Big Mac Strikes Back

Burger bashers, watch out! McDonald's is on a roll

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"We're becoming a nation of hamburger flippers!" cried the economists, more or less. "We're seeing the McDonaldization of Main Street!" wailed the city planners. When the anti-McDonald's griping began to heat up not long ago, it even earned a name: burger bashing. All sorts of experts wanted to attack Big Mac as a symbol of all that was wrong with America's eating habits, its mass culture and its economic development. Walter Mondale, among other politicians, criticized the hamburger chain's minimum-wage jobs as grim substitutes for well-paying blue-collar work. Nutritionists despaired over the high fat and sodium content of McDonald's fare, while food snobs ridiculed creations like Big Mac's "special sauce" as gooey and gross. Even investors, who had been smitten with McDonald's stock for two decades, were predicting that a glut of golden arches would soon put an end to the chain's glory days of growth.

But Ronald McDonald and his fans may get the last laugh after all. The world's largest food-service company (1986 profits of $480 million on sales of $12.4 billion) is showing that it can be far more aggressive, imaginative and socially savvy than almost anyone has given it credit for. McDonald's is now trimming the fat and shaking the salt from its food, installing sleek outlets in U.S. airports and hospitals, taking its burgers to such far-flung locales as Yugoslavia and Guam and serving as a leading U.S. employer of minorities and the elderly. Thanks to its current vitality, McDonald's is maintaining its growth while such rivals as Burger King and Wendy's appear to be slowing down.

McDonald's is proving to be an almost unstoppable -- and in many ways positive -- social and economic force. Particularly at a time when so many U.S. businesses are restructuring and getting back to basics, McDonald's as a corporation looks more and more like a case study in how to concentrate on providing one service exceedingly well. While McDonald's may still represent junk food and throwaway culture to some people, many others are making a more generous assessment of the hamburger giant's value. Even Soviet television, which in the past has portrayed the hamburger chain as a capitalist conspiracy to sell tasteless food, broadcast a report last November that lauded a McDonald's outlet in Manhattan as a model of speedy and friendly service. Intoned the commentator: "Maybe there is something we can learn from this."

The past few weeks have been typically productive for McDonald's. At its current pace of opening a new outlet every 17 hours, the chain last month christened some 40 new restaurants in places ranging from Manhattan, Kans., to Munich, West Germany, bringing the total number to about 9,530 worldwide. At the same time, the promotion-minded company launched its largest-ever contest, a Monopoly-based game in which 500 million tickets will be given out and $40 million in prizes awarded. And last week the corporation, which is based in Oak Brook, Ill., and takes pride in its all-American image and the exploits of its millions of alumni, practically burst with delight when one of its former burger flippers, Keith Smart, became the game-winning hero for Indiana in the N.C.A.A. basketball final.

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