JOHN HIND listens to tales of Napoleonic expansion and vegetarian protesters from McDonald's UK head
'I don't want to brag in any shape or form,' says Paul Preston, president and chief executive officer of McDonald's UK, 'yet 190 million times this year someone's made a purchase at a UK McDonald's. Double that, add a piece, and you'll get how many people ate. So you can say that this guy fed 400 million.'
Preston has an office on the fifth floor of the chain's headquarters in East Finchley. There's a glorious all-green panorama behind his stocky American head and torso. The view is of Hampstead and Highgate Golf courses, Millionaires' Row and Hampstead Heath. This vista delights Preston even more now that, after an 11-year battle with local protesters, McDonald's has nearly got Hampstead in the bag. A site has been purchased on the High Street and, although there are still problems with residents over use of the building, Preston is full of bravado: 'I estimate we'll let rip in spring.'
Preston has assorted reasons to be chipper. Under his frenetic guidance, McDonald's British operation has expanded from 200 to 417 restaurants. Britain's craving for fast food meant McDonald's "beat the recession, even in London with the bombs, low tourism and Saddam.
Talking to Preston, you feel he has the measure of this country. The conquering strategy, backed by investment approaching £1 billion, has been Napoleonic in it's determination to impose the culture of one country on another. It's the small details that tell. For example: McDonald's British potato suppliers have been prevailed upon to grow the potato - Russet Burbank - which the chain's American scientists have decided is ideal for fries. McDonald's advertising has persuaded us to adopt the American habit of eating fast food en famille ('We really got mom and junior,' as Preston sinisterly puts it). For maximum flexibility, and to keep it's 3,000 British suppliers on their toes, the chain avoids written contracts - a very American way of doing things. British graduates and personnel who have risen through the highly competitive, instore ranks are tutored in such business techniques at Britain's own Hamburger University in Finchley, which is modelled on the original Hamburger University in Chicago.
The British arm of the huge 'caring, sharing' publicity drive has, meanwhile, attempted to show a human, sympathetic face behind the monolith: Ronald McDonald Homes (14 hostel units for parents of hospitalised children), and the McChild of Achievement Award have both come to Britain. There are programmes for schools and, recently, donations to Kew Gardens and support for 'Britain in Bloom' and UK Spring-Clean Day.
Only Grand Metropolitan gives McDonald's a gentle run for it's money. Since 1989, Grand Met has owned more than 200 fast-food outlets though it's acquisition of Wimpey and Burger King. What Grand Met lacks, of course, is McDonald's bizarre monomania. Grand Metropolitan has diverse interests, whereas McDonald devotes billions to the selling of a dozen or so cheap items of food and drink. But Preston has another watchword: 'We're awfully disciplined,' he says, 'more disciplined than anyone else on the high street.'
Preston cites McDonald's main problem here as 'an ageing population and menu boredom', but he still presides over more outlets than any other European McDonald's. Things are particularly good in London.
On Preston's desk is a letter from the Governor of the Tower of London saying the new McDonald's makes the place look 'better than ever'. Recently, Preston won victory on appeal over change of use regulations on 187 Oxford Street, which - with 185 - 'will overtake the Strand as the busiest store in Britain. We've just got Wandsworth Bridge and, after many years, Kingston, and...'
There isn't a McDonald's adjacent to Harrods. 'Not yet! I need to be in Heathrow, not just outside. I'm still not in Richmond - some planning laws I can live without. Don't spread it around, but Covent Garden's on the cards. We finally got King's Road, of course. Our drive-ins are going great guns - although I have to tell ya I was worried.
The City's always of interest. The Light Railway knocked out our King William Street store, but Houndsditch does fabulous trade. There's a huge number of people in the City from the earliest hours, and, my goodness boy, they do love McDonald's!'
Paul Preston was born to working class parents in Ohio. (He believes that 'McDonald's employees have ketchup in their veins,' and he certainly has a rosy glow in his cheeks.)
Preston became the manager of the Woolwich McDonald's in 1974 - 'the three thousandth restaurant, system-wise, and the UK launchpad'. A thousand executives travelled from America for the Brit-busting opening. Preston recalls the early days with nostalgia. 'I remember than no one bought food. One man had a cup of tea six times, and people asked what french fries were. I still remember the cleaners, Mary and Gladys - they couldn't get the wiles to shine properly because of bad grouting. It was a devil.
Woolwich is still very dear to me. Demographically, the town parallelled the country. We decided that if we could crack Woolwich, we could crack Britain. We thought, if we fight this battle we'll win. And there's no doubt now who won.'
Ten years later Preston became McDonald's big cheese(burger) in the UK. 'I expected to stay max three years, but I've stayed 17. It's a beautiful country. I just wish it had Arizona heat.'
Preston hopes to oversee at least 50 openings a year into the next century. 'We won't be far from 1,000 in the year 2000,' he beams. 'We'll be in every major town, on motorways, in more airports. I think hospitals offer an interesting opportunity, although it's early days. We're approaching billion investment here. We're doing OK.'
Does Preston envisage a time when Britons no longer make McJokes and McSnide Remarks about his super-efficient efforts? 'We knew we were going to generate some laughter,' he says smoothly, "but that's no big deal. I still contend that the British people are very polite. I mean, you queue for the bus and the bank, and McDonald's has a similar ordered courtesy. All we're saying is: "We exist because you came through that door." We're going to give you Qualitycleanlinessvaluespeedbeefbreadmilkpotatoes. We don't walk on water, but by God, we're not rabid, buddy, and we don't bite!'
It was brothers Mac and Dick McDonald who opened the first 'Speedee Shakes and Burgers' drive-in called McDonald's in 1953, in St Bernadino, US. They intended it to be a one-off. They were persuaded to sell the name to entrepreneur Ray A Kroc, who in 1984 served the 50 billionth hamburger to a presumably irritated Dick McDonald. McDonald's went international in the 70s, a new store opening every other day, reaching London after Holland, Germany, France and Sweden. The multinational now has 12,500 stores 'system-wise' and has sold 91 billion burgers since McCreation. Yet back in America, 1990-91 marked the chain's first drop in domestic sales. Abroad is the only place McDonald's can go. Preston frequently meets the McDonald's heads from the other European countries. 'We meet to discuss where we can buy cheaper paper cups and stuff. I have it easier than some of my continental colleagues. The Anglo-American trade-links helped with importation of equipment, but property prices are so much higher in Britain than anywhere else except New York. I'm paying £495,000 rent in Leicester Square!'
Paul Preston has taken the persistent criticism of McDonald's in his stride: he sued Channel 4 for it's documentary, Jungleburger, and won damages. Legal proceedings are pending against two members of the 'anarchist' group, London Greenpeace. Preston tensely told me: 'There is no connection between McDonald's and beef grazing in the rainforests or any destruction thereof.'
He regularly meets protest groups ('Burger Off'), council planning officers ('many act emotionally rather than professionally').
Ups and small downs. Fire bombs in Milton Keynes: a heroin racket discovered in the Marble Arch store: the false rumour, in UK military bases, that McDonald's was a secret IRA funder (due to the wage-slip acronym: Individual Retirement Account). Last year a protester was prosecuted for emptying several sacks of litter on to the floor of Earls Court McDonald's. It has been estimated that fast-food emporia are the source of 20 per cent of London's street litter. 'Litter is certainly the biggest complaint,' admits Preston, 'but I've waited at many a traffic light in London and seen people my age throw candy wrappers from their car windows - I've seen it as many times as Carter has peanuts! It's a British social problem, and given all the talent you guys have here, I'm surprised you haven't conquered it.
The catering business is tough but some us get an awful big charge out of it. No ones going to take Piccadilly Circus off the face of the world - that's a goddam institution of humanity. Being around it has to be a good thing.'
What's that on the wall, just above the Egg McMuffin sculpture?
Just as one begins to wonder if this back-to-nature stuff isn't the exact opposite of the McDonald's ethos, Preston adds a coda, 'I don't really agree with that! But it's fun to think about, isn't it?...Now that king salmon over there was caught by my daughter in Lake Michigan when she was ten years old. We brought it back with us. She was 12 by the time we got it back from the taxidermist.
In the time it takes a British taxidermist to stuff a salmon, Paul Preston feeds 800 million.