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The McSpirit of Consumerism Is Very Much Alive and Well

May 08, 2001|MARY McNAMARA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was inevitable. Of course it was. A company that would--with a completely straight face--market a Caesar salad in a milkshake cup, that coats its French fries in beef flavoring to make them more addictive, that invented the chicken nugget and the concept of merchandising movies through children's meals will clearly stop at nothing. So, as the foamy tide of coffeehouses washed over this nation, as biscotti and madeleines and raspberry truffle cake became the after-school snack of choice, you knew--in your heart--that McDonald's was not going to sit idly by. The question was never "if." The question was "when."

And the answer is now. Last Wednesday, the first McCafe opened in the United States in the formidable shadow of Marshall Field's on Wabash Avenue in Chicago's famous Loop. Snuggled against the hip of a standard McDonald's, McCafe is a 30-seat faux bistro where customers can order caffeine's greatest hits: gourmet coffee, cappuccino, latte and premium teas. The requisite muffins, scones and apres-moi-le-deluge dessert tray--Chocolate Raspberry Rumble, Chocolate Carmel Peanut Pie--are also available, and for the more health conscious, fruit smoothies, the ersatz milkshake for the Power Bar set.

It is hard to square such cuisine with the now-archetypal image of the Golden Arches, with those ubiquitous fluorescent lights buzzing above fake ivy and uncomfortable swivel chairs attached to slightly sticky tables, with that distinctive smell of salty grease and overworked pink disinfectant. But the press release will be forgiven if it brags a bit when describing McCafe--the fine china and stainless steel flatware, the leather couches, bistro-style tables, vintage French posters and lace curtains, the mahogany and granite accents. The Francophile touch seems a bit odd since the French have made it very clear--through "McDomination" protests, vandalism and a fatal bombing last year--that "McDo" is less than welcome there. But then that's the American entrepreneurial spirit for you, ever willing to forgive and keep building.

McDonald's is, in many ways, the uber American corporation, and nowhere is that more obvious than in its almost desperate enthusiasm for reinvention. Never one to rest on its "7 kajillion sold" laurels, it is constantly looking for new menus and venues. Some have flopped--the McPizza comes to mind--while others, like the Happy Meal, have changed the world as we know it. Only McDonald's would build playgrounds so fabulous that parents come for the ball pit and buy the food out of obligation. Only McDonald's would have the temerity to offer something like the McRib sandwich on an occasional and highly publicized basis as if it were Beaujolais Nouveau. Only McDonald's would participate in such self-satire--McCafe plays on the vernacular use of "Mc"--as in McJobs and McCulture--that has been used at times to pejoratively describe the American economy and value system.

While the Chicago cafe is the first U.S. franchise, and its success will determine whether you see a McCafe near you, the cafes have been around for almost 10 years. The first one opened in 1993 in Victoria Australia (where the McOz burger--100% Australian beef, cheese, tomato, beet root, lettuce and cooked onions on a toasted bun--is now a permanent menu item. Beet root. Imagine). Eighteen countries now boast the cafes, including Argentina (which also has one of the few kosher McDonald's outside of Israel) and Portugal, where customers can order "bica," a traditional espresso-like drink, and pasteis de nata, Portuguese pastries.

Here in the States, the menu reflects the native culture more in its prices than its pastries. Cappuccinos start at $2.49, as does the cheesecake, which is about on par with Starbucks and Coffee Stem, Tea Tree Leaf or whatever that place is called, although the $1.59 scones and muffins are a bit of a bargain. While it would be nice to imagine that the corporate office made this move to give harried parents some semblance of elegance, some alternative to breaking down and ordering a McFlurry, of course that is not the case. McDonald's, like every other company in the world, is in it for the dough, and apparently the fast-food market is about to buckle under its own weight. Having run out of ideas to stuff in a potato, a pita or a California wrap, many of the chains are broadening their mandates. McDonald's has recently bought sit-down establishments, including Boston Market, Chipotle Mexican Grill and Pret A Manger.

It's hard to imagine what they'll think of next. But then few of us could have anticipated Caesar salad in a cup. The most recent incarnation--the Mexican-themed Fiesta menu--opens the door for unlimited cuisine. McSushi, McTapas, McSchwarma, McInternational-Fusion.

Here in diversity-conscious Los Angeles, perhaps the folks in the corporate office should think about slapping that beet root on our Big Macs. Or even better, offer all the native-influenced sandwiches they sell in their international franchises right here--a sort of McIt'saSmallWorld.

Or perhaps they should think about snapping up the old Spago place and creating the first fast-food establishment that requires reservations a week in advance. Or maybe they could take advantage of the Hollywood Boulevard rehab, strike a deal with Musso and Frank and start marketing McMartinis.

Playground for the kids, vodka shots for the folks. Hmmmm . . . you could sell more than a few Happy Meals that way.

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