Unaccustomed Spotlight Falls on Home of World's 10,000th McDonald's

April 07, 1988|JOHN HARRIS | The Washington Post

Every 17 hours, a McDonald's restaurant opens somewhere in the world, in faraway lands such as Japan or Denmark, in unlikely spots such as a 13th-Century building or a Mississippi River boat.

So there was little reason to take notice Wednesday when a new McDonald's raised its arches in Dale City, Va., next to an Exxon station and across from a shopping plaza.

But wait a minute. This McDonald's, which looks like an ordinary McDonald's and will serve the same food as an ordinary McDonald's, is no ordinary McDonald's.

It is the world's 10,000th McDonald's--a business milestone and, perhaps, a gastronomic one as well.

This twist of numerical fate transformed the opening of another fast food restaurant in suburban Prince William County--a dog-bites-man story if ever there was one--into Very Big News, and not just locally.

The top brass of McDonald's Corp. turned out, as did several hundred spectators, for an elaborate ceremony followed by a free-food luncheon.

Not there for the cuisine were some animal-rights protesters, one of whom momentarily disrupted the event by rushing onstage during a speech by McDonald's President Michael R. Quinlan.

And for those who couldn't be present, McDonald's beamed the proceedings by satellite to interested observers around the globe.

"Nothing this exciting ever happens in Dale City," said Jimmy Waddell, a high school student who skipped classes to enjoy the show.

Exciting, yes, but the opening of the 10,000th McDonald's was more than that. For McDonald's biggest fans, many of whom seem to work for the company, it was a chance to ponder the awesome success of the world's largest fast food chain.

A set of "McFacts" distributed by the company helps tell the story:

- Eighteen million Americans eat at McDonald's each day, and this represents 7% of all meals eaten away from home.

- If arranged end-to-end, the 65 billion hamburgers McDonald's claims to have sold since opening its first drive-in in April, 1955, would stretch from the earth to the moon and back 16 times.

- Seven percent of the U.S. work force has held a job at McDonald's.

- The new Dale City franchise is the 263rd McDonald's in the Washington area. McDonald's No. 7,000 opened in Falls Church, Va. in 1983.

These days, 40% of McDonald's growth is overseas, with restaurants in such exotic locales as Paris, Tokyo, Manila and, later this month, Budapest. But placing the 10,000th McDonald's in Dale City--where many residents pride themselves on being unexotic--seems a perfect marriage.

Indeed, Dale City seems the embodiment of conventional life styles and aspirations, a community of modest tract housing where many middle-class families go to buy their first houses. It is the kind of community, McDonald's Quinlan said Wednesday, where the company historically has enjoyed its greatest success.

There is no question that America has been good to McDonald's, which had sales last year of $14.3 billion and profits of $549 million. But increasingly in recent years, skeptics have been asking if McDonald's is good for America.

Critics have railed at its service-sector jobs as low-paying, menial positions. And some nutritionists say the food is too laden with fat, salt and cholesterol.

At Wednesday's ceremony, protesters claiming that McDonald's exploits workers, animals and Third World economies, and serves unhealthy food, carried signs denouncing "McCancer, McDeath, McPain, McGreed."

Company officials countered by saying that working at McDonald's teaches young employees values such as teamwork and punctuality and that the food is nutritious when part of a balanced diet.

The protesters elicited little sympathy from the hundreds of McDonald's fans gathered in Dale City. After one shouting protester was whisked off-stage, the audience cheered.

After the speeches, all eyes turned to the restaurant itself. The building was covered by thousands of colored balloons that formed an image of the first McDonald's, opened in Des Plaines, Ill.

To the blast of firecrackers, the balloons were cut free, revealing the new store. The crowd surged inside but what they got could hardly be described as fast food: Lines stretched out the doors and nearly 50 feet into the parking lot, with waits of 30 minutes and more.

"Is that where I am in life, where a McDonald's opening is the big event?" asked Maureen Diaz, acknowledging that is exactly where she is.

A group of teen-agers from nearby Gar-Field High School said they worried less about being punished for skipping classes when they noticed their smiling principal, Roger Dallek, enjoying the ceremonies.

"This is the happening place right now," said student Debbie Wagner. "This will be the new hangout."

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