The American Dilemma and How We Can Fix It

Posts tagged ‘Fast food’


In just a few short months I will be celebrating my 30th anniversary – of not setting foot inside or eating the food prepared at McDonald’s.  The actual date is December 18th.  While it used to be an off again on again place for me to get something to eat, I really can’t say that I have missed it – in the least.

When I was a college student it was sort of the norm to grab a bite there from time to time.  I never felt that the food was exceptional – or even really good – but it was fast and it was cheap.  I imagine it’s still fast but from the reports I’ve gotten, eating at Mickey D’s. or most of its competitors is now getting rather pricey.

Well, the point of this post is not to critique the value or quality of food at our fast food chain outlets.  Rather, it is to discuss the economics of being in the fast food business.

Ray Kroc was a genius.  He realized that by taking simple products like burgers, fries and shakes and standardizing their preparation, he could teach virtually anyone how to prepare an order for a customer.  The genius that Mr. Kroc had was that he developed a system – and that system could be duplicated, over and over and over again.

There was a part of the system which was essential for the delivery of a fast and inexpensive meal.  That was inexpensive help.  Fortunately, there was no lack of supply of poorly skilled workers available who relished the idea of a job – at any hourly wage – and who flocked through the doors of McDonald’s’ franchisees to apply.

A lot of these early employees were high school students who were looking to save some money for college or for other purchases they had in mind.  But a lot of these fast food employees were people who had so few skills that their work options were limited.  They found a home in various fast food company outlets, flipping burgers, salting fries and pouring drinks.

Perhaps you read that there has been a strike at various McDonald’s in NYC and other locations throughout the country.  The minimum wage workers are demanding an increase in their salaries – in some cases to double what they are presently being paid.

Now I’m not going to bore you with the old economists’ arguments about whether raising the minimum wage actually helps or hurts the employee.   (There is an immediate escalation in income combined with a consequent reduction in the number of workers as companies find ways to automate jobs formerly held by humans).  But let’s look for a moment at the fast food industry and how, should the strikers’ demands be met, management might counter.

The best statistic that I can garner is that there are presently about 160,000 fast food outlets in the country.  These include familiar brands like Wendy’s; Burger King; Starbucks; Taco Bell, ad infinitum.  That’s a lot of real estate and a lot of food.  In fact, according to the industry trade association, one out of six of us visits one of these outlets each and every day.  It’s an industry projected to have revenues approaching 200 Billion dollars this year.

Now you would imagine that a business that cumulatively employs people at 160,000 locations would employ a lot of people – and you would be correct.  But the number of outlets/number of employees is a bit misleading.  You see, quite a few of them are open 24/7 (at least for drive through purchases) and virtually all of them have two shifts of workers per day.

So for sake of discussion, let’s assume that there are 300,000 people who, on a daily basis are engaged in one single activity – taking orders.  (If you’ve been inside a fast food restaurant you know that there are usually several people doing this – plus one dedicated to the drive through window – so this number is ridiculously low).

What, other than saying, “Hello and welcome to X” does this person do that a machine cannot do (with the assistance of a little customer input)?  Absolutely nothing.

We have long been acclimated to using ATM’s for our financial transactions.  It took us a little while to get used to them but we did it.  Now, punching in our PIN and waiting to deposit our check or receive our withdrawal is a normal part of life.  Those machines replaced tens of thousands of tellers across the country.

There is absolutely no reason that the fast food industry could not implement the same sort of ATM-like equipment to accept orders and voìla – 300,000 jobs (again this is an incredibly low estimate) have just disappeared.

Think about the savings.   No payment of FICA, FUTA, health insurance or all the other things that are peripheral costs to the employee’s actual salary.  That machine is never going to file a Worker’s Comp or Unemployment claim.  It’s never going to ask for a day off or expect pay for an earned vacation.

I suspect that the cost of converting this function and purchasing the equipment  could be recovered in one year’s time or less.  And any businessman knows that is a good investment.

So when Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton and all those minimum wage workers hold their banners high, demanding a hike in their wages, they might want to give some consideration not to the rhetoric but to the possibilities which may lay ahead.

There is something else I would call to their attention.  The “Emancipation Proclamation” freed the country from the bonds of slavery.  There are no indentured servants or slaves working at our fast food restaurants.  People work there because of their own choice – not because someone is threatening their life or the lives of their families.  If they can find a position at twice their present wages, I would be the first to encourage them to accept that better job.

But to those who are sympathetic to the workers’ plight I would like to offer a suggestion that would help out the person who takes your order and will, at the same time, assuage your conscience.

Leave them a tip as an expression of your concern and gratitude.


If everyone were like me there would be a lot of vacant buildings in America which are currently housing fast food outlets.  I eat out at these places five or six times a year at most.  Well, last night was one of those nights when I had become involved in a small project, time had slipped away, it was late and I was hungry.

I remembered that I still had a receipt from a breakfast I had purchased at Jack In The Box which offered me a 10% discount on a future purchase attached to the fridge with a kitchen magnet.  Best of all, it was good on any meal and there was no expiration date on the receipt.  As Jack In The Box is only a couple of miles from the house and I knew that they were open 24 hours a day for drive through, I took myself and my six month old receipt and drove over there.

I was sort of in the mood for a chicken of some kind sandwich.  It took me a few seconds to locate the “chicken section” on their menu display and then to eliminate the “nugget” selections.  That brought it down to a “Sourdough Bread Chicken Sandwich” or a “Western Chicken Sandwich.”  I had ordered a sandwich on their sourdough bread before and didn’t care for the consistency of the bread – so by default I leaned toward the Western Chicken.  And as I was in a mood for some fries I decided to order the “Combo” since they offered lemonade as a drink choice.

Confidently, I edged my car forward to the ordering station where the little screen greeted me with, “Welcome to Jack In The Box.”  Within seconds a young woman’s voice magically broadcast the same greeting and asked if she could take my order.  So I replied, “I’ll have the number nine combo with lemonade, please.”

“Do you want a small, medium or large?,” she queried.

This through me for a loop.  I wanted the number nine combo for $6.29 as listed on their menu.  I wasn’t sure what further choices I had to make.

A bit flustered, I repeated my request for the number nine combo with lemonade.

“Yes, but do you want a small, medium or large?”

“A small, medium or large what?,” I asked.

“Combo,” she replied.

I could see that we were caught in a circular conversation which was going nowhere.  So I asked her, “What kind of number nine combo do you get for $6.29?”

She answered, “A small.”

I said, “Fine, I’ll have that.”

“What do you want to drink?”

Despite the fact that I had told her I wanted lemonade twice before, I repeated it calmly a third time.  I could see light at the end of the tunnel.

A few seconds later my order appeared on the screen and the young woman asked me if she had my order correct.  Frankly, at that point I would have settled for a couple of tacos with a side order of jalapenos and no beverage because I was really getting hungry.  But I glanced up at the screen and noticed that she was charging me $6.49 for my number nine combo – not the $6.29 that was listed on the menu.

I pointed this out to her.

“The reason for the difference in price is that there is tax,” she said.

I was beginning to get a little steamed at the foolishness of this remark and the difficulty of placing the order in the first place.

“No, it’s not a matter of tax.  I understand that there is tax and that is clearly shown on your screen.  The problem is that your menu says a number nine combo costs $6.29 and you are charging me $6.49 for it.”

“That’s because of the tax.”

At that point a car pulled up behind me – another late night diner.  It was nearly midnight.

“Excuse me ma’am – it’s not a matter of tax.  I understand that there is tax.  What I’m trying to tell you is that your menu says that my order costs $6.29 before tax.  Your screen says my order costs $6.49 before tax.  That’s the problem.”

“Would you please pull up to the pickup window?”

I refused to move – my apologies to the driver behind me whom I inconvenienced.

Within a minute a nice young man wearing the ever-present headset with which people who have careers in “fast food” restaurants are born came out to resolve the issue.

“What seems to be the problem?”

I explained that the price for a number nine combo was $6.29 and I was being charged $6.49 for it.  That was the problem.

“That’s because there is tax.”

I was exhausted, very frustrated and feeling moderately homicidal at that response.  But I said, “Excuse me sir.  Look at your menu.  It says a number nine combo costs $6.29.  Now look at the first line of your screen.  Please note that it says a number nine combo costs $6.49.  Do you see the problem?”

I hoped that with the visual aid of both the menu and the screen in front of him we could finally resolve the issue.  And we did.

“Oh, that’s because the menu is ‘messed up’.”

I said, “Well, since I ordered from your ‘messed up’ menu, I expect to be charged the ‘messed up’ price.  So just adjust the screen to $6.29 plus tax, I’ll pick up my order and be on my way.”

“I can’t do that.  I don’t have the override code.”

At that point, ten minutes after starting to order, I had lost my appetite for a number nine combo or anything else on the Jack In The Box menu.

I said, “Well, thanks for trying to resolve the problem.  You have a good night.”  And I drove off.

When I got home I pulled some bacon and eggs out of the refrigerator and enjoyed them with an English muffin and some fig jam I had made a few months earlier.  It was a delightful meal and I put it together in little more time than I had spent at the window trying to get a dose of “fast food”.

After cleaning the dishes and pan I pulled the 10% discount receipt on a future Jack In The Box purchase from my pocket and put it back on the refrigerator with the magnet.  It’s not that I plan on using it.  But it will serve as a reminder of why I will not be using it.

They say that eating fast food regularly is not the best thing for your physical health.  I don’t know if that is true or not.

But I can certainly attest to the fact that trying to order it plays havoc with your mental well-being.

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