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The mind in a burger

January 15, 2008 12:18 IST

'A quick bite, we may have to settle for that," said my friend Paul. "Some place with clean toilets, no surprises, where we can be in and out in fifteen minutes flat," he said.

We were traveling together on a California highway and had to reach the stadium in time for the game. Paul is my guide and mentor for the stranger ways of this land. Today, he was to introduce me to American football -- the world of giants who play it, their warrior wear, the sexy cheerleaders on the sidelines etc etc.

Without seeing a football game at least once, my American experience would be incomplete, he had declared.  But before getting to the game, we had to eat. "Why?" I had asked. "Can't we grab a bite during the game?"

"Sure, the stadium has any number of food stalls and beer kiosks, but you will pay almost $10 for a beer compared to one dollar outside. Are you ready?" he had warned. This was to be my treat and duly intimidated by such prices, we had decided to first eat and then go.

This had led to a minor argument. I didn't want to be seen as too miserly and hence had suggested an Italian place on the way. Paul said that was too fancy before a quintessentially American game. Chinese didn't suit him as he was allergic to Soy. We were hesitant about 'Indian', as normally an Indian naan and curry place takes an eternity to serve. Two other problems with 'the Indian' said Paul: "you will fall asleep after Indian food, and second, toilets are not clean." I did not argue either point.

As the familiar sign of the Golden Arches of McDonald's loomed on the highway, I gestured towards it. Paul was a bit hesitant. "Do you have a craving for all that unhealthy junk food," he asked. Nevertheless, given our situation, half an hour to spare, hassle free parking and predictable and non slumber-inducing food, we settled for it.

We got out of the car, not that it was necessary; most customers were drive and dine types on their way to the game, and went inside. Now, I don't need to describe the interior of a McDonald's, but Paul looked around seemingly appreciatively at its familiar fixtures. "I had not been inside one for sometime," he confessed, "McDonald's is almost a parable for an American idea put to work," he now said.

"Don't exaggerate," I retorted. "Why should everything be hyped up larger than life; what is so great about it?"

"The simplicity, the scale, the spirit of the operation and finally its global success," he replied. 

"Something has happened to you. Why this admiration for the Burgerland? I thought you didn't like it," I asked again.

"Me liking it or not is not the issue. Its success speaks for itself. Actually, I had to do a report on its business model and was simply blown away," he admitted a little sheepishly.

We went to order. Apart from the familiar burgers, fries and such like which the health conscious Paul tries to avoid, there were green salads and even fruit bowls on offer. Paul was impressed. "Do they evolve or what?" he said nodding his head in agreement with the changes. We settled down with a Big Mac and one large fries for me, a salad and wrap for Paul, two diet cokes -- all for under ten dollars, total.

"OK tell me about the universe of burgers," I asked Paul reluctantly as it was evident that he was eager to do so. "Understand a McDonald's and you will understand America," he now started like an ancient rishi with a key mantra.

"Let us start with deconstructing the product. Essentially something very simple. Two buns and something in between them; different forms of meat, but in India could also be a patty of potatoes, I hear. But every little element in it, from the sesame on the bun, the oil for frying the patty, its weight, colour, consistency, the quality is measured and quantity determined in the labs as if it is enriched nuclear material in the fuel cycle," he said. "Not because of its inherent value, but to standardise, to commercialise, and to render it fit to franchise."

But that was only the material, a small part of the process.

The process itself has been studied like a military operation, I learnt: the space and time flow in the shop, from when you place an order, to it reaching the back pantry, to its delivery in the shortest possible time, to its boxing or plating or traying as the verbing of nouns flow thick and fast.

My peep into the viswarupadarshana of the universe of burgers had just started. We had started with the 'order', and what happens in one restaurant, a small cog in the entire operation. Of greater criticality were the commercial aspects: the procurement, the pricing, the policy. Fundamental questions such as: 'Where do you source your potatoes from?' the crucial query which has turned the Mcworld upside down: 'What do you put inside the two buns in vegetarian India or in the non-pork eating Saudi Arabia?'; questions requiring deep understanding of regions, religion, and involving anthropology apart from nutrition and dietology, in a world grown rich and rampant with globalisation. 

But even these were just scratching the surface of this complex behemoth, as I learnt. Underlying them were issues of new forms of Empire: of space, expansion, control and compensation on a global scale. The three most important points for a decision on a new McDonald's, I learnt, were 'location, location and location'. It was so in respect of a street, a city, and at a different level, 'which country?'

Today McDonalds operated in 120 countries, the largest of the food franchises and served 54 million customers in a day, yes, in a day. The company had developed many models for 'franchising', a form of neo-colonialism as a Marxist would term it, an arrangement wherein it receives 'tributes' for lending its name, banner and style all over the world.  The brand and the product are now so all-pervasive that the prestigious magazine The Economist in fact uses a 'Big Mac index' to compare the exchange rates of countries.

"My God, a lot of management theory,'' I told Paul, trying to grasp the magnitude of these facts and figures. "But, what about all the negatives: the unhealthy components, the trans-fat, the corrupting of the young and the innocent by Coca-cola-ising their minds?" I asked.   

"Sure, all legitimate questions. These are the priorities now at the Hamburger University in Illinois," he said and later I found on Google that he was not kidding about the University. It had all the elements of a management school: real estate, procurement, inventory control, financial flows, patents, price points and what have you. Managers were trained in everything starting from clean toilets to reheating the Apple pies. And these days were also paying attention to current fads and fashions: cholesterol, bio-degradable packaging, obesity in children.

The special character of the American is to 'apply mind to matter,' George Santayana had said a long time ego. My inadvertent education about the burger world of McDonald's seemed to validate the accuracy of this observation. Mind had been applied, methodically, rigorously, innovatively to the simple task of feeding a customer a burger in an attractive, almost addictive and efficient manner at the lowest price point. And mind was being continually applied to survive, to expand, to grow and to meet the challenges even of a vegetarian, a noodle slurping or a trans-fat denying world. Republicans or Democrats may come and go, but McDonald's continued to reign.

We were now ready for the Football. But alas, that tale has to be told another day.

Illustration: Uttam Ghosh

B S Prakash is India's Consul General in San Francisco and can be reached at   

B S Prakash