The flat-screen TV above my head is tuned to CNN. I’m lounging in a soft, cedar-brown leather chair, watching Larry King do his best icy Mr. Burns impression as he grills some official over the search for three missing climbers on Mount Hood. My feet are propped up on a small coffee table as I gobble down spoonfuls of vanilla ice cream with chocolaty Oreo cookie crumbs folded into it.
This news wonk’s wet dream is not taking place in some hotel bar with a built-for-comfort dessert menu; it’s unfolding at the McDonald’s on Gallows Road. The Falls Church fast-food outlet is one of thousands of McDonald’s across the nation to recently ditch their primary-colored, sanitarium-lit interiors and embrace the notion that the Internet is our children’s new playground (and ours) and that diners want a little more comfort and cushion for their beef-bloated butts.
The massive McDonald’s remodeling campaign—which favors faux leather over plastic, natural colors over circus tones, and cable TV over children’s screams—has generated countless column inches explaining the changes, much of it boiling down to what local franchisee Jim Van Valkenburg recently told me. “It’s just time to update [the restaurants] and bring them up to what the customers expect these days,” he says. “We realize we have a changing customer base now…Kids are [still] very important to us as a customer, because when the kids say, ‘I want to go to McDonald’s,’ it’s Mom or Dad that has to bring them in, so we want to appease both of them.”
But as I sit in a renovated McDonald’s in Hyattsville, gumming down a Cinnamon Melts pastry (is all the food here designed to be eaten by those without teeth, young or old?), I don’t fully buy that oft-reported explanation. If McDonald’s wants to compete in the fast-casual market against heavyweight Panera Bread, its gambit of appeasement through hip interior design and packaging seems superficial at best. At worse, it smacks of a re-education campaign.
Exhibit A: The canned jazz playing at the Hyattsville location dovetails a little too perfectly with the packaging of my Cinnamon Melts, one of several new food items that sound better in theory than they taste in your mouth. The pastry’s container is stamped with a drawing of a fedora-topped trumpeter leaning against a stool, all Miles-like. If that’s not enough, the bag holding my Melts features a thin woman in workout clothes, her arms and leg akimbo in a yogic pose. Underneath her is a quote: “Life is a balancing act…I’m loving it.”
The effect is downright Orwellian. Your palate tells you one thing (“This is cheap, sugary swill!”), and your environment tells you another (“You have sophisticated tastes!”). This strikes me as no way to ease the concerns and guilt of any thinking adult who wants to give Mickey D’s another chance after years of negative publicity (just pick a topic: obesity, animal rights, labor practices, etc.).
Perhaps you think I’m overstating the case about our collective white-collar shame over eating at McDonald’s? Jim McKenna, a retired judge and co-owner of Sugarloaf Mountain Vineyard, gobbled down a Big Mac just a few days ago—and regretted it almost immediately. “I always feel guilty about it if I go into those places,” he says.
The last time Judy Frels slunked into a McDonald’s was five years ago in Narbonne, France. It was an impulse snarf that still resonates to this day. “I felt like I’m the stereotypical American,” says the senior director of custom programs at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. “Here I am in France, the land of food, and I’m walking into a McDonald’s.” Restaurant consultant and PR executive Bronwyn Jacoby felt remorse after her last visit to McDonald’s, too. “I put that [food] in my body,” she says, “and I went, ‘Oh, my gosh, I’m going to be completely sluggish for the next three to six hours, because everything I just put in my mouth is terrible for you.’ ”
With its remodeling and repackaging campaign, McDonald’s has merely stripped away the visual reminders of our sins against food and nature. In the good (bad?) old days, you could slink into a corner at Mickey D’s with your $5 dinner, secure in the knowledge that the garish surroundings reflected the queasiness you felt after wolfing down two greasy, ketchup-heavy cheeseburgers with pickles as thin as rice paper. You felt cheap; the restaurant looked cheap. That very harmony helped to keep me away from the Golden Arches on numerous occasions.
Now we’re stuck with this: A Mazza Gallerie McDonald’s with classic rock on the sound system and a series of black-and-white flower photographs on the walls, each Georgia O’Keeffeny in its intimacy. I can sip a premium blend coffee, plug into the Wi-Fi, and feel almost as righteous as that boho sipping fair-traded brew over at Starbucks. At least for a while. A posted sign reads: 30 minute time limit while consuming food.
At Mazza, “we have certain people who think that it’s a great idea to come in and get one cup of coffee and sit there for five or six hours. So we have to do something,” says Van Valkenburg. “If I could start selling coffee for $4 a cup, maybe I could have them sit there a lot longer. But my coffee prices aren’t quite there.”
Welcome to the new McDonald’s: Built for your comfort. Just don’t get too comfortable.