By: Jonas Wiedenmann
I do not eat at McDonald’s anymore. But this was coming a long way. Here it is.
It was not like it was forbidden. But it was exciting anyway. Born in 1990 as the child of an upper-middle-class family in Freiburg, southern Germany, my dad sometimes took me to McDonald’s, and I think mostly because it was some kind of a bonding, a father-son-thing. It was not so much about the food. Sometimes he told me I shouldn’t tell my mother, but I think that was more a joke – and I couldn’t keep my mouth shut anyway. My mother, a pediatrician, of course told me that eating at that place was not good for my health. But she would not forbid me to go there, as I enjoyed it that much. I knew that this was not the place for the best food – there where other places, and my dad love to cook dinners at home. But getting out to that place was always something special.
Later, as I graduated from high school, there was a phase where I started to eat more and more at McDonald’s. Simply because I could. The 1€ (15 000 Rupiah) offerings (cheeseburger, hamburger, chicken burger and other small stuff) where so tempting, and one restaurant was not too far from where I lived with my parents. So I often went out late at night, just to grab some cheeseburgers, eat them somewhere alone in the car or on top of a parking garage and just enjoy a sense of freedom. I did not do this with my friends, mostly because I was ashamed. Some of them got more and more involved into the organic food movement. I would follow them, but not at this point. I chose freedom over responsibility and bought more and more burgers from McDonald’s.
Until that one night. We were hanging out at a friend’s house, and I was there with the car – another choice for “freedom”, as I could’ve easily taken the bicycle for that 5 minute ride. Later this night I got my occasional craving for some cheeseburgers, and asked around if anyone wanted something from McDonald’s. No one cared for any food from that place, so I took the car, drove down to the burger shop and bought myself seven (!) cheeseburgers. Why not, I thought, someone back at my friend’s house will eat at least one of them. But I felt strange going back in there, as no one of my friends ever before said something like “Hey, let’s go and eat at McDonald’s” – there just was no link between my friends and McDonald’s, they did not care at all.
And that was the last time I purchased anything from McDonald’s. This was July 2009.
From my perception, and of what I experienced in Indonesia, McDonald’s means something totally different here in Germany, especially for me. Eating at McDonald’s was never a privilege in a way of money – the food is so cheap compared to regular German restaurants and take-outs that you are (financially) tempted to eat every meal of the day there, unless you cook at home. To me it was a privilege in the sense of being allowed to go there, to „sin“. I remember my mother sometimes talking about other people who go to McDonald’s, and she was not talking in a favorable way of them. Coming from an upper-middle class family, my mom tried to explain to me that the whole McDonald’s-idea was based on exploiting “lower-class” people and taking advantage of their shortcomings (such as being more prone to adverts and the temptation of fatty, fried food and way to sweet desserts). So the more I became aware of my surroundings, the more I observed the “McDonald’s microcosm“, I started to feel alienated in there – not only because I am a very slim person. I started to see how that company was making their millions, on what the system was based and that this was nothing I would support with my money.
McDonald’s is sometimes the center of arguments along groups of friends – who eats there, who doesn’t? Why, why not? For most Germans nowadays, it is clear that McDonald’s is not a “way of living” and that out of reasons of health their restaurants should be avoided. The huge success of the movie “Super-Size Me” in Germany and also of other movies of that kind shows that a growing group of people is aware of the “true face” of McDonald’s. Freiburg has four McDonald’s restaurants, each in a different part of town. One in a mostly residential area close to the shops and hardware stores, another one in the industrial district, the third one downtown where the clubs are and the last one at the train station. Most notably, this one is the only one open 24 hours, but only during weekends. The other ones are closing at around 1:00 am (weekdays) and 3:00 am (weekends).
The McDonald’s restaurants in Germany face difficulties at many levels right now. There are no new restaurants opened at this point, and a restructuring process (implementing lounge- style “McCafés” into existing restaurants) is mostly complete. The organic-food-movement in Germany has definitely had some influence on the The McDonald’s’ revenues over the last decade. It’s the first time that The McDonald’s hast to push major advertisement campaigns, focusing on “quality” – this means that the company feels urged to justify their way of doing things. Also campaigns that show that the ingredients and the meat used for the burgers come from German, sometimes even local farmers, are airing.
Apart from the organic-food-movement, other foods are challenging the former BigMac- monopoly. During the last decades it was mostly Turkish Kebabs (called “Döner” and “Yufka” around here). Those where the most popular alternatives to McDonald’s – although in no way cheaper, healthier or more organic. The only difference is that your kebab is compiled in front of your eyes and you get to choose whether you’d like to have onions in it or a special sauce. The phenomenon of “live-cooking” has become one of the biggest transformations in the western kitchen and restaurant culture, as new restaurants – no matter at what level – are letting their guests see the chefs preparing the food in real time, and not behind closed doors.
The newest enemy of the BigMac is the burger- and street-food-movement. Germany’s capital Berlin, which has the most kebab-stores world-wide, has a vast burger-scene as well. Online-blogs try to keep track of where the best burgers are made, but it’s a little bit like if you tried to test all warungs that serve nasi goreng in a city like Yogyakarta. Apart from those restaurants, who mostly stand out because of their carefully selected burger meats, self-made burger buns and new flavor-combinations, food trucks – rolling restaurants – show that you don’t even need a constant place to make great food, challenging the definition of restaurant and theories of place and space. Originating in the United States, the food trucks picked up pace in Germany, coinciding with the organic-food-movement and the strive towards individualization. Most major German cities like Hamburg, Berlin and Cologne offer such a variety of food trucks that they organize little festivals where all the trucks come together and you can taste all different kinds of food, ranging from soups, German “Käsespätzle” and tacos to smoked spareribs. Here, McDonald’s does have no say and is not even considered as a place where to eat burgers.
Out of these reasons, I think that the coming generations will have a totally different experience of what McDonald’s is – depending on how the former burger-monopoly goes from here. Major transformations are unavoidable if the company wants to make the money they used to. Experiments are already on, as some German McDonald’s restaurants are offering vegan alternatives to their burgers, trying to get rid of the old image. It is now the other restaurants and food trucks which are making burgers, and leading the way. McDonald’s in Germany is falling behind. Let’s see where they go from here.