McDonald’s must simplify menu for society’s sake

23 May
The site of the original McDonald's restaurant in San Bernardino, California.

The site of the original McDonald’s restaurant in San Bernardino, California.

Dick and Mac McDonald must be rolling in their graves. The two brothers, sons of a New Hampshire shoe factory foreman, would probably turn apoplectic if they walked into a McDonald’s today and took one look at the menu. The 145 choices on offer are the exact opposite of the business phenomenon they built 65 years ago.

The brothers originally opened a hot dog stand in Pasadena in 1937. It was a hit, but they were looking for a bigger volume of business, so they moved to the nearby boom town of San Bernardino on busy Route 66 and opened the first McDonald’s drive-in restaurant in 1940. It quickly became popular with teenagers, who came for the burgers and stayed to hit on the attractive car-hops that served them.

Like many California drive-in restaurants, McDonald’s was raking it in. Yet the brothers thought they could do more, so in 1948 they closed the place down to refit it for speed and volume. They designed new equipment to speed up cooking, fired the car-hops to discourage the sort of lazy hanging out teens are known for, and they pared the menu down from dozens of items to just 11.

Axing the menu was the all-important part of what the brothers called their new “Speedee Service System,” since it enabled the fast preparation of food. Having too many things on the menu inevitably slowed down the whole operation. Here’s a photo of the pre-Speedee menu from 1943, which was already starting to suffer from bloat:


Paring down the items resulted in a few things. For one, workers no longer had to be cooks, just food assemblers. With lower skill requirements, the McDonalds could afford to pay their employees less – and so was born an entire class of minimum-wage workers. Teens went from hanging out at the restaurant to working in it.

More importantly in the larger sense, customers got their food much faster. The restaurant did just a few things, but it did them exceptionally well, a factor that ultimately fueled McDonald’s phenomenal international success story, created a giant industry and shaped the entire modern food production system.

Fast forward to today and it’s fair to say that McDonald’s is in trouble, mainly because it has strayed so far from the simple roots the brothers planted. While the chain is usually at the center of any discussions about obesity, the most bloated thing about it is in fact its menu.

Going from 11 items to 145 is quite the accomplishment, but as Bloomberg reports, much of that has happened in the past few years. Since 2007, McDonald’s has added a whopping 60 items, or a near doubling of its menu in just six years. The timing is key and likely explains the situation.

In 2003, Eric Schlosser’s book Fast Food Nation threw the doors wide open on McDonald’s business practices – how it systemically crushes any attempts by workers to form unions and how it specifically markets to children, as just two examples. The following year, Morgan Spurlock made waves with Super Size Me, a documentary in which he experiences health problems after eating nothing but McDonald’s food for a month.

Both exacerbated what was already a growing problem for the chain – it had a real image problem on several fronts.

Part of the solution, evidently, was an effort to refocus the business to be all things to all people. McDonald’s really didn’t want to be seen as a purveyor of junk food.

Healthier options such as apples and salads were brought in. Seeing the big growth of coffee chains such as Starbucks and Tim Hortons here in Canada, McDonald’s decided it wanted to be in that business too, so McCafes were added to many restaurants. Gourmet burgers, such as those served up by Five Guys, were a hot trend that the chain also jumped on. Each of these added more menu items, which meant more complexity for staff and inevitably longer wait times for customers. It’s no wonder the workers are striking – they have so much more to do these days, without the commensurate pay.

Average wait times in the drive-through – where McDonald’s and competitors make most of their money – rose to 189 seconds last year, from 167 seconds in 2007. Almost half a minute doesn’t sound like a lot, but it does when you put yourself into that drive-in and the long lineups that result. Who hasn’t turned away from a giant line at Timmy’s? A few seconds make a big difference in the volume numbers such businesses are built on.

The longer wait times might pay off if customers valued menu variety, but they don’t. As one study puts it:

Survey respondents ranked menu variety below food quality, cleanliness, value and service in terms of important attributes for limited-service restaurants. The study’s top-ranked fast-food hamburger chain, In-N-Out Burger, features one of the least complex menus.

Anecdotally, I can agree. If I’m in a rush for lunch, which I usually am, I’m going to the place with the shortest line-up. And that’s almost never McDonald’s. (Also, In-N-Out Burger is fantastic.)

It’s been said that where goes the chain, so too does the economy – when McDonald’s doesn’t do well, it affects the entire food industry. As the world’s biggest buyer of beef, potatoes, chicken and a bunch of other food items, any material change in demand by McDonald’s can sway the bigger picture.

You may not eat there or you may possibly even hate it for various reasons, but for the good of us all the chain really needs to get back to the simplified menu its founders established.

McDonald’s needs to forget Fast Food Nation and Super Size Me. There is no need to be all things to all people, yet there is a certain beauty in doing just a few things really well. That’s the image McDonald’s should be concentrating on.


Posted by on May 23, 2013 in food, mcdonald's


4 responses to “McDonald’s must simplify menu for society’s sake

  1. nycfitfoodfashion

    May 23, 2013 at 12:04 am

    Great Blog Post! I can not believe how much it has changed and I am sure the food was much better too!!

  2. Marc Venot

    May 23, 2013 at 12:46 am

    A pizzeria at walking distance has a formula to excel: when the one hundred fresh dough is exhausted then it close its door. I don’t see McDo doing anything of this kind.
    Now at McDo the complements (like sauce) are rather good but the patty bland.

  3. Ben Klass

    May 23, 2013 at 1:02 am

    I remember being horrified when I read Fast Food Nation (a long time ago), specifically about the section on meat processing plants and how their monopsony buyer puts pressure on them to reduce safety standards, endangering the lives of their hard working, underpaid employees. Not to mention cows that are only partially stunned before being butchered alive.

    I think passing this off as simply an “image problem” for Rotten Ronnie’s glosses over fundamental problems with the way we demand, supply and consume food. There are significantly larger problems with fast food than the relative complexity or simplicity of their menus. Casting a concern as superficial as drive thru wait times as important “for society’s sake” while only briefly mentioning the real problems Schlosser and Spurlock bring up strikes me as inappropriate.

    “McDonald’s needs to forget Fast Food Nation and Super Size Me?” I sure hope not.

    • Peter Nowak

      May 23, 2013 at 1:47 am

      That may be too literal an interpretation of what I meant. Of course McDonald’s should clean up its act, but my meaning was that it shouldn’t be ashamed of what it fundamentally is: a place to get burgers and fries.

%d bloggers like this: