FOOD: The Burger That Conquered the Country

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The destiny of nations depends on the manner in which they nourish themselves.

— The Physiology of Taste, Jean Brillat-Savarin ( 1 826)

If so, America's destiny manifestly depends to no small degree on the ham burgers, French fries and milkshakes served beneath the golden arches of Mc Donald's. Last year the chain of drive-ins and restaurants rang up sales of $1.03 billion, passing the U.S. Army ( 1972 food volume: $909 million) as the nation's biggest dispenser of meals.

Now the chain is going on to new triumphs: adding an average of one new outlet every day to its 2,500 in the U.S., and hanging on every one a sign reading OVER 12 BILLION SOLD to commemorate an event that occurred during August. Executives at world headquarters in Oak Brook, Ill., a Chicago suburb, have not bothered to investigate who ate the 12 billionth hamburger, when or in which restaurant, because they know that its consumption constituted only an ephemeral milestone. In four months or less, given the current intensity of the nation's hamburger hunger, those signs will be replaced by new ones proclaiming OVER 13 BILLION . . .

Nonstop Munching. McDonald's statistical accomplishments are staggering. To illustrate: if all the 12 billion McDonald's hamburgers sold to date were to be stacked into one pile, they would form a pyramid 783 times the size of the one erected by Snefru. If a man ate a McDonald's hamburger every five minutes, it would take him 114,000 years of nonstop munching to consume 12 billion burgers. If all the cattle that have ever laid down their lives for McDonald's were to be resurrected for a reunion, they would stand flank-by-jowl over an area larger than Greater London.

Statistics alone cannot adequately measure the impact of McDonald's on U.S. life. The company's relentless advertising campaign ($50 million budgeted this year) has made the McDonald's jingle, You Deserve a Break Today, almost as familiar as The Star-Spangled Banner. But the chain's managers have wrought their greatest achievement by taking a familiar American institution, the greasy-spoon hamburger joint, and transforming it into a totally different though no less quintessentially American operation: a computerized, standardized, premeasured, superclean production machine efficient enough to give even the chiefs of General Motors food for thought. In the $8 billion-a year fast-food industry, McDonald's is only one of dozens of chains that strive for uniformity in menu and service. But none has ever surpassed McDonald's in automating the ancient art of cooking and serving food.

At every McDonald's outlet, winking lights on the grills tell the counterman exactly when to flip over the hamburgers. Once done, the burgers can be held under infra-red warming lights for up to ten minutes, no more; after that, any burgers that have not been ordered must be thrown away. Cybernetic deep fryers continuously adjust to the moisture in every potato stick to make sure that French fries come out with a uniform degree of brownness; specially designed scoops make it almost physically impossible for a counterman to stuff more or fewer French fries into a paper bag than headquarters specifies for a single order.

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