Column: Diplomacy the McDonald's way

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, February 6, 2007

By Sebastian Mallaby

The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Last week brought fresh evidence of America’s fallen standing in the world: The BBC polled 26,000 people in 25 countries and found that less than a third regard U.S. influence as positive. But one symbol of America — a more enduring one than President Bush, by far — provided some more cheerful news. McDonald’s reported its strongest business results in three decades, and brisk sales in supposedly anti-American countries were a large part of the reason.

Ever since 1948, when Richard and Maurice McDonald opened the first fast-burger joint, the rise of their franchise has mirrored the rise of this country. The burgers themselves were a quintessential product of the melting pot: The habit of eating ground beef (raw, with onion juice) came to the United States via immigrants from Hamburg, while the idea of cooking the meat and encasing it in bread was made in America. The McDonald’s innovation was to precook the burgers and keep them ready under infrared lamps. The result — fast, unpretentious, reassuringly standard — suited a country on the move. You could eat a McDonald’s burger while keeping one hand on the steering wheel, and the franchise expanded with the interstate highway system.

As America’s car culture spread abroad, the hamburger followed. McDonald’s has opened restaurants in 119 countries and serves 52 million people daily; its appeal is inextricably bound up with the appeal of America. “If we eat hamburgers and potatoes for 1,000 years, we will become taller, our skin will become whiter and our hair blonder,” declared the enthusiastic boss of McDonald’s in Japan when the first Big Mac was served there 36 years ago. “We are an icon of the United States,” Denis Hennequin, the French chief of McDonald’s Europe, told The New York Times last spring. “When you enter a McDonald’s restaurant, you enter America.”

The appeal of the American way seems to transcend all boundaries. When McDonald’s opened its first restaurant in Kuwait in 1994, 15,000 customers formed a seven-mile line at the drive-through. China boasts 780 McDonald’s restaurants; and this month, in a Beijing suburb not far from the Ming tombs, McDonald’s pinned its prospects to the motorized middle class by unveiling a drive-through in a gas station. For a while in China, McDonald’s offered customers Asian-style wraps and considered marketing a “rice burger.” But now the company has realized that the Chinese want hamburgers.

Hyperpower invites backlash, and McDonald’s has not escaped such consequences. In 1999 a French farmer named Jose Bove ransacked a McDonald’s and became a hero of the anti-globalization left; last year a plastic Ronald McDonald was discovered dangling from a French bridge, a ball and chain fastened to an ankle. And yet, despite such indignities, Ronald’s clownish smile wins out. McDonald’s profit in France is second only to its profits in its home territory.

McDonald’s has also warded off more justified attacks from health advocates. “Fast Food Nation” — a series of magazine articles, then a book, then finally a movie — accused McDonald’s of making people fat, mistreating animals and abusing workers, shattering the hamburger’s air of reassuring decency. Besieged by its critics, the company suffered its first financial loss in 2002, and for a moment its hegemony seemed fragile. But then the empire struck back. After 44 consecutive months of sales growth, McDonald’s serves 6 million more customers a day than it did four years ago.

In ways both grim and inspiring, this recovery reflects American resilience. McDonald’s closed down lackluster outlets, shed jobs and pulled out of three countries. In the United States, the company drove its outlets more manically than ever. The “basic” operating hours of 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. are now passe; 90 percent of McDonald’s U.S. restaurants are open longer than that, and nearly 40 percent have become nonstop factories. Having catered first to a nation on the move, McDonald’s now caters to frazzled workaholics.

But McDonald’s has changed in more appealing ways as well — ways that reflect the problem-solving grit of American business. It has listened to its health critics and adapted: It sold 304 million pounds of mixed greens in 2005, and the U.S. operation claims to be the nation’s largest purchaser of apples. The company has bent over backward to demonstrate its interest in the environment and animal welfare; it has teamed up with the University of Miami to improve conditions for tomato pickers and with Conservation International to acquire its fish sustainably. Meanwhile, the franchise has kept up with evolving tastes: It has revamped the easy-wipe decor; its coffee is less watery.

American business succeeds in the world because it morphs, shape-shifts, learns from its mistakes; it is too paranoid, too anxious to please its customers, to stick with formulas that aren’t working. The question posed by last week’s BBC poll is whether American government can mimic that agility.

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Sebastian Mallaby is a member of The Washington Post’s editorial page staff.