For my final selected theme for cut up I have chosen to examine American fast food restaurants and their place in our landscape.
The last 40 years has witnessed a steady climb in the number of American style diners and fast food outlets appearing all over the United Kingdom, Europe and practically every continent in the World. On a recent trip to Beijing, China I found within meters of the entrance to my hotel, a McDonalds, a KFC and a SubWay sandwich bar. Within half a mile I found two American style burger restaurants, a Pizza Hut plus numerous ‘Chinese’ American style restaurants.
As a boy growing up in the small town of Dunstable, Bedfordshire during the 1960’s, rock and roll music was at its height. During that time our only ‘English’ cafe in the town, (a very tired and dirty place no one wanted to eat at) was shut down and re styled into an American coffee house called ‘The Milk Bar’. My lasting memory of the place is that it served fantastic milkshakes and had a juke box in the corner playing all the latest rock and roll hits.
It became a very popular place to go and clearly indicated that the people of Dunstable wanted a slice of American culture. The venue alas was too small to cash in on its popularity, with many people just going there for the music thus filling the place up with non purchasing visitors much to the annoyance of the manager.
The next slice of Americana to arrive was the burger chain, Wimpy. Started in 1934 in America a licence was granted to Lyons in the late 1950’s to set up Wimpy restaurants here. Ours was built in the early 1970’s.
Wimpy became our sole source of fast food Americana, burgers were the new sausages and were affordable and ready in minutes. The ‘California’ ballroom, a thriving nightclub on the edge of town was an additional slice of American culture and the management intended to cash in bringing the latest American bands to perform live. True rock and roll really did come to Dunstable.
The Wimpy restaurant closed down after the death of the American owner Eddie Gold in 1978, (he failed to pass on the franchise to a successor) followed shortly after by the California ballroom which closed down in 1979 in part due to poor attendance figures and the best bands charging much more to attend. The town saw a reluctant return to the pub and cafe culture of the 1950’s era.
By the early 1990’s the traditional industries in the area such as car and truck manufacture had began to close down heralding a decline of the town in this period. Vauxhall motors first downsized and then closed its gates in 1986 and AWD trucks took over the site. They shut their gates in 2004 signalling the final demolition of the factory ending over 60 years of vehicle production at the site.
The Vauxhall site was redeveloped and Dunstable got its first large Supermarket, Sainsbury’s and next to it a brand new McDonalds restaurant. Over the next five years two KFC restaurants, two pizza hut restaurants, a subway sandwich bar and another McDonalds further outside town appeared. Americana had returned.
So what is it that makes these American style fast food restaurants so appealing?
If we start by looking at the food, no one can say burgers or fried chicken can in any way be healthy for you but the one advantage fast food has over ‘healthy’ options is the cost. A 2014 Daily Telegraph article based on a study by Cambridge University suggests that unhealthy ‘fast’ food can be 3 times cheaper than the healthy alternatives. Once you add to that the speed of service, my own estimate of approximately of 5 minutes if the restaurant isn’t crowded, fast food in our modern hectic lives becomes the quick solution to a meal.
Obviously the popularity of the food must also be taken into account as it is a fact that if the food tasted awful no one would buy it. The alleged basic ingredients in a burger are outlined on the McDonalds website (http://www.mcdonalds.co.uk/ukhome/whatmakesmcdonalds/questions/food/.html) and they insist their burgers are made from 100% minced beef cuts. The public image of the fast food industry is obviously very important to the company as they want to play down the unhealthy side to their products.
Website: http://www.care2.com/greenliving/disgusting-ingredients-in-mcdonalds-burgers.html lists the ingredients as far from healthy. The website states “There’s been a tremendous amount of controversy over McDonald’s burgers since celebrity chef Jamie Oliver demonstrated how meat scraps and sinew are spun in a centrifuge and “washed” with ammonium hydroxide, which has also become known as ‘Pink Slime’. Recently, McDonald’s announced that “we made a decision to discontinue the use of ammonia treated beef in our hamburgers” But, there is no way to know if it is still in use at McDonald’s, other than to trust McDonald’s to do what it says.
The argument continues with the fast food companies stating their food is fit to eat whilst obesity continues to become a problem in the UK and the World.
So what exactly is the appeal? I have examined the cost as one reason but the clever marketing with its no fuss, drop in, modern looking venues which by design are mostly situated next to supermarkets and petrol stations, places where everyone must pause, must play a part. Its offer of free toys to appeal to the young and in some restaurants free playgrounds for many families clinching the deal. The smiling clown logo delivering a message of a fun time out completing the illusion.