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McDonald's Grows Up: Coffee, Wi-Fi Supplanting Junk Food Image

3 years ago
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Well, it would appear that the New York Times magazine isn't the only iconic American institution undergoing a makeover. McDonald's is changing its menu and ambiance to project a more grown-up image.

Over the past few years, the fast-food chain has embraced a whole new look and feel. On the menu end of things, it has begun offering healthier fare like salads, Asian chicken sandwiches and fruit smoothies. And on the appearance end of things, McDonald's has also upgraded its look, offering free Wi-Fi, comfortable seats, funky lighting fixtures and cool wall hangings.

Front and center in this up-market move is coffee. According to Business Week, the company's McCafe drinks, which were rolled out nationally in 2009, have driven revenue growth at the company in six of the past seven quarters. The idea has been to offer a lower-cost alternative to Starbucks (although Starbucks -- which has had its own image makeover -- disputes that McDonald's is making serious inroads into its business).

The goal behind Mickey D's transformation is to reach new, more sophisticated customers. And while that doesn't mean renouncing its signature "Happy Meals" for children, the net effect is that the fast-food chain now feels more, well . . . adult. Indeed, among other casualties of the image overhaul is Ronald McDonald himself, who will now play a much more muted role in the company's marketing.

The changes to McDonald's are no doubt brought on in part by a series of recent legal actions. Last April, lawmakers in Santa Clara County, Calif., passed a bill prohibiting restaurants from giving away toys with meals that didn't meet national nutritional standards for children.

In June, a public health watchdog also called upon the fast-food giant to stop giving away toys with its meals, on the grounds that toys lure children into the restaurant to eat food that is high in sugar and fat. The Center for Science in the Public Interest expressed its intent to sue McDonald's over this issue, and in December it found a plaintiff for the case.

There's also been a sea-change in public attitudes toward obesity, which has no doubt raised the stakes for fast-food chains in today's political landscape. The obesity crisis is now well-documented, not just in the U.S. but in the U.K., where I live .

There's much more public attention showered upon the adverse health effects of eating junk food. Michelle Obama has made reducing childhood obesity a cornerstone of her work as first lady. And Walmart has announced a five-year plan to cut back on unhealthy foods and make healthy foods cheaper. Heck, you can't go into a restaurant in New York state these days without seeing a calorie count on your menu.

I'm not a big fan of junk food. My son has extensive food allergies, which means that on the odd occasion when we do grace the doorstep of a McDonald's, we have to "hold" so many items on his Quarter Pounder (the cheese, the mayo, the bun) that all we're left with is a naked piece of flattened ground beef lying on a paper wrapper (which is rather depressing). Plus, all I have to do is call up the image of that guy in the film "Super Size Me" -- or look at that ad with the fat guy lying on a stretcher clutching a half-eaten McDonald's hamburger -- to remind myself why I rarely go there.

Still, I'd like to take a moment to mourn Ronald McDonald's diminishment in our collective consciousness. With his stripey undergarment, blaring yellow overalls, fire-engine-red hair and enthusiastic (bordering on creepy) grin, he embodied all that is oversized, outlandish and inappropriate about childhood.

And as much as I love my lattes, I will be sad to see him go.


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