's PR was also less than sure-footed. A couple of years ago, at the height of the Aegean cold war with neighboring Turkey, it pulled a TV advertising campaign after complaints that it exploited a sensitive regional situation. The offensive ad opens in the communications room of a Greek navy frigate. The officer manning the radar suddenly spots scores of UFOs heading towards the ship. Except that they're Big Macs. The captain springs into action. "Eat them!" he barks.
Part of the problem for Mcdonald's was that the Greek operation was essentially being run from the UK. That meant that the multinational company that prides itself on adapting to local cultures, was out of touch with the Greek market.
"We just didn't really know how to talk to our customers, our business partners, or the media," says Marie Agaliotis, the McDonald's communications manager in Greece. The breakthrough came in 1997, with the decision to establish an executive office in Greece, staffed by Greeks. The menu was then "sensitised" to local mores. "Instead of being regarded as a faceless multinational, McDonald's began to bend to the Greek culture," Agaliotis says.
It introduced the McSarakosti meal for lent, the 40 days before Orthodox Easter when devout Greeks are supposed to avoid meat and dairy products. Comprising such items as spring rolls, fried shrimps, and vegetable nuggets, the McSarakosti was - and is - a big hit. "It gave us a Greek identity," says Agaliotis. "Before, people liked the product but hated the company. Now they can see we do have Greek interests at heart."
But opponents are still vocal. Newspaper columnists bemoan the Mcdonaldsisation of Athens. In the week that Zonars, one of the capitals most historic coffee shops, closed, McDonalds opened its 48th store at the new international airport. Writing in the conservative Kathimerini newspaper, K I Angelopoulos despaired at the increasing number of "fast-food fans in Greece - busy people who stand and hastily drink coffee out of paper cups...the nouveaux riches of powerful Greece: the cunning neo-barbarian proponents of globalisation."
Facts and figures
• Everyday 0.5% of the worlds population visits a McDonald's.
• The largest toy distributor in the world is McDonald's.
• There are currently more than 23,300 McDonald's restaurants in 120 countries.
• In 1996, McDonald's overtook Coca-Cola as the best-known brand in the world.
• One out of three of all cows in the US used for food purposes (beef) are used by McDonald's.
• One in eight Americans has worked for McDonald's.
• The average McDonald's Big Mac bun has 198 sesame seeds on it.
The Mac index: The price of a Big Mac ($US)
United States: 2.55
Euro area: 2.44
Saudi Arabia: 2.40
South Korea: 2.37
Hong Kong: 1.31
South Africa: 1.19
• Source: The Economist using
McDonald’s’ price data (January 2001).