The “most beautiful” McDonald’s in the US isn’t really in a McMansion

I’ve seen several references to this story about the Long Island McDonald’s that is in a 1795 house. A few details about the location:

Known as the Denton House, its bones date back to 1795, when it was constructed as a farm house by one Joseph Denton, a descendent of the founder of the village of Hempstead. In 1860, it was given a Georgian makeover, complete with gingerbread ornamentation, and throughout the 1900?s, found commercial use as a funeral home and a series of restaurants.

By 1986, it was abandoned and on the verge of falling down.

McDonalds purchased the property with the intention of tearing it down and replacing it with a standard McDonald’s restaurant. Thank God for the citizens of the New Hyde Park, who worked to secure landmark status for the building in 1987.

McDonald’s had no choice but to restore the property and work within the parameters of the landmarks commission, which ultimately resulted in their most beautiful restaurant in America (if you know of a better example, please let me know).

This is interesting in itself. However, I was also intrigued by another link to the original story that dubbed this Long Island McDonald’s the “McMansion of the Day.” Perhaps this is simply a play on words: it is a McDonald’s in a mansion so it cleverly could be called a McMansion. It wouldn’t be the first McDonald’s to earn the term; an Arkansas McDonald’s was also dubbed a McMansion.

But, perhaps this is an intentional use of the word McMansion with the typical meaning of a new, large, ugly house in the midst of suburban sprawl. If so, this is the wrong use. Yes, this particular McDonald’s is in the middle of suburban strip malls. However, this is truly a historic house, one that acquired landmark status. McDonald’s renovated the interior for their purposes but it still retains the appearance of an older mansion. People may not like that McDonald’s was able to do this to an older home but it is not really a McMansion in the typical understanding: it is not a new building, it was not originally mass produced (and McDonald’s changes probably weren’t mass reproduced in their other restaurants), and it doesn’t look ugly as the McDonald’s sign above the front door is pretty understated.

Naperville cites traffic concerns and proximity to a residential area in rejecting McDonald’s near downtown

Naperville’s City Council voted Tuesday against a proposal from McDonald’s to build a restaurant just south of downtown. The cited reasons: traffic and proximity to a residential area.

The City Council unanimously turned down the proposed fast-food restaurant at the southeast corner of Washington Street and Hillside Road citing concerns about traffic at an already busy intersection and locating a 24-hour business close to homes…

The proposal was backed by both city staff and the plan commission. However, in a discussion that lasted more than an hour, councilmen focused on the potential for traffic tie-ups…Addressing the myriad of traffic concerns, William Grieve, a traffic engineer hired by McDonald’s, said a traffic study showed travel time through the intersection would only increase by about a second and double drive-through lanes would prevent backups.  Stillwell said the company would be diligent about addressing any problems if they arise…

But traffic wasn’t the only concern. Neighbors said they feared there would be increased noise and lights coming from the restaurant if it was allowed to stay open 24 hours as proposed.

Both Judy Brodhead and Joe McElroywere among the councilmen who agreed and said having a restaurant open 24 hours so close to homes was a deal-breaker regardless of the traffic issues.

I’m not surprised by this result: not too many residents would willingly choose to have a McDonald’s nearby and few people want more traffic. However, this seems a bit strange for a few reasons:

1. Washington is already a fairly busy road.

2. This intersection is near homes but there are already strip mall type establishments at this corner. In fact, I’m not sure there any homes that back up directly to this site as the DuPage River is to the east and all of the corners at the intersection are already occupied. The McDonald’s would replace a Citgo gas station, not exactly a paragon of civic architecture. Across the street is a Brown’s Chicken establishment. The other two corners include a cemetery and another strip mall type establishment.

3. The traffic study from McDonald’s seems to suggest there wouldn’t be any issues.

4. I wondered if this had anything to do with protecting the downtown but it is three blocks south of the downtown so it shouldn’t contribute to congestion problems there.

I wonder if there isn’t more to this story. Indeed, here are a few more details from the Daily Herald:

Council members admitted they were initially thrilled that McDonald’s wanted to open a downtown store on the southeast corner of Hillside and Washington streets. But when it came down to a plan that included five zoning variances, three landscape variances and a sign variance, they just weren’t lovin’ it.

So the McDonald’s required too many deviations from Naperville’s guidelines? While the restaurant might have needed 9 variances, the city could have made it happen if they really wanted to. Just how much did the pressure from the neighborhood matter?

An Arkansas McDonalds that looks like a McMansion

The term McMansion is tied to the company McDonald’s: the homes are said to have a standardized look and are mass produced. Even though McDonald’s locations don’t usually look like McMansions, a new location in Little Rock, Arkansas combines the two:

The Promenade at Chenal announces the groundbreaking ceremony for the new McDonald’s to be held Tuesday, February 21 at 3:00 PM. This new addition to The Promenade at Chenal marks the first Pad Lot construction since the Shopping Center opened in 2008 as well as the first fast food restaurant for the Chenal Valley area of west Little Rock. Furthermore, this McDonald’s will be one of the first in the state to showcase the new, sleek modernized décor with wooden and graphic vinyl textured walls outlining seating zones designed to appease any customer from the casual visitor to the grab and go. “It promises to be the nicest designed McDonald’s in the State.” — Michael Todd, Vice President Salter Construction, Inc.

See the picture with the story to get a taste of what a McDonald’s McMansion could look like. Here is some commentary about the design:

The picture above is actually Ronald’s place in Independence, Ohio, but in the land of McMansions out in West Little Rock, what will a McDonald’s have to look like to impress? (then again, times are tough, maybe even for the purse-dog crowd) Most importantly: Will those chicken McNuggets taste better under a crystal chandelier than they do under a buzzing tube light? Stay tuned, foodies.

At first glance, this looks most like a bank to me with its columns, brick exterior, and plenty of windows in the front. How much more profitable would the “nicest designed McDonald’s in the State” be?

Despite the criticism of McMansions, I don’t feel like I have seen much criticism of the design of McDonald’s restaurants themselves. After upgrades at many locations in recent years, some McDonalds have upgraded from more tacky seating and a cheaper look to rivaling Starbucks and Panera. Compared to other fast food restaurants, are McDonalds exteriors and interiors better or worse than the competition? On the whole, I would say they are nicer than the average Taco Bell, Wendy’s, Pizza Hut, and Burger King.

Tying purchases of larger fast food items to McMansions and status seeking

A forthcoming study from researchers from Paris and Northwestern University shows that powerless people make larger fast food purchases in order to show their status:

Consumers who feel powerless reach for extra-large portions of food in an effort to increase their social standing in the eyes of others, a new study suggests.

“An ongoing trend in food consumption is consumers’ tendency to eat more and more,” the researchers wrote in the study to be published in the April 2012 print edition of the Journal of Consumer Research. “The increase in food consumption is particularly prevalent among vulnerable populations, such as lower socioeconomic status consumers.”…

The study authors noted that cultural norms associate some larger items, such as houses, vehicles or flatscreen TVs, with wealth, success and high social status. If consumers feel unhappy with their status, they may take this belief and apply it to food, the researchers suggested.

These consumers may attempt to compensate for their perceived lower status by showing others that they can afford to buy the larger sizes, but instead of a Mcmansion they buy larger portion sizes, according to the researchers. In one of the experiments, the participants perceived that consumers who bought a large coffee at a cafe had a higher status than those who chose medium or small — even when the price of all sizes was the same.

It seems that the key here is that these are the decisions made by powerless people, people who have limited, more legitimate ways to show off their status. So do the authors suggest that people with more power don’t buy items to simply show status? This is an argument typically made about McMansions and SUVs: certain people with money feel the need to show off their wealth with these more ostentatious, larger purchases. On the other hand, the implication is that people with more education or taste would consume other sorts of items, not seeking status. Really? A designer larger, green home isn’t also somewhat about status? Going smaller is necessarily less about status?

I would love to see results of similar experiments done with different groups regarding some of the other consumer items mentioned in this report. I suspect we might find that status seeking purchases look different across different socioeconomic statuses, echoing Bourdieu’s distinctions between those who little capital (in this fast food study) versus more capital and also between those with more education and more money.

First Dairy Queen to be celebrated in Joliet

Americans are well-known for their fast-food culture that has since spread around the world. Joliet, now the fourth largest city in Illinois, will honor the nation’s first Dairy Queen:

Joliet will celebrate its heritage as the home of the first Dairy Queen as  part of the Route 66 Red Carpet Corridor Festival on Saturday,

The Joliet Area Historic Museum will be open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and feature displays of Dairy Queen memorabilia, photos and original product sample packages. Visitors will get a Dairy Queen Dilly Bar.

The first Dairy Queen opened June 22, 1940 at 501 N. Chicago St., now the site of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God. Sheb Noble opened the store and sold soft-serve ice cream cones for 5 cents.

The Dairy Queen closed in the early 1950s, and over the years the building has housed a lawn-mower repair business, furniture store, motorcycle shop and plumbers.

I wish this article had more information about the growth of Dairy Queen: how did it go from this one location to “more than 5,700 locations operating throughout the United States, Canada and 22 other countries“? According to Dairy Queen’s website, the growth happened quickly:

Back then, food franchising was all but unheard of, but the new product’s potential made it a natural for such a system. When the United States entered World War II in December 1941, there were less than 10 Dairy Queen stores. However shortly after the war, the system took off at a pace virtually unrivaled before or since. With only 100 stores in 1947, it grew to 1,446 in 1950 and then to 2,600 in 1955.

It sounds like they found a particular market niche, soft-serve ice cream,  and really capitalized even before other iconic fast-food restaurants, like McDonald’s (whose first franchised restaurant, the ninth overall, opened in Des Plaines, IL in 1955), really took off.

I’m not sure there is any other fast-food place that can compete with the Blizzard (sorry McFlurrys). And I’ve had my fair share.

Has America reached a saturation point for driving?

The Infrastructurist sums up some recent arguments that suggest “America has reached a “saturation point for vehicle ownership and travel.”

If this is all true and it ends up being a sustained trend, what does this mean for American culture? From the advent of the mass-market automobile in the 1920s, Americans have spent much time and resources with their vehicles. Getting a driver’s license was a rite of passage, perhaps the main one our culture has for teenagers (though perhaps it is being replaced by going to college for some). Car companies advertise incessantly and tie their products to American values (this recent Dodge Challenger commercial featuring rebel Americans dispersing the British redcoats with their vehicles is quite appropriate here). Fast food restaurants depend on drive-thrus. Could this all change? Perhaps this all depends on whether driving behavior has plateaued or is actually decreasing. If the younger generation doesn’t drive as much, it will take time for them to replace the figures from older Americans who do drive more.

And the other interesting question is whether this is the beginning of the end of suburbs: if new generations don’t want to drive as much, what does this mean for low-density development? Is this really going to lead to a new urban era with a movement to large cities or simply denser suburbs where the amount of driving is reduced but never disappears completely?

Rationale for ban against future fast-food restaurants in South LA

Earlier this week, Los Angeles developed some new restrictions for new fast-food restaurants:

New fast-food restaurants in South Los Angeles will be banned within a half mile of existing ones under an ordinance approved Wednesday by the City Council.

The law includes other restrictions on stand-alone eateries, the Los Angeles Times reported. They include guidelines on landscaping, trash storage and other aesthetic issues.

Similar limits are in place in other LA neighborhoods. The council imposed a moratorium two years ago in southern Los Angeles.

Is this an example of the government telling people what they can or cannot eat? Is this example of a government limiting business or jobs opportunities? The rationale for these new regulations is interesting:

The goal of the restrictions is to encourage the development of stand-alone restaurants and grocery stores.

“For a community to thrive, it is important to have balance, a full variety of food, retail and service providers,” said Councilman Bernard C. Parks, one of the sponsors of the ordinance.

The ordinance includes exemptions for fast-food restaurants in mixed-use developments and shopping malls and for existing restaurants planning to expand.

These sorts of rules are not unusual in communities. How does this differ from a suburban community that decides it won’t allow any more banks in its downtown? Or communities that have restrictions against tattoo parlors? Both banks and tattoo parlors create jobs and bring in some sort of tax dollars. If the City of LA wants to promote other kinds of development, this seems like a reasonable rule that doesn’t force out already existing stores but limits their future growth.

At the same time, the issue of fast food seems to bring out passionate arguments from people. Do we have a “right” to fast food restaurants? A lot of critics of sprawl argue that fast food restaurants represent the worst of sprawl: they are completely dependent on the automobile, the food is cheap, mass-produced, and not healthy, and the restaurants and their signs are garish advertisements for multi-national corporations who couldn’t care less about local communities. Others argue that we should be able to eat what we want when we want.

In Los Angeles, they seem to have made a decision about promoting other kinds of development. Communities make decisions like this all the time, depending on factors like tax revenue and what goals or values they wish to promote.

Don’t just ban Happy Meal toys; American food culture needs to be changed

After San Francisco recently moved to ban the toys in Happy Meals (by tying the ability to include toys to certain nutrition benchmarks),  Josh Ozersky argues that more than just banning Happy Meals is needed: American food culture and what foods it says are good needs to be changed.

No, the problem with the ban is that it doesn’t go far enough. America’s tots aren’t getting supersized simply by eating Happy Meals…University of São Paulo professor Carlos Monteiro makes the case that “the rapid rise in consumption of ultra-processed food and drink products, especially since the 1980s, is the main dietary cause of the concurrent rapid rise in obesity and related diseases throughout the world.” And reversing that trend will be a lot harder than making Happy Meals a little less happy.

But still, you have to start somewhere, and I understand why the San Francisco supervisors picked Happy Meals as their beachhead…

Again and again, efforts to promote fresh fruit and produce in low-income urban areas have failed for the simple reason that Americans have been brainwashed. We have been conditioned, starting in utero, to prefer high-fat, high-salt, high-sugar concoctions rather than their less exciting, more natural culinary cousins…

Why? Because as Americans, we like highly processed food. It was invented to please us. Cheap flavor bombs will always trump healthier alternatives. Dangling a Transformer or Beanie Baby or some other toy du jour in front of a kid may help balance the playing field at least a little. But why can’t cheap, processed food be made healthier? Is that really impossible? Or is it just too expensive?

Ozersky doesn’t quite come out and say it but he is suggesting that Americans need to radically rethink their diets and food choices. This is not a matter of just eating less fast food but thinking about all processed food and why we eat it rather than more natural food. As other writers like Michael Pollan have pointed out, other cultures make different food choices where natural is the norm and meals are events that then five or ten minute periods where Americans try to relieve their hunger while also getting essential nutrients. American food habits are tied to a whole host of other phenomenon including cars (fast food), ideas about efficiency, technology (eating in front of the TV, microwaved food), ideas about how expensive food should be, and more. And these are patterns that start young.

The question of whether all of this could be changed through governmental intervention or through other means is another controversy for another day.

(Another thought: how come McDonald’s is the most common target of such actions? It is kind of like the attention that Walmart draws – neither McDonalds or Walmart are the only games in town and yet their size and reputation tends to draw the most attention.)

American life can’t be too bad if people can spend lots of time tracking down a fast food sandwich

Times are dire, bad, fraught with difficulty. This is now what we have heard, and many have experienced, for months.

But it struck me today that American life is not that terrible if there are some people who are very devoted to tracking down McDonald’s McRib sandwich. It is this sort of quotidian hobby or interest that is only possible in societies where people have extra time and money on their hands.

So what exactly is going on here? Couple this story with the fervor that Chick-fil-A has inspired in the Chicago region with the opening of new stores and it is clear that many Americans love their fast food.

“I was lovin’ it”: battling over fast food

McDonald’s is a favorite target for those opposed to fast-food culture and typical American eating patterns. Amidst discussions in many municipalities about allowing fast-food restaurants, a new advertisement to run in Washington, D.C. adds to the debate:

In the commercial, produced by the nonprofit Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a woman weeps over a dead man lying in a morgue. In his hand is a hamburger. At the end, the golden arches appear over his feet, followed by the words, “I was lovin’ it,” a play on McDonald’s longtime ad slogan, “I’m lovin’ it.” A voiceover says, “High cholesterol, high blood pressure, heart attacks. Tonight, make it vegetarian.”

Americans tend to eat a lot of fast food: Gallup found in 2006 that 23% of Americans eat fast food several times a week or more with another 33% claiming to eat fast food about once a week.

Another option being discussed would allow for extra taxes on fast food and soft drinks. In another survey, Harris found “Over half of Americans (56%) are opposed to [an obesity] tax going into effect with two in five (42%) being strongly opposed. Three in ten (31%) support this tax being imposed.” There were some differences: people living in the South and Midwest or with lower incomes or with less education were more opposed to such measures.