NEW YORK — Tracy Barcelona and Samone Riley try not to eat at McDonald's every day. But today they're here again, on a lunch break from their jobs at a New York telemarketing firm, enjoying burgers and fries.
"I eat here about three times a week," Ms. Riley admits.
"It's cheap and convenient - we only have a half hour for lunch," explains Ms. Barcelona.
"And also," adds Riley, her eyes widening significantly, "the fries are really good."
There are probably several million consumers on the planet who feel exactly the same way. There's something rather uncomfortable about the idea of downing too many meals at the ubiquitous fast-food giant, but on the other hand, it may be hard to stay away.
In part, staying away is difficult simply because McDonald's is everywhere. Last month, in Chicago, the company celebrated the opening of its 25,000th store. That makes a total of 13,000 stores in the United States and 12,000 abroad. Domestic growth has slowed in recent years, but on a global basis the burger behemoth is still moving like a comet.
And in terms of impact on daily life, McDonald's is also difficult to avoid. Even those who refuse to eat there are indirectly affected by its enormous global success. The company has trained an entire population to expect instant gratification. It has inspired other franchise operators with its efficiency, and has added an oddly standardized dimension to foreign travel.
But the fact that today there's a McDonald's in most corners of the world - the company presently operates in 115 countries, from the Arctic Circle to the southern tip of New Zealand - is a legacy many Americans feel somewhat uncomfortable about bestowing on the world.
After all, many may wonder, isn't there something unseemly about claiming fast food as a major cultural and economic export? And is the notion of speed and convenience as imperative goals one that Americans want to claim for themselves, much less share with the world?
And yet, say the company's defenders, McDonald's never invented the fast-food lifestyle - its founders were simply clever enough to mold it. And in so doing they created a business embodying some of what the world likes best - and least - about the US and its culture.
"From a social perspective McDonald's has been very important," says Nancy Kruze, president of The Kruze Company, an Atlanta-based food consulting group. "The birth of McDonald's coincides with the birth of suburban America. They came on stream at a time when Americans were becoming more mobile, taking to the road, forming households in record numbers."
The company did more than simply offer a quicker, cheaper burger, says Kruze. "They provided a convenience and consistency that were just what people were looking for at the time."
The changes that were taking place in America were ones that McDonald's founder, Ray Kroc, could hardly miss. At the age of 52, he was watching his career as a milkshake salesman go by the boards as Americans began deserting the leisurely service at their neighborhood soda fountains for food they could eat on the go.
Some people believed the shift in eating and lifestyle patterns would prove a temporary one, but Kroc understood that the changes were actually long-term ones. As a result, in 1954 when he caught a glimpse of the original McDonald's restaurant, he knew he was looking at the future.
And the future that Kroc glimpsed - one that included a fascination with speed, mobility, and convenience - quickly became an international rather than a merely national phenomenon. That global trend is something McDonald's was quick to react to but can't necessarily be credited with inventing.
But the sheer size of the burger giant - its 1998 sales totaled $36 billion, making it larger than Burger King, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut combined - has caused it to become the chief target of many of those who rail against the fast-food culture.
Yet in some ways for Americans to complain about McDonald's is to complain about themselves, says Clark Wolf, a New York-based food and restaurant critic.
"They solidified a piece of American culture and life for the whole world," says Mr. Wolf. "One of the models of our daily life is that troika: hamburger, French fries, and Coke. It's our hand-held food, our street food, the way the taco is in Mexico. McDonald's didn't invent it - they were just smart enough to sell it."
For the most part, Wolf adds, the company's success has been based on giving people what they want. Whenever McDonald's has tried to branch into lower-fat menu items (salads, carrot sticks, the McLean Burger) customers have voted with their dollars and continually returned to high-calorie burgers and fries.
And McDonald's top management has almost never been rewarded for innovation with the company's menu. Most of the ideas dreamed up by headquarters - such as the recent Arch Deluxe - have flopped.
Most of the company's great menu successes over the years have actually been the results of suggestions from franchisees, managers who stay closer to the ground and keep a more careful watch over customer tastes.
The Big Mac was the 1967 idea of a Pittsburgh franchisee, while a Santa Barbara, Calif., franchisee invented the Egg McMuffin in 1971.
But, in some ways, argue some of the company's observers, the food McDonald's serves has not had the most impact on society. Instead, says Dennis Lombardi, executive vice president of Technomic Inc., a Chicago-based restaurant consulting firm, it's been the way the company practices business that has most imprinted American society - and that's now being passed on to workers around the globe.
Due to the company's size and the high number of entry-level positions it offers, Mr. Lombardi says, "there's now a whole generation given basic job skills and training by McDonald's."
The company itself estimates that 1 out of every 15 Americans now has his or her first work experience at a McDonald's. Lombardi questions those numbers but points out, "Even if it's only 1 in 150, it's still an incredible number."
Largely, he believes, the impact McDonald's has had on American workers has been positive. "They've created hundreds of thousands of jobs in a good environment with food safety and sanitation and teamwork."
McDonald's work environment has become another American work export. "You go to Saudi Arabia or any part of the world and see it working," he adds. "That speaks tremendously of the system."
That system, however, may not be around forever. Some have suggested that the vision on which it was founded has become dated, and that other fast-food companies have created better products and learned to deliver them hotter and fresher.
Then again, speculation that the company's growth will slow has been rife since the 1970s and has yet to prove accurate.
In the past few years, "McDonald's had a couple of misfires and lost momentum," agrees Lombardi. "But they're very much back in focus now."
Today, the young Manhattan telemarketers agree. "The food isn't always great," admits Riley. "But somehow today," she says, popping a fry in her mouth, "we got it hot and nice, and it's just extra good."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society