Why Is McDonald's Getting Fancy?

McDonald’s is trying to turn into Starbucks, while Starbucks is trying to get away from itself by opening logo-less stores. Mike Albo looks at the changing world of insta-food.

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In the new, bright and modern McCafé in Manhattan, located on Sixth Avenue in Chelsea, I ordered a cappuccino with my large fries. The staff was as busy as LAX air-traffic controllers, but they got it to me in an efficient rush.

I walked up the stairway to the spacious upper floor and sat in a curvy purple chair. On a huge flat screen, I watched a brief Wheel of Fortune puzzle, some new band on LP 33 TV, and then British talk-show host Jonathan Ross interviewing Vince Vaughan on BBC America. The sound was off but Vaughan’s face was sardonic and fleshy as if his cheeks were full of Quarter Pounders.

We need more and more “third locations”—spaces between work and home—where we can read magazines and stare at our laptops, pretending we are getting things done in our lives because we aren’t sitting at home doing the same thing in our underwear.

Across the street from the McCafé is the dull vista of a Sixth Avenue block: Beauty Nail Spa, Metro PCS, and yet another Dunkin Donuts. The cappuccino had a burnt taste like an American version of a cappuccino should.

This European-style McCafé is the first “urban redesign” of McDonald’s in the U.S. There is no sign of Ronald or Grimace here, no fiberglass seats in bright red bolted to the floor, no plastic jungle gyms full of screaming kids. Even the iconic Golden Arches aren’t that noticeable.

Often in House and Home sections of the newspaper or in sweeping “How We Will Live” themed issues of magazines, you will come across dreamy architectural drawings of sleek spaces where we are all supposedly going to live in the future—Frank Gehry wonderlands and Zaha Hadid orbworlds. They are suspiciously clean and spare and sustainable and there is sprinkling of gorgeous Photoshopped people walking around with lots of personal space.

If you want to really feel the future, spend 10 minutes in McCafé. Here’s my prediction: Those sleek, spare futureworlds will be full of them.

Fast food is certainly not going away any time soon. McDonald's has seen its sales profits drop in the last couple of months, but for the most part the company has had robust sales throughout our Great Recession. Its competitors like Burger King and Taco Bell have done well, too, with cheap eats like a new $1 double cheeseburger at Burger King, or value menus from Taco Bell that offer items for less than $1.

Unless the world suddenly turns its golf courses into organic farms, there will be a greater demand for fast food at prices that income-challenged citizens can enjoy in the urban sprawl while they try to afford health insurance.

And where better to enjoy your affordable foodstuffs than this clean, bright interior: Neon green walls accented with day-glo orange tiger stripes, large table surfaces and orderly, smooth booths. Slim countertops had brown and white cushioned seats under them—circular and clean like backgammon pieces.

It’s a radical transformation for the fast-food dead zone you may know too well. For decades McDonald’s has infiltrated European cities—from Madrid to Estonia, inspiring outrage and the Slow Food Movement. But it seems a weird kind of cross cultural exchange has happened. Now the chain is coming back to America with a cosmopolitan flair like a college student who spends his junior year abroad and returns with an accent. I spent an hour there, and felt as if I were in some unfamiliar arrondissement, trying to ground myself with the grease of my homeland.

But for all its Euro-flamboyance, the minimal design and brightly painted walls will look familiar to you. It’s that kind of environment available at places like Design Within Reach and West Elm. After more than a decade of home makeover reality shows, McCafé looks like one of those renovations of a rec room you may find on an HGTV program called Spiff My Pad! or Luxury on a Budget. You can imagine an energetic lady host with a punky flip-do bouncing through here, saying “And the lime green wall really opens up the space!” Eating our meat paddies and McFlurries on reproductions of Jacobsen chairs signifies the final and complete digestion of midcentury modern decor into everyday American life.

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McDonald’s isn’t the only one sprucing up their dining rooms. Burger King has unveiled a new futuristic design of its stores last month. The company, as reported by the AP, revealed its new design in Amsterdam. Called “20/20,” it includes a sleek interior with rotating red chandeliers, TV-screen menus and a mix of corrugated metal and brick walls. The company plans on overhauling its 12,000 locations worldwide.

Even Starbucks is trying to escape its own past. Recently, in its hometown of Seattle, the company re-opened one of its stores as 15th Avenue Coffee and Tea, serving coffee, tea, wine and beer. Starbucks says it will open two more Seattle-area stealth stores (without the name and logo) in new locations.

It’s a mind-bending example of how conceptually contorted our new decade will be: Not only is Starbucks trying to become the old Starbucks, but McDonald’s and Burger King are trying to become the new Starbucks.

It also shows what kind of consumers we are turning out to be as we roll over into the ‘10s. We are vaguely employed and have Bluetooth devices attached to our heads. We need more places with a pleasant midcentury aesthetic where we can cram for exams and have appointments with dicey accountants, hideously polite catch-ups with exes, and meetings with Internet dates and micro-business clients. We need more and more “third locations”–spaces between work and home–where we can read magazines and stare at our laptops, pretending we are getting things done in our lives because we aren’t sitting at home doing the same thing in our underwear.

All this effort by the megalithic insta-food industry must mean there are more and more of us out there: Consumer nomads looking for wifi and telescreens to make us feel connected, and futuristic environments to make us feel like there is a future, but with access to cheap Big Macs. Here’s the real future—sure there may be some breathtaking architecture, but it will be crawling with familiar logos and neon signage and probably smell like Cinnabons. A bustling, ketchuppy Tomorrowland.

Plus: Check out Hungry Beast for more news on the latest restaurants, hot chefs, and tasty recipes.

Mike Albo is a writer and performer who lives and loves in Brooklyn. His second novel, (written with Virginia Heffernan) is the cult humor classic The Underminer: The Best Friend Who Casually Destroys Your Life. You can find him at mikealbo.com.