By JAMES P. PINKERTON
LONG ISLAND NEWSDAY
LAS VEGAS -- McDonald's is as American as apple pie. But of course, not everyone likes apple pie. Thus we see the strengths, and the weaknesses, of the fast-food chain.
Whatever one thinks of McDonald's, it's a high-profile outfit -- 13,500 stores in the United States alone. A 2004 survey by Interbrand and Business Week found the company had the seventh most valuable brand in the world.
Yet at the same time, Mickey D's has had it rough. Two years ago, the company reported its first quarterly loss in its five-decade history. Like many mass-marketing companies, it struggled to keep up with the trend toward more individualized purchasing and lifestyling, as America segments itself into ever-smaller niches. And while McDonald's has turned itself around, it will never satisfy its fiercest critics.
The critique fell into three categories. First, it offered an unhealthy diet. Second, it offered its employees dead-end jobs. And third, the golden arches were a symbol of soulless consumerism.
Anybody looking for heart and soul need only climb "The Peak" here in Vegas. A convention of 18,000 McDonald's employees, called Managers' Peak, was one part carnival of capitalism, one part summer camp, and one part revival meeting.
But underneath the rah-rah, the Peak had a purpose: The company, once boasting that its employees had "ketchup in their blood," is now emphasizing new foods and new faces. And so all the rappers and rockers onstage were part of the persuasion effort -- first internal, then external -- that the company calls, simply, "Renewal." And so Peak was a snapshot into the larger and ever-ongoing story of American corporate adaptation.
As to the "McFood" charge, the chain's perhaps surprising response has been to bend to its critics. The buzz here is about new salads and low-cal chicken sandwiches. Indeed, McDonald's seems to have figured out that it's in the food business, not the hamburger business. If it's legal and edible, McDonald's will sell it.
As for the dead-end-job argument, the company answers in two words: Leo Lopez. He started as a "crew member" at 15 and owned his first unit at 26 -- thanks in no small part, he recalls, to a company minority-outreach program. Now 42, Lopez owns five outlets in Orlando, Fla. He told me, "I am proof you can make it if you work hard."
But is Lopez a token? A fluke? Apparently not. Everywhere here, one sees managers wearing buttons proclaiming, "Started Out As Crew" --which means they worked themselves up from burger-flipping to managing. And those jobs pay, between $45,000 and $60,000 a year. Almost half of the top 50 executives in the worldwide company also began as crew.
But what about the third anti-McDonald's argument, that it's an egregious example of ticky-tacky consumerism? Yes, that's inarguable, for those who argue in such terms. The company is indeed an icon of American consumer culture.
To those who like using the word "kitsch" in their sentences, McDonald's is kitschy. At "The Peak," conventioneers rose to their feet in unabashed excitement as teams dubbed "Friendly," "Accurate" and "Fast" squared off against each other in mock competition, modeled after the TV show "Fear Factor." Peakers also oohed and ahhed over new machines for milkshakes and new freezers for French fries.
In other words, it's important for McDonald's managers to be earnest and un-ironic. And yet such un-irony seems to be paying off. The company is making money again; the stock price has doubled.
The future is unpredictable, but for as long as Ronald McDonald has a red nose, the company he represents will be in the business of satisfying the middlebrow wants of Middle America.
And just as predictably, elites will continue to slap the company around for "soullessness." That same critique is also applied to suburbia, the automobile and, of course, Las Vegas. But a company that makes something called a Happy Meal -- no matter what that meal consists of -- will always be a tempting target.
Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service