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City's Solution to Its Identity McCrisis

Distinction as Voracious Consumer of Big Macs Has Put Irwindale Back on Map

September 18, 1998|MARTIN MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

IRWINDALE — In the battle for the public imagination, the hope here is that Ronald McDonald and his Big Macs will drop-kick Al Davis and his Oakland Raiders right through the golden arches.

It's been nearly a decade since Davis burned the city for $10 million by backing out of a commitment to move the Raiders to Irwindale. And yet this memory seems to be the only one people have of this town of 1,100 residents.

What about the positives, city officials and residents ask, like the new speedway? How about the convenient location off the 605 and 210 freeways? Or how about the fact that 70% of California's roadways are built thanks to Irwindale's plenitude of gravel pits?

"This Raiders thing has really unfairly stained this city. It's been tough getting over it," Mayor Manuel Almazan says. "But now I think that's history. We're really moving forward."

Mayor McCheese couldn't have put it better.

Earlier this month, Irwindale was hit by the revelation that it leads the United States in per capita annual consumption of Big Macs, at 337. The next closest city is Kensington, Md., where nutrition freaks choke down a paltry 135 Big Macs per capita annually.

Loath to miss an opportunity to blow away the silver and black cloud hanging over the city, the spin doctors of Irwindale have flown into action. The City Council immediately decreed a "Big Mac Day" throughout the land (about 9 1/2 square miles).

Then the city's sole McDonald's franchise hosted a big McCelebration for the whole town, featuring a 4-foot-tall, 100-pound cake made to look like the venerable burger. The occasion even drew the national Ronald McDonald (not some local phony baloney).

After some 700 Big Macs were given away and a few speeches by local dignitaries were made, the real McCoy Ronald led everybody in the Big Mac song:

Two all-beef patties,

special sauce,

lettuce, cheese, pickles,

onions on a sesame seed bun.

(Yes, that's the whole song.)

"It was a big honor to have the national Ronald here," says Barbara Vanderhoop, who owns the Irwindale and eight other McDonald's franchises with her husband, Leonard. "There was a lot of excitement that day."

In short, it was the kind of day when the city just might have changed its official slogan from "Jardin de Roca" (Garden of Rocks) to "Jardin de Big Mac."

Of course, if you do the math behind the honor, Irwindale's claim as the Big Mac capital of the country gets a little wobbly. At 337, that's almost one Big Mac per day per resident in the small town.

That's not exactly how the approximately 350,000 Big Macs sold in Irwindale each year actually get eaten. A little digging turns up that the estimated 30,000 workers who labor at the rock quarries, a local brewery and other industrial businesses in the area are the ones gobbling down the vast majority of Big Macs in town.

McDonald's officials admit that the per capita figure was intended to be interpreted in a "fun, lighthearted" way. The whole idea was to cook up more business on the 30th anniversary of the Big Mac.

So far, it has worked pretty well. Upon being declared the Big Mac Capital of the United States, Irwindale saw the media turn out in droves--which didn't hurt Big Mac business or the town's reputation.

"The day after the party, we were packed with customers," Vanderhoop says. "People really wanted to see what our restaurant looked like."

One such customer tempted by the Big Mac hoopla was Chester Powers, who works down the street from the restaurant driving a truck that hauls up to 20 tons of earth. He ordered his first Big Mac in weeks.

"I just got caught up in the frenzy," says the 49-year-old Pasadena resident, who eats at the Irwindale McDonald's just about every day but "usually [gets] the chicken or the Big 'n Tasty."

The Big Mac "is fine," he continued. "It's just too small. When you say 'Big Mac,' and then you look at it, it doesn't look too big to me."

The real unsung heroes who helped bring the national title to Irwindale are guys like David Voong of Rosemead. Voong works at a chicken processing plant down the street and tosses down a Big Mac a day--or almost.

"I've tried the quarter-pounder, the cheeseburger combo, every combo really," says Voong, 20. "But I just like the taste of a Big Mac. It fills me up more than the rest of the sandwiches."

His indulgence comes at a price, though. Voong, a fit man at 5-foot-7 and 135 pounds, added that after a Big Mac, "I go work out for about two or three hours lifting weights and running. I have to burn off all these calories."

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