Sure, fast food is no longer fast and no longer cheap, but shouldn't it be food?
In the hierarchy of American fast food there is McDonalds and there is everything else. It's not like Coke v. Pepsi or Nike v. Reebok. McDonalds has set itself apart from the pack, due to the fact that you can walk into any McDonalds anywhere in the world and, despite some minor inconsistencies in the greeting, the decor, and the menu, the experience is almost creepily similar.
Number two, no cheese.
Numero dos, no queso.
Numero deux, non fromage.
Nummer zwei nein Kase. NEIN!
Wait. Yahoo bought Babelfish? They should just buy Flash Your Rack and be done with it. Jerry, give Microsoft whatever it wants and be grateful you didn't drive that baby into the ground any harder.
Anyway, regardless of your tendencies toward trans fats, meat preparation, or Morgan Spurlock, you have to admit that McDonalds has achieved the successful commoditization of the delivery of hot food. That's right, screw you, Meals on Wheels. And like I said, this isn't number one versus clear cut number two.
But it used to be. Enter the Burger King, the feisty little up-and-comer who attacked from all sides.
Attack A: Star Wars Glasses. Anyone who grew up in the late 70s/early 80s had one of these. The day I got the Han Solo was quite possibly the best day of my life. The Burger King Star Wars glass became an icon and it was, even though we weren't allowed to verbalize it, the shit.
McDonalds Counters With: The Happy Meal. Clever.
Attack B: Going Mallrat Friendly. It seems like every fast food franchise these days caters to the kids. Except Taco Bell, and this is because the kids don't get the irony, they just look at a Gordita and point and say "That's gross." Anyway, back in the day, Burger King ruled the mall. And maybe this is still true, I don't know, I haven't been in a mall since Spiegel was in business (joke for the ladies!), but the BK Lounge was far hipper to loiter in than the Chess King or the Cavages. Burger King, maybe unofficially, became teen friendly. McDonalds had their Happy Meals, Burger King let you play your boombox as long as it wasn't too loud and there were no swears.
McDonalds Counters With: Chicken McNuggets. Game. Set. Match.
Attack C: The Upgrade. Do you remember this too or is it just a dream I had. Back in... the early '90s?... Burger King toyed with tablecloths, shrimp baskets, free popcorn, and table service. It was like they were trying to be B.K. McDignities. It lasted for about five seconds and was uncomfortable for everyone involved. The one by my apartment had this really sketchy guy behind the counter and all of a sudden he was bringing me a shrimp basket and making small talk, mostly about hamsters. Wait, I think it was all a dream. It had to be. No corporation can have an idea that bad, right?
McDonalds Counters With: Corporate giggling.
Attack D: Extreme Burger King. A few years ago they got a new CEO and he lasted a very short time. But in that time he developed some pretty shrewd initiatives. There was a customer bill of rights, the ads got a little edgier and smarter - I believe the tail end of his reign brought about the unnerving yet completely brand-powerful life-size King Marionette or whatever it is. The food, which by the way, had always been better than McDonalds (except the fries) got spicier, came with more options, and they introduced a breakfast sandwich the size of your head.
McDonalds Counters With: TBD. This is because, like the King himself, there is no soul left in the Burger King empire, and it is as dead and glassy-eyed as that puppet. No foul play is suspected.
How did this happen? I don't know who is at the Burger Helm now, I don't follow fast food as closely as I should. But somewhere over the last few years the extremification became a disgustification.
During a recent spate of traveling, I put Burger King to the test. I didn't go to the Super Size Me extreme, I just ate there whenever I saw their sign on the highway. The results, much like McDonalds but in a negative way, were disturbingly similar.
The food was just gross - not "there's too much mayonnaise on my Whopper" gross but more along the lines of "Excuse me, I ordered a Whopper, not a wet ball of goo with mayonnaise" gross. Also, everything has mayonnaise on it now which, compared to the entire industry trending to at least healthy alternatives, if not healthy overhauls, probably looked counterculture on paper.
All of the restaurants were, without fail, filthy. And not just foot traffic filthy, but stadium mens room after a football game filthy. I can forgive the occasional post-lunch-run suburban sprawl visit where they may not have had the time to keep up with the rush, but come on, 6 out of 6 were dirty, back seat of a Civic after a spring break drive to Tijuana dirty.
The service. I don't want to sound like that guy. I've seen that guy, I dislike that guy, and I want to be the one to tell him: Sir, if your standards are going to be that high, fast food is probably not an option for you. But again, I got trumped. I never got greeted. Not "Welcome to Burger King," or "Can I help you?", or even a nod and a "Dude." Nothing. 3 out of the 6 orders I placed weren't correct, from the wrong size meal to the wrong sandwich to mayonnaise when I asked it to be held.
LOOK, I HATE MAYONNAISE, OK?
Everything on the menu is now a Whopper or a variation of the Whopper. Remember that campaign they had where they tried to trick people into thinking they had gotten rid of the Whopper? Ignore how preposterous and staged that was for a second, but honestly, there are seven other sandwiches that, with a little have-it-your-way magic, are a heartbeat away from being a Whopper.
But that means you have to order off-menu, which makes you an ass. Plus your chances of getting what you ordered are 50/50.
Now, this little experiment and subsequent rant might make you think I'm angry at the Burger King, but let me assure you that's not the case. I hadn't been in a Burger King in close to year before venturing into the first during these trips. What I am is fascinated, almost dismayed, at the state of the corporation, and not from a shareholder perspective but from a former... fan, I guess.
Kind of ironic, if you'll allow me to stretch the term twice in the same column, that their big marketing push this summer is the new Indiana Jones flick. It doesn't work. The toys suck, and that doesn't matter because the only people going to that movie are going for nostalgic reasons. It used to be a very cool thing, but now it's kind of past its prime, trying to be something it isn't.
So consider this a plea to the Burger King. The King has no clothes. Go back to the basics, my liege, and offer me an alternative. Because if I'm anything, I'm a number two guy (joke for the dudes!), and I hate seeing the underdog flame out.
Joe Procopio trades in pop culture and tech culture, allowing him to poke fun at so many things. He's written for a number of online and offline publications from the late, lamented Smug to the fancy-pants Chicago Tribune and also for television. He's a novelist, a shredder, a joker, and a family man. Scoff at joeprocopio.com or follow on Twitter @jproco.
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IF YOU LIKED THIS COLUMN...
7.2.08 @ 8:18a
Bugs Bunny "pint" glasses from Carrol's rocked it pretty hard.
7.2.08 @ 10:09a
Yeah "Looney Tunes" Glasses from Carrol's (which later changed it's name to BK).... anyone remember that I had the full set when I got married... and then some how they mysteriously disappeared? Which one of you bastards did my wife give them to?
7.2.08 @ 10:22a
I haven't been to a Burger King in a while, sadly. They're not as prevalent in Manhattan as McDonald's or Wendy's, which I'm not happy about. I always preferred BK to those others.
That said, I think the "jump the shark" moment had to be when the BK Broiler (nice, juicy grilled (boiled?) chicken) became the Chicken Whopper, and is now dry and tastes, well, a little off. Just my 2Â¢.
7.2.08 @ 10:57a
There is only one reason to go to BK - the Original Chicken Sandwich. Like Coca Cola - it has faced the young upstart and kicked its ass. And healthy? Of course its healthy - its chicken. These are not the calories you're looking for...
On that topic - you need to slip in Star Wars references more often (if that's possible) - just so Google inserts cool images on your page!
7.2.08 @ 11:53a
Wow. I remember the Looney Tunes glasses. Apparently, one of my first words was "Carrolls."
Also, for Mr. Greg Swanson, the original chicken sandwich, she is gross. It has become dry, nearly flavorless, and now has a ridiculous aftertaste similar to that of the McNugget.
7.2.08 @ 1:13p
NO CHEESE? Are you MAD?
7.2.08 @ 1:17p
In college, we had a BK within walking distance. My "Have It Your Way" moment: I dip my fries in sauce (mustard, bbq, anything but ketchup) so asked for bbq sauce. The counter lady wanted to charge me for it since I hadn't ordered the strips/nuggets/tenders. Our argument lasted nearly 5 minutes. Guess who won? I paid .25 for the sauce and haven't been in a BK since.
7.2.08 @ 5:29p
McDonalds now has an Angus Deluxe burger that is arguably the tastiest piece of quasi-beef on its menu. They're a juggernaut all right. But damn right, I miss the King. I owned an Ewoks glass. Wish I still had it!
7.2.08 @ 6:21p
I can't say that any fast food is good eating. But, in BK's defense, I do like the rodeo cheeseburger - BBQ sauce and onion rings on a cheeseburger is good.
7.2.08 @ 6:24p
BBQ sauce and onion rings on a cheeseburger is good.
And bacon. Let's not forget bacon.
7.2.08 @ 11:06p
"these are not the calories you're looking for"
Oh My, I was a HUGE BK fan. And it was always the same: two cheeseburgers with tomato, ketchup and MAYO, small onion rings, Coke. Okay, sometimes I threw a Whopper Jr. in there for a changeup.
But, I can honestly say I haven't eaten at one in probably 5 years. #1 - I don't eat hamburger anymore #2 - none of the other sammies on the menu are worth the trouble.
7.3.08 @ 4:42p
BK does seem to suck in an extravagant and self-indulgent way that other fast food chains can't match.
The last thing I got there was a veggie burger. It was burnt. I ate it anyway. Because the secret is, they make you wait so long for it, you're not willing to hang around for another 15 minutes or more on the chance that this time they might get it right.
7.3.08 @ 5:55p
What was McDonalds countering with the McDLT?
Oh. McDLT is the same as something called the Big N Tasty (ugh), which is meant to compete with the Whopper. (cite)
7.4.08 @ 11:41a
I'm sorry, those commercials ARE funny, though.
I'm trying to ween myself off fast-food in general, but Burger King is way down my list. Wendys and In and Out (you non-California folks are missing out!) reign supreme with me today.
7.5.08 @ 10:05a
Last time I ate fast food was at McD's was on a field trip. NEVER AGAIN (at least not with 36 five year olds in tow!)
My husband prefers BK (ever since we saw "Super Size Me") and I prefer anywhere else. Just not a fan of fast food. Not that I don't love deep fried anything, (especally cheese curds.... ya der hey) I just don't feel good afterwards.
I did have the "bbq chicken wrap" at the golden arches and it wasn't bad.
My husband also has a collection of NFL Packer glasses from "Burger Chef", it's a Sheybogan,WI resturant.
michelle von euw
7.6.08 @ 6:01p
BK was definitely the cooler place to hang out when we were in the eighth grade, which, come to think of it, still may be their marketing niche.
I have to admit, I kind of loved the King NFL commercials, with the scary/freaky King. Not enough to actually eat at BK, though.