There’s a revolution happening in fast food. No exaggeration, the tide has turned and it won’t be turning back. The big daddy of fast food, the mighty McDonald’s and its contemporaries are in a quandary. With declining sales last year McDonald’s closed more stores than it opened in the US…for the first time. In ever growing numbers something has shifted inside us. Our post-crash mindsets are now in search of better quality products with values, not just value, and the food industry in particular is finding it hard to adapt. Let’s not misunderstand this. McDonald’s is still selling us millions of burgers every year. 26 million to be precise, from its 14,000 US restaurants alone.
Ask yourself how you feel about McDonald’s, Burger King or Subway? Has your attitude changed and what changed it? How often do you eat there now? And, perhaps more to the point, how do you feel about being seen carrying those little brown bags of shame? Shame, yes that is surely part of the problem. Where once the glowing red and yellow signs represented a sunny, modern American lifestyle, now they have come to represent bad health, obesity, the poor…or all three.
Are we even allowed to say ‘the poor’ now? Low socio-economic status seems such a waste of time. To say that many of these customers are poor is not to put them down, or to suggest that they are trapped there through idleness or ignorance. Single mothers with a family to feed are faced with a simple choice: they can spend $10 on healthy vegetables and other ingredients that need peeling, preparing, cooking and, let’s face it, flavouring, or they can spend $5 on a Happy Meal. I always come back to the fact that humans are a logical species and faced with that choice the Happy Meal wins hands down. It even includes a drink and a toy, for god’s sake! Lentil soup is no competition.
But the news just gets worse. This endless gorging on high fat, high sugar, high sodium foods is not just disastrous for our health, it may well be the major cause of climate change too. Watch the powerful and persuasive ‘Cowspiracy’ documentary for the detail but some of the figures are astonishing:
Animal agriculture consumes 30% of the world’s water. One cow eats 140-150 pounds of water intensive grain and drinks anything up to 50 gallons of water…per day! It takes a shocking 660 gallons of water to produce one quarter pounder. Animal agriculture is also responsible for 91% of the destruction of the Brazilian rainforest and it seems that anyone who points this out over there is very quickly ‘disappeared’.
As ‘Cowspiracy’ elegantly illustrates, it makes a mockery of eco shower heads and rubber bricks in your cistern.
But things are changing. As we learn more and more about how our diet is affecting our own, aswell as our planet’s, health more of us are joining the ranks of the Worried Well. Those of us in employment, the urban gym rats, the ambitious, the concerned, the conscientious and those that believe they have some sort of an investment in the future are shunning the big chains and choosing instead to lunch at Sweetgreen, Dig Inn or Chop’d: small chains that focus on seasonality and local produce. No longer is McDonald’s in competition with Burger King. It’s these small ‘artisan’ brands that are grabbing market share from the big fast food brands in our busy urban centres. The ‘artisan revolution’ is happening right across the board: whether it’s beer, bread, coffee, chocolate or cheese, the big corporations are losing sales to small batch producers with their ‘authentic’ values and health halos. Sales at the big brands are still gargantuan in comparison, of course, but we are witnessing a David and Goliath battle that’s being played out, not in high production advertising, but on the far more treacherous battleground of social media.
The response has been fascinating. McDonald’s, the biggest and by far the cleverest, is leading the counter attack and now sources its chickens free from antibiotics even branding its chicken sandwich ‘artisan’ and who can blame it since the definition of this well worn word is so woolly. It also recently replaced margarine with butter on its Egg McMuffin. This small and rather obvious decision sends seismic shockwaves throughout the food industry simply due to the enormous numbers involved. It means that McDonald’s will increase its dairy use by nearly six hundred million pounds of milk each year…enough to produce every pound of butter the US exports.
McDonald’s is testing new formats too. For example, it’s currently trialling a bespoke burger here in Manhattan under the ‘create your taste’ banner. I tried it. It’s actually really good. You build your own burger, with a big choice of extras, toppings and even buns, on a giant iPad. After you swipe to pay you pick up a GPS disc so that they can deliver your meal straight to your table. It avoids having to deal with the sullen counter staff for one thing and certainly gives Five Guys and Shake Shack a run for their money.
It’s important that we don’t get over agitated by the numbers everyone throws at the big brands. Back in 2001 Fast Food Nation shocked us with plenty of that. The sad reality is that if a billion of us want chicken for dinner then, one way or another, a billion chickens have to die. If we go back to rearing chickens and cows in idyllic, free range conditions there simply isn’t enough planet for us all to eat meat. Sensible and well meaning pleas for us to quell our carniverous desires will not work. Even recent evidence that meat eating can cause cancer had little effect. We have become meat addicts and only when the price of meat starts to become truly prohibitive will we cut back. The most likely scenario is that the middle classes will ‘do the right thing’ by eating only high quality hand-reared animals once or twice a week, leaving low cost protein, along with the high sugar intake, to those who can’t afford anything better. Of course, this will only exacerbate the fact that the poor are more likely to be obese with all the health consequences that entails.
As with so many areas of consumer behaviour at the moment, we are witnessing a rebalancing and ultimately it’s good news. We are already seeing the big chains react with more ethical processes and that is sure to gather momentum as we learn more about good and bad nutrition. Prices will have to increase to accommodate these changes but a Meal Deal will always be just that, good value. Perhaps the biggest issue will have to be faced by Coca Cola and the big drinks corporations…but that’s another story.
McDonald’s has a unique and very direct relationship with its customers, unlike so many of the giant food corporations. Its influence and sheer buying power is sure to gradually fine tune fast food to be better produced, slower and more ethical wherever it can. At the other end of the spectrum high quality fast casual brands will have to face a different dilemma: how big should they get? In other words, how big can David grow before he becomes Goliath?