October 21, 2016
I have trouble identifying with my own generation. No, not in an "old man yells at cloud" way. More of a general disconnect with the endless stream of thinkpieces and studies that explain the habits and consumer trends I'm supposed to have as a millennial but don't.
I vote. I don't do a majority of my shopping online. And I certainly don't know how 80 percent of my peers have never enjoyed the pinnacle of fast-food creation, the finest sandwich known to mankind, the sultan of swat of burgers: The Big Mac.
The media was quick to dance on the grave of McDonald's flagship item when The Wall Street Journal published a memo written by a top McDonald’s franchisee to fellow operators in July. According to the article, the memo said the burger had "gotten less relevant," and that only one in five millennials had ever even tried a Big Mac.
Cue the postmortem videos and articles documenting millennials trying Big Macs for the first time and acting like they'd never seen a hamburger in their entire life. Seriously, look at these hipsters Business Insider assembled to treat the thing like some ancient relic unearthed at the site of the "Flintstones" McDonald's.
Millennials, so I've been told, are over fast food; instead, they opt for "fast-casual" restaurants, eateries somewhere between an Arby's (dumpster with a drive-thru) and a Chili's (sit-down chains). Chipotle, Panera Bread and burger joints like Shake Shack and Five Guys fall into this category.
Make no mistake, most of those places are wonderful. Chipotle burritos are filling and flavorful. Panera's pick-two option allows for pleasant soup/sandwich combos. The wide array of condiment choices allows for maximum customization on Five Guys' burgers. (The only one I won't make a case for are those bland grease-ball burgers at Shake Shack.)
But the reason my peers are eschewing traditional fast food to fast casual is, in large part, because of the perception that these newer options are healthier. The thinking seems to be that if the food is a bit pricier, and the component parts are assembled out there in the open, it must be better for you.
There's no hard evidence supporting this, of course, and a recent study actually found that entrees at fast-casual joints generally have higher caloric values than those at fast-food places.
Besides, half-lying to yourself about eating healthy takes all the fun out of fast food in the first place. It's not supposed to make you feel good about yourself or your decisions. It's supposed to make you feel good in spite of all that: "Hey, I may have blown that job interview and gotten into a fight with my significant other, but at least I can sink into my driver's seat with a supersized combo meal."
And of all the fast-food remedies to life's daily struggles, none comes close to the balance of taste and texture of the Big Mac. Whoppers are good, but their many oversized condiments tend to slide out after one bite. I've often been surprised at the inconsistencies in square-shaped burgers depending on the Wendy's location I visit.
The Big Mac, however, doesn't adhere to the traditional burger checklist: No tomatoes. There are onion bits, but they're the size of grains of rice. A little lettuce, some pickles, a single slice of cheese. The secret sauce — hardly a secret — is appropriately sweet with just a hint of tang. And it's arranged with masonic efficiency: Bun-meat-bun-meat-bun. Sure, it's a two-hander, but the Big Mac is not so gargantuan that it strains your jaw muscles, and it's also not a wimpy slathering of buns, meat and cheese.
Simple and classic, the Big Mac has endured the fast-food arms race with dignity. You don't see McDonald's shoving the burger's ingredients into a burrito or onto a hot dog. There's a reason McDonald's hasn't (yet) been featured in PhillyVoice's Bad For You column, which reviews often outlandish junk-food invention. The chain, for the most part, avoids those sorts of gimmicky remixes.
There are no museums dedicated to the Chalupa, but there is one in Pennsylvania for the Mac. No one has made headlines for eating their umpteenth Chick-fil-A chicken sandwich, but Don Gorske did for his 25,000th Big Mac. Look at the joy a hamburger gives this man:
It's true, the Big Mac is not as popular as it once was, and the masses will always revel in the downfall of a king. But in doing so, they may fail to recognize why he was royalty in the first place. The Big Mac reigned because it didn't try to do too much, and what it did do, it did right.
It may no longer be iconic, and with declining overall sales, McDonald's may be forced to anoint a newcomer as its showcase entree. Whatever that is, it will have a high bar to surpass — two patties and three buns tall, to be exact.