Fast-food restaurants represent the best and worst of America

Fast food occupies an outsize place in American culture. The grease runs through our national veins. But the food itself — the White Castle sliders, the KFC buckets, the Whoppers and Baconators and Egg McMuffins — is only part of the story. Because, as Adam Chandler argues in his new book, Drive-Thru Dreams: A Journey Through the Heart of America’s Fast-Food Kingdom, these are not simply restaurants. They are national institutions, roadside embodiments of the best of America, and the worst of it.

“Critics frequently accuse McDonald’s and its ilk of being monoliths that throw around their influential purchasing and marketing power to public harm,” Chandler writes. In this column: unlivable wages, poor working conditions, poor treatment of animals, and food of questionable nutritional value, to start. All that, he agrees, is true. Yet it would be a mistake to write the whole thing off. There’s a reason fast food occupies such a distinct place in our hearts, and it’s not just that we’re all foolish and unhealthy.

From my desk in Brooklyn — an easy walk from a Subway, a McDonald’s, a Checkers, and at least two Dunkin’ Donuts — I called Chandler to talk about how we got here and how we should feel about it. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

So we have the American flag, we have the Statue of Liberty, we have the Golden Arches. How did that … happen? How did a chain selling quick drive-thru burgers become an icon of America?

I’d say the sort of iconic nature of fast food takes off after World War II. The United States commits to this huge national project of building the interstate highway system, there’s this flight — the people moving out of the cities and into the suburbs, which are being built very quickly — and there’s a baby boom. And all of these things create this need for roadside fare that people can eat when they’re on the go, when they’re commuting. More women are entering the workforce, the economy is diversifying, and so [the demand for fast food] grows kind of naturally.

Harland Sanders reading the newspaper at home.
Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

The people who found these chains are also really cookie-cutter American dream prototypes. Ray Kroc, Colonel Sanders — these are people who grew up poor, were generally middle school or high school dropouts who committed themselves to some kind of national service. [Kroc was briefly a Red Cross ambulance driver; Sanders joined the Army.] Dave Thomas of Wendy’s was an orphan and dropped out of high school, and eventually went back to get his GED. I mean, there are all these really incredible stories that we’d hold up in this Horatio Alger kind of pantheon of American bootstrapping ideology.

It’s a dangerous notion, this American dream, because of how the country has progressed. But if you just tell the story of these people’s lives, it harkens back to this notion of America as a place of immense opportunity for people who didn’t have a ton of education, who just really wanted to work hard and had an idea and made it happen. That’s a very American concept. And the story of fast food is also the story of how that dream gets corrupted over the years, when wages stagnate and corporate powers swoop in. So there, fast food has a throughline that really seems American in a unique way.

But it’s also about the food itself, isn’t it?

Fast food was initially created with middle-class, striving families in mind. These were people who were settling down and building families and trying to make their lives work in an era of prosperity. And this was sort of a literal fuel for that, for nights out, for exploring the country.

It was family-focused. There was something very casual about it; it was low-stakes. You didn’t have to worry about dishes. You take it to go, wrapped up in paper, and you throw out the paper when you’re done, and there’s no wait service involved. That’s new and unique and very democratic. We see it reflecting American ideology in hindsight. At the time, it was something that was accessible and inexpensive and quick and easy.

You make the point, too, that fast food provided opportunities for a lot of people through franchising. In the book, you talk about Aslam Khan, a Pakistani immigrant who started at Church’s Chicken as a dishwasher and went on to become the chain’s largest franchisee. It’s another American dream story.

Yeah, it truly is fascinating to think of fast food as this really potent enabler of opportunity for small business. You don’t think of it as that. Because of how corporatized the images [of these chains are], I think it’s really difficult to grasp that a lot of franchises are basically run by local people in a community.

These are people who are functioning in an unforgiving environment where the profit margins are thin, but it’s also proven to be a pretty solid way to be successful in American business. A little bit less so now, but in the ’60s and ’70s in particular, as fast food was really booming, you had all these entrepreneurs who resembled the founders — they didn’t necessarily need a college education or a lot of money to ascend through the ranks, become franchisees, start businesses, and become millionaires.

If you talk to a lot of franchisees from McDonald’s, they hold Ray Kroc in reverence for giving people chances at the American dream. It’s a quote that I’ve encountered a couple times: “Ray Kroc made more millionaires than anyone else in America.” That’s a really surprising idea, given how the perception of McDonald’s now is of something driven by corporate greed that profits off low wages.

When did that change? Most of the discussion around fast-food labor now isn’t focused on what a great path it is toward upward mobility, I wouldn’t say.

Once wages begin to stagnate [in the late ’70s/early ’80s], once opportunities begin to shrink up, once income inequality begins to spread, that level of mobility becomes more and more remote as an idea, as a reality. And fast food kind of emblematizes that shift, because it really did use to be something that we cherished as character building. Look at the people who’ve worked in fast food.

Jeff Bezos, the richest man on earth, is a McDonald’s alumni, and he brags about it. Paul Ryan sliced his middle finger off in an Arby’s meat slicer. Barack Obama worked at a Baskin-Robbins. All of these really highfalutin figures look back on their time as fast-food employees as kind of character-building weigh stations on their way to success.

And we don’t really hear those stories anymore. These are really old-fashioned ideas, but they held weight for a long time in the American imagination. But no one is saying that about fast-food work now.

But you make the case that these fast-food restaurants actually play a really important role in American public life, serving all kinds of non-food needs that wouldn’t otherwise be met. They’re like community centers that also serve nuggets.

It’s a really surprising thing you encounter. For this book, I drove from the Gulf Coast to the Great Lakes, America’s two sort of unheralded coasts. I’d end up in these small towns, and I would see locals gathered at a McDonald’s or at a Burger King, or even local chains that aren’t recognizable outside of certain cities. And in these places, this is where people went to meet up. This is their third place. This is a gathering spot for retirees or people who are on their way to work, or people wanting to grab a quick bite with their kids.

So I do think the community aspect of it really is meaningful, and I think that’s part of why the people who think that criticizing fast food is elitist have a really good point. Because if you haven’t seen those kinds of environments —if you haven’t seen community fundraisers and car washes and teens hanging out after school at the local Taco Bell or the local Wendy’s — you tend to believe that it either doesn’t exist or that it’s not valuable. And it really is. It really is meaningful to see Bible study groups gathering at McDonald’s in the morning. It’ll host basically anyone who wants to walk in and sit for a while and have this kind of intergenerational, trans-demographic, social experience.

What is it about fast-food restaurants that makes them a good place for that?

I mean, I think they feel like home. There’s so much that’s wrapped up nostalgia and familiarity and ritual. It’s very easy to feel like you have a level of ownership over these places. There’s not a lot of judgment in the fast-food dining rooms.

You can fumble into a place hungover and order seven cheeseburgers at 10:30 in the morning and no one will bat an eye. Nobody cares. You probably assume other people are there for the same reasons or are having similar experiences as you are. And I think there’s something meaningful to that, that there’s this decades-long connection.

Not everyone feels that way by any stretch of the imagination. I think today, in urban centers, Starbucks probably replicates that experience. But I don’t think it quite holds up in the same way as a fast-food restaurant does.

In the book, you mention that there are almost as many McDonald’s in the US as there are public libraries, which got me thinking about the way fast-food chains seem to have become these sort of para-municipal bodies. I’m thinking about when Domino’s started “Paving for Pizza,” filling potholes in towns across America. On the one hand, it’s obviously a marketing stunt, but on the other, this a corporate pizza chain that’s literally funding public infrastructure. And it doesn’t even feel that jarring. Like, sure, pizza, why not?

Yeah, there was recently a story about Burger King offering to pay off student loans. I think that may reflect a broader sort of corporate intrusion into the functions of institutions that are kind of done for in the United States — or feel done for right now. I think that’s not terribly surprising, but I think the stunty aspect of it is that they do want to seem aware and progressive and they kind of want to flex their muscle in ways that are different.

So here’s the thing I’m stuck on: On the one hand, fast food is for everyone; you’re never out of place at a fast-food restaurant. But at the same time, fast food isn’t politically neutral. It becomes this weird shorthand for everything that’s wrong with modernity. People have very strong feelings.

Yeah, absolutely. I’m puzzled by the sheer number of myths that center around fast food. It surprises people when I tell them that lower-income people are not the primary customer base for fast-food restaurants. In fact, the American underclass eats fast food less frequently than middle-class and upper-middle-class families. It’s hard, empirically, to link fast food to obesity. [But] it’s such a familiar thing that it really makes all of these issues tangible. So many issues pass through fast food — it really is a great way to talk about what ails the country, and the cultural divides around [those issues]. It isn’t necessarily constructive, though, and I think that’s a big problem.

President Donald Trump speaks behind a table full of McDonald’s hamburgers, Chick fil-a sandwiches, and other fast food as he welcomes the 2018 Football Division I FCS champs North Dakota State Bison in the Diplomatic Room of the White House.
Oliver Contreras-Pool/Getty Images

What’s missing from that discussion?

I worked as a bartender for six years in New York when I first moved here, and I can tell you the restaurant industry in terms of wages, in terms of schedule stability, in terms of sexual harassment, tipped wage, all of these aspects of working in restaurants, whether it’s a really, really nice one or just a dive bar — these issues that we’re talking about in fast food exist in the entire restaurant industry.

The studies that show just dining out at a full-service restaurant, or a fast-casual restaurant, is in many ways just as bad as eating at a fast-food restaurant in terms of calories, or in terms of sodium, or in terms of cholesterol. Which is not to say that it’s the best thing in the world for you.

But if you scapegoat fast food for being the devil without paying attention to the other things around it that are extremely problematic in the same or similar ways, you’re not really solving any problems. There are Michelin star restaurants that have wage theft violations against them. But fast food is an easy progressive target.

That makes sense to me, though. Because it is so quintessentially American, it’s the perfect battleground. How do we want America to be? Let’s fight about it through McDonald’s.

Right. Fast food is an easy, recognizable symbol, and it’s a great way to tell a story about America. Donald Trump really effectively uses fast food.

Yeah, let’s talk about that. What is the story he’s telling with his defiant fast-food evangelism?

I mean, first of all, I hate to give it to him, but I think it’s brilliant. And I think people take the bait in a really terrible way.

Even back on the campaign trail, it was such an effective way for him to distance himself from the perception of him as this thrice-married billionaire real estate mogul to have him on his private jet eating KFC or McDonald’s. That was really effective. I think it really made people say, “Not only can I relate to this, but this is my guy, and he’s not too good to eat this food.” The meaning behind that posture is there are people who are too good to eat this food. And that alienates a lot of people who feel judged for the way they eat … and how they live their lives.

Then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton and running mate Al Gore speak to 60 Minutes correspondent Steve Kroft outside a McDonald’s in 1992.
Cynthia Johnson/Liaison

And the more people criticize it, the more powerful it becomes. But this also feels very familiar. The left/right divide that plays out in the discussion of fast food — coastal elites eat their overpriced kale salads; real Americans eat Baconators — isn’t Trump’s invention, is it?

Food has been weaponized in the last couple of decades in that very specific way, for sure. There’s a really great quote that I’m going to mangle that was thrown at Howard Dean, calling him a Volvo-driving, latte-sipping, socialist-loving Vermont jerk. [The full quote, from a 2004 attack ad from the Club for Growth, in fact calls Dean a “tax-hiking, government-expanding, latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times-reading, body-piercing, Hollywood-loving left-wing freak show.”]

But I think only in recent years has fast food come into play. If you look at the gallery of presidential photo ops at fast-food restaurants, it’s pretty incredible — you see Bill Clinton and Al Gore power-walking in really, really short shorts to a McDonald’s. Appearing at these places was a really standard part of the equation. There’s been a movement away from embracing it as an American thing on the left, [but] it still remains extremely popular across all demographic and political bounds. It’s still part of the fabric of American life. And I think anyone who’s hoping to understand where we’ve gone awry in some places would benefit from understanding that and perhaps seeing the things that factor into that a little bit more clearly.

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