Global Arches

In Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser’s remarkable study of the growth of restaurant conglomerates, the McDonald’s Corporation is synonymous with sprawl. Since Ray Kroc bought Richard and Maurice McDonald’s restaurant business in 1955 and began to streamline the founding brothers’ process, the company’s fortunes have been linked to the car-fueled expansion of the American habitat. Using Colorado Springs, Colorado, as his anytown, Schlosser writes that fast food chains like McDonald’s “feed off the sprawl . . . accelerate it, and help set is visual tone.” McDonald’s is the market leader among companies that “look at cars the way predators view herds of prey.”

The premise of McDonald’s is that each product, and the experience of consuming it, is unrelentingly consistent. Both its strength as a brand and its efficiency as a company depend on providing a uniform experience in its 29,000 restaurants worldwide, right down to the architecture. Designing each McDonald’s is as consistent a process as making french fries.

Ninety-three percent of all McDonald’s built in the United States are designed bya 58-person team of architects, engineers, and interior and facility designers in the company’s Oak Brook, Illinois, headquarters. “We have designs ready from buildings from 800 square feet up to 10,000 square feet,” says Fred Matthias, the company’s vice president of restaurant design, who oversees the Oak Brook team. Centralizing the design process saves the company money. As Matthias points out, “we’re more efficient than hiring local architects.”

Because in the United States its product is, for the most part, an “impulse buy,” and because its customer base depends on automobile traffic, McDonad’s is always looking for areas likely to experience steady growth. Schools were Ray Kroc’s first indicator of growth, and later the company looked, by helicopter, for cheap land likely to become suburban. In recent years, McDonald’s has created a line of software called Quintillion, now a standalone company, which automates analysis of specific market opportunities through a combination of satellite imagery, demographic information, and existing sales information.

McDonald’s domestic operations are divided into three divisions: East, West, and Central. Once the division’s real estate managers have identified a site for development, construction specialists arrive and perform a “site investigation” – they research local zoning codes, issue a soil report, and measure the lot. In addition, the real estate group identifies local demographics: whether most customers will come from a specific age group, how many have children, whether they will arrive by car or on foot. Then, the regional manager decides whether the site is financially feasible, and once that manager signs off, the design group goes to work.

A former architectural consultant to the company says that “at McDonald’s there is no overview of the total design.” The parts of each restaurant come from separate company offices. “There are food-service people and advertising people, there’s the local franchisee and his wife, who will throw up some curtains and some bamboo, and there’s the playland designers.” The design team then assembles these components says, like a restaurant worker assembling a Big Mac.

“When we design, we have to keep regional concerns in mind,” says Matthias. “We have different seating capacities, different parking requirements, different signage ordinances. So you may see different signage configurations, but you see a consistent idea.” Matthias and his team provide McDonald’s real-estate managers with roughly 12 to 15 possible configurations for the average restaurant. But one thing always remains the same. “We never give up the yellow arch.”

According to Schlosser’s history of the company, the McDonald’s Corporation was a pioneer in the standardization of retail. In the 1960s, Schlosser writes, the company tore down most of the original restaurants, designed by founder Richard McDonald. Those restaurants featured a yellow arch at either end of the building, which, to passing motorists, appeared as an M. For an untrained architect, it was an extraordinary, almost Venturian combination of logo and architecture, building and sign. Kroc then replaced the old buildings with brick walls and a mansard roof, and psychologist and design consultant Louis Cheskin convinced the company to retain the symbolic arches (calling them “mother McDonald’s breasts”), and to collapse them into the now-famous symbol.

The design of the freestanding restaurants has since expanded to include everything from Chalet to brick box. The design team also works on adapting restaurants to a wide range of special situations: malls, zoos, airports, and office buildings. Playgrounds (called “playlands”) are added to restaurants in modular fashion. There are 8,000 such playgrounds in the U.S., designed to capture not just children, but their parents’ dollars by extension.

As the world’s largest owner of commercial property, McDonald’s is, for all intents and purposes, a real estate company. The company’s decentralized franchise system, whereby private owners buy a franchise form the company and pay rent for the right to operate restaurants, allows the company to offload the burden of managing the minutiae of the business onto the franchisee, and receive a lump sum instead. Because it almost always owns the land and buildings, McDonald’s exerts enormous control over the design of its franchises, and can revoke the franchise and shutter the restaurant at a moment’s notice — 372 franchises have been closed in the company’s history, (This explains, in part, the fact that no franchise has ever successfully unionized its workers.)

“A lot of our operators are very interested in the design of the building,” says John Reinertsen, a senior director in McDonald’s Integrated Restaurant Innovation group. “We want the franchisees to be entrepreneurial, but we need to have a clear thread that runs through the brand. There are categories of the design – like signage and graphics – that have to be consistent.”

The company is reaching its saturation point in parts of the United States where the restaurants sit so close to one another that a new McDonald’s will steal sales from an existing one. Three hundred new McDonald’s were built in the United States last year, but next year, the company has said it will scale back new construction by 200 restaurants, appeasing the fears of existing franchise operators.

The company is experimenting with new business models and the architectural forms that will go with them, however. A team within McDonald’s, in partnership with the San Francisco office of Gensler, created two prototype restaurants in 1998 and experimented with new forms of signage, traffic flow, and kitchen design. “We developed a lab in a warehouse, where we could mock up the restaurant, complete with a live, functioning kitchen,” says Reinertsen. “We mocked up the lobby out of foam core and plywood.” The company then sent focus groups through the system, 100 people at a time, to simulate a lunch rush.

Bill Aumiller, principal of Aumiller Youngquist, in Mt. Prospect, Illinois, helped create a prototype “diner-style” McDonald’s in Kokomo, Indiana, last year. In the restaurant, patrons order from their seats by phone, and eat such uncharacteristic McDonald’s fare as steak. (A knife-and-fork meal is a departure from Ray Kroc’s original business model, which depended on finger food to save money on utensils.) Aumiller says the company plans to build 10 such diners in Evansville, Indiana, next year, to test how well a constellation of diners might perform in a given market.

More than half of McDonald’s restaurants – roughly 16,200 – are outside the U.S. Foreign restaurants account for more than 60 percent of company sales, and 50 percent of profits. Some countries have hosted a McDonald’s outlet for more than 25 years.

The international arm of McDonald’s has presented extraordinary design challenges to a corporation that prides itself on uniformity. “In Saudi Arabia, each restaurant is really two restaurants,” says Ron Boneau, senior director for international development. “One section is for single men, the other for families.” The booths of the family section have doors and walls so women can unveil and eat without being seen by other men. And five times each day the restaurant must shut down entirely for prayer. “If you’re inside when they close,” Boneau says, “you’re locked in.”

Boneau and his team work hard to fit into specific markets – bicycle parking in China, motorcycle parking in Taiwan, prayer rooms for employees in Indonesia. But Boneau strives to make the fewest possible adjustments to the American model.

“I’ll take a set of drawings from the U.S. and say ‘This is where we begin.’ Then you adapt to code requirements, hurricanes, earthquakes, the local building industry, and the culture.” As much as possible, the process is centralized. “We used to hire local architects,” Boneau says. But now they act only as “local experts to help us understand code requirements and the rest.” The company is extremely strict about the process. “I’ve learned the hard way that you can’t just let local architects loose. We’re McDonald’s. We have our own way of doing things.”

The sometimes alarming loyalty of McDonald’s employees sets them apart from the cantankerous veterans of private architecture firms. One can’t help wondering what the appeal is. Fred Matthias, an 18-year McDonald’s employee, was a partner in an architecture firm for 10 years, worked on an administrative building for McDonald’s and was asked to join the company. “I love the brand and what it stands for,” he explains. “And I love the passion that the people here bring to it.”

Ron Boneau’s background is construction. He worked as a project manager for McDonald’s in Florida before becoming an executive at the company. He has worked for McDonald’s for 29 years; 19 of them on international development. He is cryptic when asked what he thinks of his job. “All the bad is good, and all the good is bad.”

Boneau will admit, however, to a special thrill when he ventures out of a foreign city into the countryside. “I’ll find myself in a place where there are no billboards, no radio, no television,” he says. “there will be a small child who doesn’t speak English, he’ll see the ring I wear on my finger, and he’ll say to me, ‘McDonald’s!’ That’s a great feeling.”