We Must Build An Enormous McWorld In Times Square, A Xanadu Representing A McDonald's From Every Nation
The first time I wrote a letter to the president of McDonald's it was about breakfast. I'm not a huge fan of most of the lunch and dinner options at McDonald's but I love Sausage Egg & Cheese McMuffins and I love hash browns. I have gone into that McDonald's in Union Square right around when they close down breakfast and put in low-ball bids on the whole remaining hash brown rack. "What do you got left hash browns-wise? Ten? Twelve? I'll give you five bucks for the lot." It's a great hangover remedy. Giant Coke, tons of ice, bag of hash browns. Why can't they serve hash browns all day? They come out of the freezer, a McDonald's employee dumps them into a robot, and the robot cooks them, just like the fries, right? So when I suggested they serve breakfast all day, I expected they would do it. What's the big deal? When I wrote to Starbucks to ask them to serve more savory breakfast foods, they did it. (I sent them a link to John Thorne's stone classic "In Defense of the Savory Breakfast."1 It's worth reading just for the bit where Thorne blithely tosses off a delightfully Safirian "Eggs McMuffin" reference, miraculously published before the famous Onion joke.) When I wrote to every other fast food company, they at least would send back some coupons or something. McDonald's just said, "We'll look into it." Here we are, years later, and you still can't get hash browns after breakfast ends.
So that's why I'm taking a different approach with my current McDonald's dream. I figure if a bunch of nerds on Facebook can get Betty White onto "Saturday Night Live," together we can make my McDream a McReality. I would like to introduce you to a concept I call "McWorld."
The details of how I imagine McWorld have changed over the years, but there are a few constants:
• McWorld is a giant McDonald's flagship store.
• McWorld serves food from all the different McDonald's menus from around the world.
• McWorld is located in Times Square.2
Sometimes, I see it like Epcot Center: there'd be a central courtyard, maybe a water feature (McOcean or something), and surrounding it would be a variety of pavilions, each replicating the McDonald's experience from a different country. Pop over to Taiwan for a McRice burger (the rice, oddly, is formed into cakes that replace the buns, not the fillings), back to Brazil for a side of nachos, and wash it all down with a frosty cane-sugar Coke from Mexico.
The way I've been thinking about it lately, though, is that it's split into two or three different levels.
The central attraction of the ground floor level is a huge mega-menu that lists every item from every McDonald's in the world, because this McDonald's serves ALL of them. There would probably have to be touch screen gadgets to help you navigate the menu. There would have to be whole screens just dedicated to the soda possibilities. A concierge would offer suggestions. Celebrities on the iPad menus would have their own "meals" combining favorites from home ("Manu Ginóbili says 'Try the medialunas!'") with different stuff for a unique combination ONLY available at McWorld. You could get the India-specific Chicken Mexican Wrap (“A traditional Mexican soft flat bread that envelops crispy golden brown chicken encrusted with a Mexican Cajun coating, and a salad mix of iceberg lettuce, carrot, red cabbage and celery, served with eggless mayonnaise, tangy Mexican Salsa sauce and cheddar cheese.” Wherever possible, the menu items' descriptions should reflect local English style). Maybe a bowl of Malaysian McDonald's Chicken Porridge or The McArabia Grilled Kofta, available in Pakistan and parts of the Middle East. You should watch this McArabia ad for the Middle Eastern-flavored remix of the "I'm Lovin' It" song if for nothing else.
The Chicken Mexican Wrap is an example of my favorite type of McDonald's menu item: it is only available in a country that is not the USA, and invokes an additional foreign place in its name. The double indirection is great in the same way round-trip machine translations or ordering Japanese spaghetti at those places on St. Mark's is great. In Germany, McDonald's sold a "Honolulu Chicken Sandwich" (with "Maui Cheese Potatoes"). Finland has a salsa-topped burger called El Maco.
Similarly, McDonald's has offered a "Big Xtra Brazil" burger in Germany, and, in Europe, a "Grilled Texas Bagel." (Texas. Bagel. That's like… the part in Sneakers when Ben Kingsley is like A COMPUTER MATCHED YOU, TYPICAL STEPHEN TOBOLOWSKY CHARACTER, WITH YOU, LADY CHARACTER WHOSE NAME I CAN'T REMEMBER, BUT OBVIOUSLY NO COMPUTER WOULD SET YOU UP ON A DATE WITH STEPHEN TOBOLOWSKY, except I'm Ben Kingsley and the German McDonald's is that lady and she's trying to convince us she knows anything about America. Also the Texas Bagel comes with Broccoli Cheese nuggets.)
In Japan they have a whole menu of "Big America" burgers and they're for a limited time only. One year you get the Miami Burger, which has tortilla chips on it for some reason, the next, the Beverly Hills Burger, topped with an equally mysterious Caesar dressing and egg. The Idaho Burger had a HASH BROWN on top, but that one makes some sense to me (and it sounds awesome).
Spam and eggs from Hawaii, lobster rolls (that's The McHomard in Montreal!) and blueberry shakes from Maine. Montreal also has poutine. (Poutine with McDonald's FRIES?!!? THAT IS PROBABLY CRAZY!!!) I could go on and on about the mega menu. I could explain how it will look like the fast food place in Cloud Atlas the movie except grander. But you can imagine all that. You got the basic idea. You would just gaze upon the Big Menu for hours. The Wasabi Filet O'Fish. The Pizza McPuff. The McSatay. The Cypriot Shrimp Burger. The Croque McDo.
So let me bring you to the second floor, the grand pavilion. This is a complete McDonald's with a twist: every month or quarter or so, it is redesigned to provide the exact experience of dining in a different country's McDonald's. Did you know in some places, like including Paris and New York, McDonald's has experimented with table service? McDonald's in Germany serves beer but charges for condiment packets? Best of all, McDonald's in Hong Kong HAS WEDDINGS. ("The package includes a budget version of the usual trappings: a 'cake' made of stacked apple pies….") To ensure that the experience is exact, crews will have to be imported from local staff. Like, if you work at a bustling McCafé in Argentina, and you are the best, you might one day get called up for the big trip to New York, where you will stay in the McDorms, have a musical montage, and so on, all to make sure details like handing back the credit card with two hands in the Korean McDonald's get taken care of.3 Maybe sometimes it would also shift not just in space but in time. We could see what a typical McDonald's of 1970s Idaho was like. With actors dressed up and stuff. There would be segregation. Happy Meal toys based on racist cartoon characters. School kids would take trips there to learn Important Lessons.
Everyone talks about how globalization "McDonalds-izes" the world, but the funny thing about a place like New York is that you can get basically every kind of food *except* whatever they serve at the foreign outposts of our proud American chains. I would say I know more people who have had a lamb face salad from the Xi'an Famous Foods in the Golden Mall in Flushing than have had the poutine from the Montreal McDonalds, never mind something you really have to travel for, like a Chicken Maharaja Mac. Frequently, when I travel outside of the USA, my trips to the local McDonald's are the most genuinely foreign-feeling and disorienting part of the trip. I went to Paris last year. There are probably ten restaurants within walking distance of my old Williamsburg apartment that are varyingly obsessive imitations of Parisian bistros, Parisian bars, Parisian brasseries. If they were hung in museums, the wall texts next to them would say "School of Keith McNally." But there is not a single place in New York that serves a Croque McDo.
As I've thought about this more, I've started to consider that maybe we would have to cast actors to play customers as well. So like if you are in the Times Square representation of the Riyadh McDonald's, there are men trying to send pics to your phone via Bluetooth. Or if it's Singapore, loads of kids just have homework spread all over the place. In some countries where American stuff maintains its post-WWII aspirational branding, people go on fancy dates to McDonald's. Maybe when you went into the Hong Kong McDonald's, there would be actors staging a wedding at which you could be a guest: a happy couple, some parents, a drunk cousin or two.
I have a few less-practical dreams for McWorld. One is that there would be discontinued menu items available, like the McLean Deluxe, even though everyone says it was horrible. It's culturally significant. I am positive there was a commercial for the McLean Deluxe in around 1991 that went "The new McLean Deluxe: 100% DEF! ON TASTE!" and I maintain that this is what ultimately led to the famous Al Sharpton-led "Funeral For the Word Def" organized by Rick Rubin in 1993, but I can find no trace of this on the internet so it may have been a fever dream. It was, however, the official sandwich of the NBA.
The most important one of these call-back menu items would be Old School Fries, from before they switched from beef tallow to vegetable oil for frying. Everybody says those were insane. I mean, I must have had them when I was little but I don't remember.
My second impractical dream is for a special third floor "McDonald's Labs" experience. This wouldn't look like the rest of the store, or like a lab. It would probably be like…some insane beyond-Cloud-Atlas-The-Movie meets Gaultier-for-Luc Besson type thing. There are two thoughts behind this part: First, everyone who's ever worked in any kind of a restaurant that doesn't do proper family meals gets insanely sick of all the food on the menu, even when it's awesome, right? I came across this LiveJournal thread about what people who work at McDonald's cook for themselves for snacks and it is crazy. They're in a McDonald's. They only have a few minutes. They can't really cook, but they can heat stuff up certain ways, and blend it, and they have access to this weird mix of hyper-processed foods. They are so creative! It's like reading about the stuff people make in prison: "Scramble eggs in a 16oz cold cup with a fork." "Grill it under the 4:1 clamshell." Oreo shakes; Barbecue Tortilla Pizza; Chicken Caesar Wraps.
How much difference really is there between McDonald's super-processed food and molecular gastronomy? I used to know this guy who was a great chef, like his restaurant was in the Relais & Châteaux association and everything, and he'd always talk about how there were intense flavors in McDonald's food that he didn't know how to make. I've often thought that a lot of what makes crazy restaurant food taste crazy is the solemn appreciation you lend to it. If you put a Cheeto on a big white plate in a formal restaurant and serve it with chopsticks and say something like "It is a cornmeal quenelle, extruded at a high speed, and so the extrusion heats the cornmeal 'polenta' and flash-cooks it, trapping air and giving it a crispy texture with a striking lightness. It is then dusted with an 'umami powder' glutamate and evaporated-dairy-solids blend." People would go just nuts for that. I mean even a Coca-Cola is a pretty crazy taste.
So in this Labs area, McD's would invite like Ferran Adrià's brother to come cook food out of chicken nuggets sauce and whatnot. AND his staff of prep cooks would be like, the dudes from a regular McDonald's who invented the best off-menu snacks to eat. And they'd use them as starting points. Plus it would be hilarious to hear all the New Yorkers clamoring for tickets to the limited run of Andrew Carmellini at McDonald's Labs, it would be like how everyone lines up for Proenza Schouler for Target or whatever.
One time I met this crazy nut outside of a bar downtown who told me about his dream to flood the Lower East Side. This was years ago, before the Lower East Side had been flooded in living memory. He was gesturing up Orchard Street being like, "Picture this, water up to the second floor, there'd be an outside garden. Lettuce, onions, tomatoes, fucking SALAD FOR MILES!" My friends still say that every once in a while: "fucking SALAD FOR MILES!" I loved this dude and was really enjoying imagining all these punts and junks navigating Alphabet City or whatever but then he looked at me quite seriously and said, "Do you really like this idea? For serious? I've got a space up the street. We could go work on some posters or something." He kneaded his hands, looked down at his shoes. He felt genuinely rejected when I said no and went into a bar, but that's also what made me realize he was mental, not just someone who was good at imagining stuff.
I'm starting to feel like that guy here. Or at least I'm feeling aware of it. BUT STILL! SOCIAL MEDIA! CROWDSOURCING! THE WILL OF THE PEOPLE! Let's get McDonald's to do this! What? You want some overwrought metaphor action here? Okay: McDonald's is like America, and like America, it's been having a rough couple years, self-esteem-wise, PR-wise and even money-wise. Sure, it could try to be more like Starbucks with its new coffee push, or it could go more healthy, since it seems that's what people want now. But that's never going to work, just like America is never going to be a Scandinavian country or… whatever Randian hellhole the conservatives dream of (Somalia?). It's time for McDonald's to BOLDLY embrace the BEST PARTS of its McDonaldsness. For itself, for its fans, and for its country! [wild applause].
2 ↬ Finn Smith for this bit and really just generally.
3 ↬ Max Read for thinking of that part. The cultural customs immersion alone would make McWorld worth a visit!