FOOD: The Burger That Conquered the Country

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Customers get almost as little discretion as the help; their burgers come wrapped, with ketchup and mustard applied in precise, premeasured splats. A rugged individualist can order his burger "without," but he will have to discover that concession on his own; McDonald's does not advertise it. One sandwich is unalterable: the Big Mac, a double burger whose interstices are occupied by alternating dollops of onions, pickle chips, cheese, lettuce shreds and a "special sauce," the formula for which is guarded like an atomic secret (see diagram next page).

Machinery and equipment cannot do everything, of course. Human beings are involved too—some 130,000 employees in nine countries, from Western Europe to Japan and Australia. McDonald's has grown from a uniquely American to a truly global operation, and it faces some special problems in making employee performance uniform. The company operates directly only some 750 of its 2,500 restaurants; the rest are run by holders of McDonald's franchises (the firm prefers to call them licenses). The hired help are mostly youths who work at a McDonald's for a few months and then quit; turnover in many outlets averages 100% every six months, in no small part because of the grueling tedium.

Still, McDonald's manages to make its licensees, restaurant managers and burger slingers seem as standardized as its machines and cuisine. Licensees and managers of company-operated restaurants must graduate from a ten-day course at McDonald's "Hamburger University," a gleaming $2,000,000 institution in Elk Grove Village, Ill. The course leads to a Bachelor of Hamburgerology degree, with a minor in French fries. In the field, licensees and managers are incessantly hounded by roving inspectors (called "field supervisors") to make sure that the restaurant floor is mopped at proper intervals and the parking lot tidied up hourly. If a manager tries to sell his customers hamburgers that have been off the grill more than ten minutes or coffee more than 30 minutes old, Big Brother in Oak Brook will find out. Headquarters executives calculate exactly how much food each restaurant can be expected to throw away each day, and are ready to chastise a chronically deviant manager who has no good explanation.

Grillmen, "window girls" (order takers) and other hired hands must conform to strict rules. Men must keep their hair cropped to military length, and their shoes (black only) highly polished. Women must wear dark low shoes, hair nets and only very light makeup. Viewing the results, Harvard Business School Professor Theodore Levitt describes McDonald's as "a machine that produces, with the help of totally unskilled machine tenders, a highly polished product. Everything is built integrally into the machine itself, into the technology of the system. The only choice available to the attendant is to operate it exactly as the designers intended."

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