"It's About Feelings": An Interview With Marcia Chatelain
The author of "Franchise" on fast-food marketing, Henry Kissinger, and mirages in the food desert
|Best Evidence||Apr 3, 2020||4||1|
I was thrilled that I could interview past The Blotter Presents guest Dr. Marcia Chatelain, author of Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America, about her book — because, while it does contain its fair share of crimes both individual and institutional, that was just my excuse to quiz her about cringey marketing ideas of the seventies, the sanding off of Martin Luther King Jr.’s edges, and how franchising is even legal. Oh, also Arthur Treacher’s. We’ll get into it…and a bunch of other topics, too. Lots of links to other reads in here, so I hope this is as dense and nourishing a read as McDonald’s is not? (I’m mostly joking; I haven’t knowingly eaten beef in 20 years but if I restarted today, I’d do it with two McDonald’s cheeseburgers and a sleeve of fries.)
The interview has been lightly edited for clarity and flow.
Sarah D Bunting: I’m bummed out that I didn’t get to physically go to NYU and meet you and do this discussion, the way it was in The Before Time.
The way the Bible intended it to be.
Yeah, exactly. It is in the Book of ... I’m not sure where that would be. Deuteronomy?
Well, the takes are still bubbling hot, even in this new format. I don’t know how much of the book you got to read, but —
I have read the whole thing.
So ostensibly, this is a true-crime review podcast, so before we really get into it, I suppose we ought to begin with the unsolved homicide in Franchise. Can you tell us a little bit about that, and then we can branch out.
So there are moments when I was writing chapter three of Franchise, which looks at how African American communities got McDonald’s after 1968, and there’s so many layers to the story, but in the middle of it, a few people have written about it, and they would just say, “Yeah, and then this guy was murdered, and people really ... yeah.” And then they kept on going, and I said, “Excuse me. That’s an unsolved crime.” So I really struggled with this, because as someone who adores true crime, I really wanted ... I had so much curiosity about this case in which an African American man named Ernest Hilliard is interested in franchising a McDonald’s, and he is murdered in his driveway. And his widow suggests that his desire to become among the first African Americans to hop on this very lucrative business opportunity may have been connected to his murder. And so there are moments where I thought, okay, I will just drop the whole book and I will just pursue this Serial-style. And then I realized I have no investigative journalism skills and I don’t know what the hell I’m doing.
But actually, I had spent a few months on the Undisclosed podcast in 2017, and I asked one of the co-hosts some tips on how to get old police files and if a case is open or closed, how do you get that material. So I really, really thought about it. But I took a step back and tried to think about the bigger picture. A murder over a business opportunity in the 1970s was not as unusual as I thought. But the relationship kind of between African Americans who are trying to kind of cross some type of boundary and the way that violence played into it was actually something that I found throughout the story. And so I interviewed a gentleman who was one of the first African American franchise owners of a McDonald’s in Milwaukee, and he talked about how there were always bomb threats at his stores and that bombing was just kind of something that happened back then. And it was actually quite true.
There were a lot of bombings in the late ’60s and 1970s. Jeffrey Toobin’s book about Patty Hearst, he makes a point of underlining this. We think of bombings as super-scary, but eh, that was par for the course. So all of this is to say that the unsolved murder of Ernest Hilliard, as well as his affiliation with a gentleman who later flees to Guyana for some new opportunities, helped me think about what was it about this period in the early 1970s that feels so deeply lawless. And a lot of it does pivot around this idea of trying to think about how different communities are going to manage racial integration. I mean, it’s terrifying but so fascinating.
Well, this leads quite elegantly to my omnibus question about the book. (We’re all about to see why I am not a good interviewer, because I just t-shirt-cannon 17 questions at a time in this big daisy chain of semicolons.) On page three, you announce that, or the book announces its raison d’etre with, “This book tells the hidden history of the intertwined relationship between the struggle for civil rights and the expansion of the fast food industry.” So I would like to know about your journey to this central topic. What were you thinking about generally, and specifically, that brought you to this central topic?
But then, I’m very interested in how you forced yourself to stay on this central topic when you do have unsolved homicides, you have La-Van Hawkins basically hogging all the fraud in Michigan, you have a mention ... I sort of drifted off into a Wiki hole of my own when you mentioned Marshall High School and that sort of struggle over a McDonald’s there, because I think that was the high school that Arthur Agee went to in Hoop Dreams—
Oh yes, it is.
And then, you’re talking about the connection with the McDonald’s All American Team, and I would’ve just wandered off into the use of young athletes, particularly athletes of color, to market fast food, meal replacements, and so on. I mean, there’s 15 different books in here that are just waiting to sort of pour out of the skirts of this book, like the Polichinelles in The Nutcracker. So okay, here’s an actual question. How did you come to this topic? And then we’ll get into all the other stuff.
So I, like maybe many of the folks who enjoy The Blotter Presents, I watched a lot of TV as a kid. I mean, I watched so much TV. And one of the things that I discovered as I was growing up is just that, I was just always really fascinated by just all of it, stories ... I watched a lot of true crime as a kid because I had zero supervision, so I would sit and watch 20/20 and Primetime and all those shows. So I always was fascinated by storytelling. That’s just kind of the background. But in terms of being a historian, so I went to graduate school in the early 2000s at Brown, and it’s around the time that Supersize Me came out. And I was really fascinated by Morgan Spurlock for a number of reasons, but I used to eat McDonald’s all the time, and I grew up eating a lot of fast food. And I got very, very concerned about my health.
And there was some experimentation with veganism, which was the worst. And I was into the food justice movement, and one of the things I found was that while it was a lot of people who really cared about health and nutrition, there was always this mildly racist kind of contemptuous rabbit hole people would go down and say, “Oh my God. I’m working with these agencies and these families and they let their kids eat McDonald’s, and it’s like, they’re the worst.” And I just felt like the food justice movement used its kind of earnest commitment to nutrition as a way to signal their contempt towards poor people and particularly poor people of color, and it made me very uncomfortable, and I was not very happy about that.
And so it made me think a lot about the ways we talk about fast food and how it becomes so coded as a way of talking about poor parenting or poor values or ignorance. And so I kind of wanted to think about these issues of race and fast food outside of the framework of the food desert, or if people just knew how awesome kale was, they would stop eating fries. Like, what? And so—
No they wouldn’t. I mean, look, having been raised by a “fruit is nature’s candy” Mom, until thank God they gave me a sibling and we could double-team her at the store — like, actually, Mom, candy is nature’s candy. Please stop with the carob chips. But yeah, that was really striking, I think, and always has been to me, that there’s this condescending, “Well, you have to eat a salad.” Okay, cool. Come on over here with your $7 head of kale and tell me how I should live my life.
And so I was curious about how we can think about food and nutrition and food justice outside of a framework of actual food and to think about relationships, because the other part of why I was so curious about this was so much of my young, my childhood and my teenage years was spent going to McDonald’s that were franchised by African Americans, noting how much stuff they had in their stores that was about African American history, and also thinking about the ways that African American franchise organizations were underwriting so much of the cultural life of black Chicago. Museum dedications and awards ceremonies and the whole thing with the McDonald’s All-Star games. I felt like there was this weird way that while McDonald’s is for everybody and everybody eats it, what it means in your community is such an indicator of race that I just became so fascinated by the stuff.
And I was originally going to write this really boring book about food and the Civil Rights movement, and I would meet with editors and they were like, okay, the other chapters are fine. I guess they could be an article, but this McDonald’s stuff is really interesting. And first it started with just thinking about McDonald’s advertising to African Americans. They’re so iconic and so racist, but so effective. And then thinking about the claim that McDonald’s made in 1992 that none of its restaurants were hit in the L.A. uprising because black people care and love McDonald’s so much, which is also racist, but effective. And so it just, it led me down this path to kind of think about McDonald’s differently, and anywhere there is kind of unbridled capitalism, both violence, chaos, and unsolved homicides kind of follow. And so it was really hard staying focused, and there are five million books I could’ve written from the research I had. But my editor was like, okay, this needs to stop at some point.
And so I tried to tell the story about how there’s a way that McDonald’s grafted itself onto a narrative of civil rights that is both so appalling, but God, it works, and it works in ways that are so subtle that if we think about how are we going to get communities to change the way they eat, I think, [it’s] probably more effective to put down the kale and start thinking about capitalism. I’m just saying.
I’m going to stitch that on a pillow with dark green thread. …Well, it’s interesting that you brought up the TV aspect of it, just sort of going way back in your media consumer experience, because that section of the book where you’re talking about the different marketing to consumers of color and the feeling of corniness around McDonald’s HQ’s attempts to be “down” and just the cringing that was happening, for me, reading this. And then the focus-group results about the “you deserve a break today” campaign.
Yeah, so when McDonald’s...one of the things that McDonald’s is so good at is suggesting that it’s on your side. I mean, this is what makes brands really kind of effective. And so when McDonald’s first went into African American communities, the reason they did it was because white franchise owners didn’t want to do business in black neighborhoods. They were concerned that they would be targets of uprisings, and so essentially McDonald’s cut white franchise owners a deal and said, “We’ll move you to the suburbs if you want.” And they found African Americans to take their place, and what they found was that at the very moment stores are closing, grocery stores are going out of business, a lot of kind of capital is moving out of the inner city and concentrating on the retail options of the suburbs, McDonald’s is the only person there. And people are buying it because there’s so few options.
So when these African American franchise owners are like, hey guys, we’re making you a bunch of money. We needs ads that are targeting our community, they’re like, yes. This is what we’ll do. And so the first attempt was to try to put black models in ads for you deserve a break today, and they were not effective. And one of the responses that the marketing firms learned was that black people are like, are you kidding me? McDonald’s is no break. It’s just what we fill up on to keep it moving in our lives. When the hell have we ever gotten a break? And when I talk about this stuff, people are like, oh, that’s such a — I wonder why people felt that way? It’s like, okay, you’re black and it’s 1971. Fill in the blank.
And so McDonald’s is like, okay. And so they hired this very iconic advertising firm in Chicago, Burrell Communications, to do their black version of ads. And this stuff you can find all over the internet. The Smithsonian has a collection of them. And it’s just like, there’s bell bottoms, there’s Afros, there’s a lot of community pride, there are hash browns. There’s just this whole world in which black people are overwhelmingly proud, and their pride is then exercised at McDonald’s. And sometimes the copy is just so painful to read. There’s a lot of missing “g”s, there’s a lot of soulful appeals. But I think that there’s a lot of reasons to criticize them, but I talk about this in the book that from the perspective of 1974, African Americans have had a whole 10 years of being federally protected in restaurants and in hotels that for a major corporation to soulfully appeal to you as a customer was actually a really big deal.
And so I think that there’s a lot of ways that we can critique this stuff, but we can’t discredit just how effective it was in helping people feel like part of something, even if it was just eating at McDonald’s.
Right. Do you think that that section of the book was the most...“interesting” is not the right word, but let’s say “fruitful.” What section of the book sort of brought you the most new information or things that you had always sort of suspected were true, but it wasn’t until you really dug into the research that you’re like, “A-ha, here’s a memo that confirms what I’ve been thinking.” Was it this section or a different section?
Here’s the thing I thought was bananas, just how open everyone was about that. So I had read in maybe one place this whole thing where McDonald’s is moving African Americans into stores abandoned by white people, and for my 2020 gaze, I was like, oh, they must’ve done this really secretively because it’s so problematic. But I forgot what people were like in 1968 and ’69. There was no script for being racially sensitive. It was like you just said whatever the fuck you want, so. So it’s like how in the press, in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, they’re like, this is great. We have our black stores, and then the blacks will run it, and this is awesome, and this is civil rights. And I was like, oh, wait a second. So everything I had seen to this point had been kind of subtle references to Martin Luther King’s dream in the context of McDonald’s supporting the MLK holiday, or black franchise owners themselves talking about how this was this incredible opportunity.
But to see the CEO of McDonald’s be like, yeah, white people didn’t want to do business here, so we figured this out. That was a little shocking. The consumer market research archives on people talking about fast food, there’s a whole very long section in the book which could’ve been edited out, but I was like, there’s no way, about the development of the chicken sandwich and ways that I was so...I knew this before, but I had evidence that fast food has nothing to do with the quality and taste of food. It’s about feelings. And so when McDonald’s introduced the chicken sandwich, African American consumers were like, what is this? It has no bone, it has no gravy, and it’s gross, and it has mayonnaise on it, and—
The word “extrusion” should not figure into one’s lunch. I think that’s a good rule.
And these market researchers are like, okay, so the chicken’s not good, but it doesn’t matter. Make people feel very special that you created a chicken product just for them, and they’re like, okay, that’s what we do. And so just the kind of the logics and psychology of fast food was really fascinating to see typed out. And then the other thing that I really found fascinating, towards the end of the book, I introduce a guy named La-Van Hawkins, who passed away while I was writing the book, so I could really just kind of write whatever. He was just the biggest fraudster of all fraudsters, and he basically used funds that were supposed to be for community development, black economic development, to open all these franchise restaurants, sink them, and then pack up and go to another city and do the same shit over and over again. I think he really kind of emphasized the point—
He was not moving that far either, was he? It’s like, he went “all the way” to Flint. That shit is right there. Come on, man. I mean, and he kept doing it. He’d get out of jail and he’d do it again, some variation on a Ponzi scheme. I mean, it was amazing.
He was amazing. So he’d get the rights to open 100 Pizza Huts, and he also claimed that he invented the stuffed crust, which I don’t think was true. But he would open a Pizza Hut and bankrupt the enterprise, and then he would get 20 Chili’s in Chicago, and then he’d mess that up. And he was associated with the Kwame Kilpatrick debacle, and while he was awaiting trial, he’s getting sued by other franchise groups that he’s trying to open again. It’s amazing, but I think at the heart of it, it’s the thing that I struggle with in writing this book. How is it that communities that are at the most vulnerable points, what they’re offered is fast food restaurants as a way to not just kind of feed people, but there’s this idea that this is going to be the economic solution to very serious structural problems.
You also make the point, at least in terms of being offered franchises in locations that white owners had fled from, that this was nothing new to the African American experience at least at that time, including school books, even.
Well, it’s this … you will get what has been abandoned, what has been damaged, what has been left, and what has been undervalued. And what’s amazing about all of this is the way people talk about franchises is the way people talk about residential segregation, the way they talk about schools. It’s like what a community has offered to them rather than what a community can seek for themselves.
And then McDonald’s CentCom is not really helping out at all…I think one of my favorite moments in the book was the market research section in which consumers were asked which celebrities they associated with the Filet-O-Fish, and the list included Paul Lynde, Mary Tyler Moore, and Henry Kissinger. And I was like, Paul Lynde? And then I just thought, you know what? This is a perfect list. This really is the exact bizarre amalgam that is, who goes to a fast food joint to buy a fish ... It’s just very odd to me, although your Arthur Treacher’s reference was well-taken, thank you. It’s just [SDB, Chatelain, and Chatelain’s husband], who remember that.
It’s a singular obsession in my household, and the cod wars that sunk Arthur Treacher’s was very important. But there’s only one in my metro area, in Fairfax, Virginia. And I went there because I was so excited, and I still have a cup from there. The food was atrocious.
The fried fish, I mean, the thing about when McDonald’s is developing some of these food items in the ’70s, they’re thinking about the fact that they are doing so well with the black consumer base. And so, what are some other ways that they can make sure that they market food to black customers and also see high profits?
And so the Filet-O-Fish, which had been introduced as an alternative for Catholics to eat during Lent, but again, it’s like the chicken sandwich. Most of these urban stores are in places where African Americans had migrated from the South, and so when you tell a person you’re going to have a fish sandwich, they’re thinking a delicious piece of deep-fried catfish, not whatever white cod tartar-sauce nonsense. And so by associating the fish sandwich with Paul Lynde and Mary Tyler Moore, I think they’re saying, this is the whitest food you can provide. And then the Kissinger thing, I guess it’s a problematic—
Problematic little politics. If I had the capacity to, I would just publish the feedback from these consumer market-research studies, because they are freaking hilarious, and the archive that I used for it isn’t just McDonald’s, it’s Popeye’s and Church’s and KFC, all of the brands, this company worked with. And they are hilarious. And they’re talking about how the food looks disgusting, like who in their right mind is going to eat this. It’s so funny. But it’s true. I mean, this idea that there’s anything natural or normal about any of the things we eat, it’s all a process of socialization, and I think that I really wanted to get to that point too. There’s no natural affinity between African Americans and fast food. They’re a set of conditions in which groups of people are funneled towards certain types of food and it becomes part of the way that they live.
Well, I wanted to read something from page 189, which was yet another example of something I felt could’ve been an entire book, if I may. We’re speaking of Martin Luther King, Jr. here. “The utility of King the icon versus King the iconoclast is that his diluted characterizations could be manipulated and recalled for an array of purposes. With each year that passed since his death in 1968, King transformed from a radical Communist threat to democracy, to a man who simply wanted all people to be friends. Fast food franchises are not responsible for the accurate accounting of civil rights history, but their reliance on a flattened image of King allowed them to ingratiate themselves to black communities without having to amend a chicken recipe, reconsider their inner city market saturation strategies, or raise a wage.” Brr.
And I just, I kind of put the book down in my lap and looked off into the middle distance and was like, what is this book? Were you tempted to kind of take a hard left at that point and look at the, I guess, many ways that Dr. King has been starched flat in this way for the purposes of corporate goodwill messaging?
As someone who is at that age where I remember the early days of the King holiday as a little, little kid and I remember kind of hearing some of the conversations about Arizona not wanting to adopt it. I remember that, slightly. But I remember the McDonald’s sponcon on the MLK holiday and how cool it was to watch it on local TV. But the reason I make this point is because the thing that’s unusual about McDonald’s is that it was one of the early adopters of the King holiday as good in a time where people were very, very nervous about whether or not they should line up behind it because King the warm fuzzy is such a new idea.
If you think about, in the more or less 50 years since he died, it wasn’t really until I would say the early ’90s where people started to do this kind of positive spin on him. And I thought that was an important point to make, because if McDonald’s traces its entry into the inner city to his death after 1968, then they are also in the position to kind of shape who he is for this corporate world. And I thought that was an important point to make, and also for the African American franchise owners who I interviewed — and I went to their annual convention and that itself could be a Christopher Guest movie. I mean, the first thing you see is a giant banner with Martin Luther King’s, the national monument to him in D.C. That image is everywhere. And it’s black franchise owners living the dream, continuing Martin’s dream. Martin and McDonald’s, together. Like, what? And I think this is an outgrowth of the very type of corporatization of Martin Luther King, right, and that people can so casually make these associations.
And I think the thing that I find most kind of ugh about it is the fact that right before he was killed, so much of what he was talking about was like, hey guys, capitalism’s kind of fucking all of us. We really need to think about workers. Like hey, let’s think of a poor people’s campaign. Everything up to the moment of his death was about questioning the very structure that McDonald’s will bring to communities of color. And so I really, really, really felt like that perspective was important to put in the book so that readers who didn’t know about this or never thought about it would then be able to say, oh, now that you’ve mentioned this, this is what I see every January at the shopping malls and at the Macy’s white sales for Martin Luther King.
A duvet for the teen, like, what? Everyone, stop.
I mean, they really still, they do that, “the Martin Luther King Day white sale!” Guys, someone say it out loud first.
It’s like, so many people hated him so much. I mean, that’s something that’s bananas. If you look at the transcript of what was the discussion in the Senate about adopting the holiday, poor Coretta Scott King is like, hey guys, I think we should do this for my husband. And people like Strom Thurmond are like, he was a Communist and a philanderer and the worst person ever. And the conversation at the time is, if there was going to be a holiday for a black person, it should be Frederick Douglass, not Martin Luther King. It’s kind of wild. So that is a book that other people have written, but I wanted to make sure that point was made.
Well, but there’s also the fact that, I mean, I don’t think you ever use the phrase unholy alliance or unholy marriage, but there’s the fact that the sort of two dimensional co-opting, or the co-opting of the two dimensional image of the “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” Dr. King, is co-existing with a very sincere … not “use” but, I don’t know, educational thrust from the actual franchise owners. Both of these things are happening at the same time, and I think that you illustrate a number of areas in which that’s true, and that’s sort of the crazy part about this relationship between this company and civil rights, that it’s like, it’s not a love-hate relationship exactly. It’s more like a throuple with racism? I don’t know how to put it exactly, but it’s strange that both of the instincts, which go in opposite directions or at 90 degrees from each other, are co-existing in this relationship.
Yeah, I mean, I think that that’s what capitalism does to us. It just makes us like we’re trapped in the most awkward conversation, but forever, and it just repeats and repeats and repeats.
I’ve actually never heard capitalism blamed in quite that way, but it’s perfect in my opinion.
It’s like going to Thanksgiving at a friend of a friend’s house and not knowing when you can finally escape, because I think that the issue that’s at the heart of this book ... Because when I was writing it, people were like, oh, is this going to be like a Fast Food Nation or a Supersize Me where it’s a take down of McDonald’s? And I was like, well, I mean, a lot of people have already taken down McDonald’s. This is a conversation about what happens when your choices are so constrained by all of these forces. So the franchise owners that I talked to, the African American ones, they’ve become millionaires through franchising, and they think it’s pretty awesome. But they are the same people who also recognized that they will never be as rich as their white counterparts, and I really struggled about whether or not I wanted my book to acknowledge the aggrieved millionaires in the world.
But I think that was an important point to make about how regardless of how much money you have or what you’ve succeeded [in], this structure will do something to you, right? And so I think that that is part of the complexity of this relationship, and I also fully recognize that without the McDonald’s franchises, a lot of things wouldn’t happen in African American communities. The amount of money that this group of black millionaires has put into historically black colleges, the number of people that I talked to who said, our McDonald’s, if you have a record, you can still get a job here. We’re not going to put more barriers in front of you. The number of people I know who went to college on these scholarships because they had worked at McDonald’s, these are not small things. And I detest a system that puts a fast food restaurant in a position to provide these things for any community. That’s the sickness.
And so I think it’s in that really kind of uncomfortable place that I tried to help people who imagine a world of just kale understand that you can make all of the interventions you want on people’s eating behaviors, but if you’re not doing anything really important around racism and capitalism, then please, just take your kale somewhere else and go home.
Yeah, yeah. And that sort of parallels my initial question. You sort of can’t talk about the situation without understanding how McDonald’s arrived at where it is today, or even how it had arrived at 1985, or 1975. And that’s sort of the same as the book. We need to look at this. We need to look at this journey to this topic to understand how you did not, for instance, write a complete second book about the intersection, as it were, of them running the interstate through the poorest part of every major American city and displacing a whole bunch of people, and then a McDonald’s comes up around the cloverleaf. Did you by any chance read The Big Roads by Earl Swift?
I don’t think so. Is that a national highway system book?
Yeah, it’s the history of the rise of the national highway system. This happens to have been the one I read and it’s not like he was — nobody’s cheering for Robert Moses. That’s not done any more. But [Swift] was very interested for us to know how much a young Dwight Eisenhower had to do with dynamiting mountains in Wyoming so that this project could be completed. Like, cool, I don’t — why are we being told this? But I’d be interested to know if there’s a book that’s a little less about the triumph of engineering and legislation, and a little more about the devastation left in its wake. And I do think that’s related to just franchising models of all kinds, Red Roof Inn, McDonald’s—
Howard Johnson. Can we talk about franchising and how’s it legal? I mean, the more I learned about franchising, the more I’m kind of like, I cannot believe that this is allowed. And I’m also very much obsessed with franchises that were dominant in the field, and then no longer exist. Burger Chef, which was also a site of a big unsolved murder in Indiana; Chicken in the Rough. I ate at one of the last ones in Oklahoma City. No one’s heard of it, right? They’re all—
Never heard of that, you’re right.
All of these brands that just kind of disappear. And sometimes it’s these huge leveraged buyouts. Sometimes it’s one kind of bad publicity moment and they lose it. But all of this is to say that franchising is so predatory and is so dangerous. Selling this idea that anyone can run a business? No, not just anyone.
And also the fact that when you look at the smaller franchises, not McDonald’s, but the ones that have very kind of low bars of entry, like a Subway or a Dunkin’ Donuts, it has also become particularly predatory in immigrant communities. I wrote a short piece for The Atlantic about this Israeli burger chain, Burgerim, that was moving in a direction that was a triangle of sorts where new feeds would help carry on the business, but you had to have new people enter because they were deflecting royalties until things were open, which created a crumbling of the triangle-shaped structure.
And you think about how do people get lured into this? But I get it. After writing this book, I’m more confident in something that I’ve always said, that any time you think you’re smarter than the advertisers or the marketers, they will do something to show that they have the upper hand. And anytime someone gets into franchising, like oh my God, I can’t believe they got sucked into this, but who knows, right? In light of recent events, I could get sucked into some really bad investment deal or business deal because it’s such a fantasy that I think most Americans are raised with about being the captain of your own ship. And it’s just devastating to see what happens when people fall for this stuff.
Well, and it’s also interesting to me to see having come from a very small — “small town” New Jersey is not really a small town, because especially in North Jersey, it’s just one big mega-clump of towns, and you can see Manhattan from a hill in any one of them. So it’s not really a small-town experience, but the battle over the Starbucks that was going to come in across from the train station, and what does this mean for our quaint self-image? This town has many, many other problems besides the “element” that a Starbucks would attract. But the problem seemed to be that it would actually give teenagers a place to go.
No, I mean, this is also a thread in this story, that people don’t like fast food because of the type of element that it brings — and some of these restaurants were open 24 hours or open super-late at night, and so they became sites for a lot of truant officers to come round up kids. God, there is a lot of true crime in this book, isn’t there? There’s the whole thing with the bombing of the McDonald’s in Portland, again, and the Black Panther Party is accused of it. And at the same time, there are FBI agents everywhere wreaking havoc in communities and trying to pin it on radical groups, so who knows who did it, right? But all of this idea of McDonald’s as an indicator of a lack of investment in community programs, and in Philadelphia, a community group tried to get McDonald’s out.
And they said that the reason why we shouldn’t have McDonald’s here is not only is it’s not the things we need, like a community center and a youth resources and a library, but they tried to suggest that the money that was going into McDonald’s was from the mob. I don’t know if any of this is true, but I kind of like the approach, right? I like the idea that they’re calling into question not only the kind of neglect of the community, but who exactly is paying for all of this?
I did sort of admire, and I admired your admiration for, that they tried every tactic at once. This was like the button-mashing of NIMBY actions basically, that they’re like, um, well, the Scarfo crew is involved maybe. WE don’t know. Some guy said so. Mash. Also, littering. Who’s going to pay for those extra sanitation fees? Mash. This is bad for community development. Mash, mash, mash. I just thought it was very clever and also kind of depressing, because I mean, they held it off for a while, but eventually, a giant clown shoe descended.
Well, it’s funny you mentioned the clown shoe. Someone asked me this question about Ronald McDonald and trying to make him cool. I think it’s in the book, this story that they bring a Ronald McDonald to a group of kids in a black neighborhood, and the children run him away because he’s so creepy. I think that there’s some parts of this story where people are trying to be really creative and really ... They’re thinking, okay, if we win this battle, then this says something about our ability as poor people to determine what our communities can look like. And I think that that’s a story that is important to tell, that people didn’t capitulate to McDonald’s power, or people were skeptical of it because in McDonald’s telling of this story, it’s like black people just couldn’t get enough of them and were so loyal to them that, again, they make this claim that in 1992, people are so upset about the Rodney King verdict, but McDonald’s is just so amazing that no one wanted to target a McDonald’s, and—
Right, they joined hands and formed a magic circle outside of McDonald’s.
I have heard versions of that story from so many different people, and one version of it is like, people went by the McDonald’s and said, “This is a part of our community. Don’t come here.” There’s another story about allegedly a Denny’s that’s franchised by this famous athlete whose name I’m losing, but there’s versions of that story, the protect at all costs. None of this stuff is verifiable. Some of it’s deeply untrue, but this idea that a business could provoke that response when everyone is so pissed is really was one of the first stories that I encountered that made me want to write more about it. … But again, one of the things that I came to the conclusion is whether or not the story is true is irrelevant. It’s the fact that the deep confidence of McDonald’s in 1992 to make claims like that says something about what had happened the prior 24 years.
Well, and there’s so many ways in which in each section of the book, you have the corporate identity, this sort of very broad, bland attempt at universal appeal that is McDonald’s, and then the questions that it is simultaneously raising in people and communities about what their identities, their individualized identities are. And it’s kind of trying to sand the edges off of everyone and every place so that everyone is a full citizen of McDonaldland, and so is their money.
Oh, absolutely. And I think the thing that always surprised people when I would present chapters of the book at conferences or at universities, and people would come up to me and they’d say, “It never occurred to me that I would know who franchised my local anything.” And it was mostly white people who would say this. I don’t know who my local franchisee is. And I said, “Well, this is an indicator then of what that restaurant means to you, right?” It might just be a place to go after school with your kid, but in other places, the franchise owner is that guy. And the other thing that is really interesting, before my book tour was ended by COVID, people would come up to me telling me these wild McDonald’s stories, and there’s two genres.
The first is really pissed off African Americans who were trying to seek a franchise, had done business or worked for McDonald’s, and got screwed, and they would buy 10 copies. They would stand in line and say, “And furthermore ...” I mean, there was a story about a broken hamburger-bun contract. There were stories about trying to get into a very popular emerging fried-chicken brand from the South. There would be stories of working for McDonald’s corporate for 30 years and then being let go. So that’s one. And then occasionally, I would meet people who would whisper to me about how rich their families got off of franchising. There was a woman who I met in San Francisco whose grandpa invented the ... Remember when they used to do the thing with the Big Mac where you say all the ingredients?
“Two all-beef—” She said that her grandpa came up with that, and they had like 40 McDonald’s restaurants in the South, and that audience member is often draped in chains. And unfortunately, they only buy one book.
Well, it is, it occurs to me, almost lunch time, so I will wrap this up, but I did want to ask you what is the most common or frequent feedback, besides the McDonald’s grievance committee filing its weekly minutes with you where you are. What is the most common thing that you hear about the book? “I never knew X,” or “Let me remind you of Y,” or “Please write your next six books on various things in here” — what are you hearing the most?
I think that people are taken aback that you could write a book about McDonald’s that doesn’t have to do with the food. It has to do with the conditions. And I think it gives people a lot of pause about their ideas about what does it mean to offer or open up an opportunity. And that makes me really happy, that I don’t think people in a broad audience, regardless of their kind of racial or ethnic background, realize the way that fast food has been presented to vulnerable communities as a solution to their problems, rather than recognized as a force to exacerbate the problems that they seek to address, whether it’s poverty, community unrest, or lack of opportunity. So I think a lot of people kind of walk away from these book events being like, oh crap, is this what this looks like in America when people are poor and struggling, that they’re offered these low wage jobs and this kind of financial structure that very few people can tap into?
I think it has created just a conversation about what does it mean to be left behind, and what does it mean to be brought in in our current moment? And that’s I think the best part of all of it.
That’s awesome. It’s especially awesome that the most frequent question is not “Do you still go to McDonald’s?”
Oh, you know what? That was me being really earnest and high-minded. Yeah, people ask me that question. And here’s the thing. I spent the first 25 years of my life just hoovering McDonald’s. I haven’t eaten it in over a decade, and I think that’s okay. And I don’t think fast food is evil. I return to my original point. French fries are better than kale. I just can’t metabolize it very well. But also, you know what? I’m now in a position that I wasn’t in when I was a kid or when I was in my twenties where I have the wealth to have choices. And I think that that is really what I want people to understand, that I don’t abstain from fast food because I’m a good person. It’s because I’ve been put in a position to have choices, and I think that that’s kind of the point.
What is next for you? What are you working on?
I am currently working on a couple things. I’m working on a book about the history of higher education and why we think it can close the social gap, because everything about it is about the gap. And I’m also working on the start of a book about TV judge shows and how shows like Judge Mathis and Judge Judy and People’s Court have become one of the few places on American television that we can get to know about the lives of the poor.
Oh my God. All right, well I’m definitely going to let you go so you can get back to work on that, because I cannot wait to read it. — SDB