FOOD: The Burger That Conquered the Country

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To some critics, the success of that machine is a devastating comment on American values. Pop Sociologist Vance Packard laments: "This is what our country is all about—blandness and standardization." Novelist Vance Bourjaily extravagantly views McDonald's popularity as a sign that America is "a failing culture." He explains: "This country is full of people who have forgotten what good food is. Eating in most countries is a basic pleasure, but people in the U.S. don't eat for pleasure. To them, eating is just something done in response to advertising."

Other critics assail McDonald's for blighting the land architecturally (under pressure from zoning authorities, the chain is rapidly switching from its original garish, candy-striped restaurant design to a more subdued brown brick configuration) and for allegedly sabotaging American nutrition. Harvard Nutritionist Jean Mayer warns that a steady diet of McDonald's fare and nothing else could give a customer scurvy because it would lack sufficient vitamin C. Mayer also says that the menu provides large amounts of fats and calories (557 for a Big Mac, 317 for a chocolate shake, 215 for a small order of fries) and contains almost no roughage.

'There is nothing at McDonald's that makes it necessary to have teeth," he says—though he adds: "I am nonfanatical about McDonald's. As a weekend treat, it is clean and fast."

Since no one is forced to eat at a McDonald's, the chain must be giving multitudes exactly what they want. For one thing, many people find the cheerily bland atmosphere reassuring. Says Sociologist David Riesman: "Americans have had a lot of experience being cheated and exploited when they eat out, and they feel unsure of themselves." McDonald's has designed a place to neutralize this anxiety, a place that does not make a customer feel he will not know how to use his fork.

McDonald's patrons put it more simply. To them, a McDonald's is a clean, well-lighted place, where they will be served quickly and courteously. Customer waits rarely exceed five minutes, even at the height of the lunch-hour crush; the company is introducing computerized, diode-display order-taking machines to cut delays even further.

Also, McDonald's is one of the few places left where a customer can buy a meal for $1 or less. Its price list reads like something exhumed from the good old days: hamburger 25¢,,cheeseburger 30¢, Quarter-Pounder 55¢, Big Mac 60¢, a small bag of French fries 24¢, milkshake 30¢. Prices vary slightly throughout the country; for example, most items in the New York City area cost a nickel more. Surprisingly, burgers are not much better than a break-even item for McDonald's; the highest profits come on French fries, soft drinks and the extra nickel a customer pays for a cheeseburger. McDonald's raised prices an average of 18% last winter on a number of menu items, but it has held the line since, throughout the worst U.S. food-price inflation in 26 years.

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