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3 days 3 countries

Visiting McDonald\'s in Europe



Just days after learning I was to accompany McDonald’s on a tour of its European operations, my hair “colorist,” who came to the U.S. from Lithuania gave me some advice: Learn some French phrases; Europeans hate it when Americans expect them to speak English in their own country, and leave your gym shoes at home. “Only Americans wear gym shoes in public,” she told me disdainfully.

I had visions of being ridiculed by the Germans and snubbed by the French if my footwear revealed I was an ugly American, so I spent seven days—two of them walking more than eight hours to see the sights of Paris—in arch-less sandals.

All in vain, I might add, because the minute I opened my mouth to speak, there was no mistaking that my French delivered with a hint of a Southern accent was coming from an American.

McDonald's Europe has a stylish look that's attracting the coffee-cafe crowd as well as the french fry eaters.

McDonald’s had a similar dilemma when it went abroad—how to deal with being an American icon in Paris. And, while they didn’t leave their arches at home as I did, they did downplay them on signage in order to blend into a culture that both embraces and abhors all things American.

In the spirit of full disclosure, McDonald’s did not pay for the journalists who went on the whirlwind tour of three countries in three days, although they fed us well. And no, it wasn’t hamburgers and fries three times a day. We ate at world-class restaurants and snacked at McCafés. I’m not a coffee drinker, so I can’t vouch for the lattes with the hand-drawn design in the foam, but I can for the pastries. The petite pistachio meringues were well worth the calories. And our lunch at McDonald’s Germany headquarters was samples of 13 new menu items developed for European taste buds—everything from a salad nicoise (tuna and green beans on lettuce) to a Baci McFlurry, made with the Italian chocolate-hazelnut candy that’s a European favorite.

The urban appeal of the restaurants fit the European lifestyle, which encourages customers to linger, and savor the experience, rather than to eat on the run.

So put down your Big Mac and pick up your pencil-thin fries, and get ready to take note of the way the rest of the world sees our McDonald’s.

The agenda:

Monday, June 25:

Actually travel for me started at 3 p.m. on Sunday from Minneapolis with a layover in Amsterdam. I arrived in Munich at 8:55 a.m. and immediately did what every seasoned traveler tells you not to do: I went to bed.

18:00 (take 12 o’clock and subtract it to get U.S. time):

Welcome cocktail reception at Le Meridien hotel in Munich.


9:00: Strategic overview of McDonald’s Europe by several key people, including Denis Hennequin, president of McDonald’s Europe.

Noon: Taste test of McDonald’s new menu items.

14:00: McDonald’s restaurant tour, including the busiest McDonald’s in the world.

Dinner at Zum Alten Markt, a quaint, renowned restaurant known for its fresh food (one appetizer was a bunch of raw radishes).


5:30: Transfer to airport where we flew to London Heathrow.

9:15: Climb on bus that will take us to Oxford and the Food Animal Initiative Farm, where we’d learn about sustainable agriculture and supply chain strategy in Europe.

Noon: Lunch—a catered affair in a barn-like shelter with grilled lamb, chicken and sausages, plus a variety of salads. (I chose the sausage, which I immediately regretted when our tractor-drawn trailer stopped after lunch to visit the pigs—or future sausages of England, as I had come to think of them. By the way, a happy pig is one with a tail, which means his litter mates didn’t get bored or stressed and chew it off.)

16:30: Check into The Cumberland, an arty, hip hotel.

Franchisee Michael Heinritzi says he chose McDonald's because he had three dreams: He wanted to return to Bavaria, own his own business and make a lot of money.

Dinner on our own.


6:30: Bus to Waterloo Station where we caught the train to Paris. (A portion of the trip is through the Chunnel, under the sea, where the beautiful scenery is interrupted by a blackout. An interesting aside: When the train crossed over into France, the train attendant shifted from speaking English to speaking French.)

12:30: Arrive at Sofitel Le Parc Hotel for a “light lunch”—tiny plates of salmon tartare, chilled pea soup, veal in a rich sauce atop mashed potatoes…and miniature desserts, tiramisu, crème brulée and fresh berries in cream.

14:00: Presentations on employee recruitment and retention and marketing and design innovations.

16:30: Restaurant tour.

20:30: Closing dinner at Place Mohammed V, with a view of Notre Dame and the Parisian skyline.

Friday—Return home or stay on your own in Paris

Setting the stage

Journalists by nature are suspicious people. Tell someone you’re serving organic milk or you’ve built a children’s activity center next door to your restaurant, and most people would be impressed. But, if you’re McDonald’s and you tell that same thing to a roomful of journalists, they’ll look for the horse manure instead of the pony.

Denis Hennequin, president of McDonald's Europe, started as an assistant store manager for the chain.

“Oh, so you’re being proactively, environmentally sensitive,” they’ll say looking up from their notepad just long enough to fix the presenter in their scope. “Could that be because the European Union guidelines are much more stringent than those in the U.S.? Is it because you’ll have to do it soon anyway?”

It was great fun to see Harry from the U.K. press corps wave his hand impatiently to ask questions at the Oxford farm. He was wearing stylishly little glasses, a rumpled suit and an unimpressed expression.

He asked about the organic milk program and then went on about the company’s redesign of its playlands. The European version is a “gym,” rather than the colorful, oversized play areas with their gerbil-like mazes and multi-colored ball pits we’re used to in this country.

What Harry couldn’t get them to admit to—not for lack of indignant questions—was that the gyms weren’t benevolent structures. He scoffed at the very idea that the gyms had no food service, were free and their only purpose was to encourage children to be less sedentary.

So I could just drop my kids off there and go shopping? he asked, nastily.

Not for weeks at a time, Harry, we’d expect you to pick them up, a McDonald’s executive teased.

Exactly what was the business reason behind them, he wanted to know—to hook the next generation on their fast food?

The end result of his questioning was a small item in the news section of his paper the next day, saying McDonald’s would now be serving organic milk in their coffee, as well as the bottled milk in their kids meals. Good news for English farmers.

When one of the American journalists mentioned Harry’s badgering to Jack Daly, senior vice president for McDonald’s, who was on the trip from Oak Brook, Ill., he laughed, and said, that was nothing. They were used to much worse.

Alas, I am not as jaded as Harry. So here’s my view of the trip and an overview of what McDonald’s is doing in Europe.

Much of the innovation of late has come from this overseas operation, and when I asked Denis Hennequin, president of McDonald’s Europe, if he had plans to someday run the entire global operation, he modestly brushed off the suggestion. While he would not be the first non-American to hold that role—Charlie Bell was Australian—the Parisian said he had no plans to go any further than his London/Paris perch. I hate to be like Harry, but I’m a bit skeptical. Hennequin is not only charming and witty, he’s full of creative energy and innovation. He’s managed to rebrand McDonald’s in Europe—with the help of many other talented people—and to make the Europeans think of it as both an American brand and a local brand. Our food, their way.

Day 1—Munich

The workers in the McCafe side of the restaurant don't just stand behind the counter, they serve customers seated in the leather chairs.

The goal of the Munich leg of the trip was to set the stage for the European operation—number of units, economics, all those numbers journalists love to put into stories and boxes. It was also to show us both McDonald’s commitment to food quality and to introduce us to some of the new products that have been developed for the European market.

We were ushered into an impressive theater with rows of desks in a half circle with microphones for questions. About 70 percent of Europe’s operating income comes from England, Germany and France, we’re told.

Europe is the second largest territory for McDonald’s. It has almost 6,400 restaurants, 4,100 of them franchises.

Social responsibility and brand transparency were two themes repeated often. “We deliver good food fast, not fast food,” Hennequin said.

A fire in the fireplace and fresh flowers are an everyday occurrence in this Munich McDonald's. "I promise this is not for show," the franchisee told journalists.

Because people travel between countries easily in Europe, the European division developed the McPassport, which is a passport-like document that lists the skills an employee has mastered at his or her last McDonald’s job. The idea is to make it easy for workers to apply for a job at a McDonald’s in another EU country. The passport serves as a completed application, and a way to encourage workers to stay in the system—a system always looking for workers.

In addition to tasting the new food items developed in McDonald’s European Food Studio, we were privy to how the quality control system works with vendor products. Rebecca Jaramillo, chief quality execution officer, invited us to the front of the room where we inspected hamburger buns for 20 items, including crown-seed coverage, heel color and grain size. French fries were examined to see if they were stacked sizes—which looks better in the package—with no brown edges or oily taste.

Food that doesn’t meet McDonald’s lengthy specifications means a visit from corporate to the farmer or producer of that particular item. The food chain’s multiple links are all identifiable and executives bragged that they can trace a chicken breast back to the coop.

In the restaurants

The first McDonald’s we visited was franchisee Michael Heinritzi’s, who owns 30 restaurants. It was one of the 20 percent of restaurants in Europe that had already gone through the remodeling process. An additional 200 company-owned and 500 franchise stores are scheduled to be reimaged this year.

The main dining room was the “traditional” menu of hamburgers and soft drinks, and then you crossed over into the McCafé area of the restaurant. Here there were fresh flowers and votive candles on the tables and a double-sided fireplace. The glass cases displayed neatly arranged dense cakes, croissants and other local pastry favorites.

A huge outdoor patio that seats 200 overlooked the double-decker, red bus that’s used for birthday parties. Upstairs is a Gym &Fun area. Everything is sleek and modern earth tones and doesn’t smack of McDonald’s—more like the love child of McDonald’s and Starbucks.

This location serves between 950,000 to 1 million guests annually and 8 to 10 percent of those guests come just for the coffee, said the proud owner, Heinritzi. Mothers used to drop off their children for birthday parties and leave, he added, but now, with the café, they stay.

A portion of his employees are apprentices, students who split their time equally between working in the restaurant and attending school. The program is three years old, and for those who need it, housing is supplied. “They are the people who will be running our restaurants tomorrow,” Heinritzi said.

The second restaurant we visited is the busiest McDonald’s in the world. It’s snuggled into a historic building near a busy Munich shopping area and is the first thing riders of the underground train that connects Munich with all the small villages around it see as they climb the stairs. Their 22 cash registers ring up sales for 9,000 people a day, or about 3 million customers a year. There are 400 seats in the two-story restaurant, which the manager said is not enough. From the loft, diners can watch several large-screen TVs. Outside, the McDonald’s logo is understated in the arch under the historic detailing of the building.

Day 2—London

Who wouldn't want to know their Chicken McNuggets lived a happy life? This farm in Oxford is looking for large-scale, sustainable farming methods.

The England portion of our trip was to learn about the Food Animal Initiative and to visit a research farm in Oxford.

McDonald’s England has already introduced Rainforest Alliance-certified coffee in their restaurants, and organic milk in their kids meals. The announcement that the company was switching to semi-skimmed organic milk for its coffee and hot chocolates was made while we were there, overshadowed in the news by Tony Blair stepping down as Prime Minister and Gordon Brown moving into 10 Downing Street.

McDonald’s serves 145,000 cups of coffee a day, however, so that change is no small beans. The company estimates that the initial orders will be 5 percent of Britain’s organic milk supply.

Social responsibility is a major focus. “You can’t just say you’re socially committed, you have to show it,” said Karen van Bergen, chief of staff to the president and vice president corporate relations, Europe. Consumers in surveys say they have punished companies for bad environmental or social behaviors, she said.

“We are the No. 1 family restaurant and with that comes responsibility to children,” van Bergen said. “We are changing our attitude from doing less harm to doing more good.”

Among the issues they’re addressing are energy and water savings in the restaurants, sustaining forestry and fisheries, transportation and humane treatment of animals. Doing good can be as seemingly minor as changing the napkin dispensers in the restaurants to make it harder to grab more than one napkin to an expensive commitment to fund sustainable agricultural research.

In our tour around the farm, before a sudden rainstorm made staying dry more desirable than staying informed, we learned about free-range chickens and the work to breed strong-legged fowl that can range farther to pick up more grubs, spreading its fertilizer as it goes.

This farm, bordered by the Thames River, is no “boys land,” land that any boy could farm, according to Roland Bonney, director of the Farm Animal Initiative (FAI).

“Agriculture is the world’s largest employer, the world’s biggest polluter and the most space-demanding of all human activities. It is also one we will not survive without,” the farm’s brochure stated. The FAI’s challenge is to develop ways to incorporate animal welfare methods into commercial farming, especially for a customer like McDonald’s which purchases in world-class bulk.

Day 3—Paris

McDonald's Europe is down plaing its golden arches. Notice the trendy chairs in the windows, another unique touch.

Where else but Paris for the design segment of the trip?

The reimaged restaurants in Europe are not your kids’ McDonald’s. Gone are the identifying shiny red and yellow. Instead, the theme is “less is more.” Colors are subtle to showcase eye-catching graphics and arty design elements that pop with color. One example was a glass case of green apples on five glass shelves used as a wall divider in one of the restaurants in Paris.

Outside signage is “less aggressive” than in the states. Tourists passing by one oversized McDonald’s on the outskirts of a large urban shopping center in Paris would have walked by the exterior twice before recognizing it as McDonald’s.

The room divider of orange carrots in drinking glasses and the floor-to-ceiling close-ups of produce send the subtle message that it’s all about fresh food. An LED display that looks like what we’d use for stock updates tracks the origin of the food being served that day. That’s the message in Europe: Not fast food, but quality food to be enjoyed rather than scarfed down.

The European Restaurant & Design Studio produced an oversized catalog with nine designs for franchisees to choose from. They range from high-end to more affordable, simpler designs. In a London restaurant, a quick facelift substituted bright colors and slatted wood. But more noticeable than the décor were the hostesses who worked the room, taking orders from seated customers, making sure everyone was happy and greeting customers as they came in the door.

The “Origins” design has an outdoorsy feel, plus communal tables. The idea is to look homemade, as opposed to mass produced, according to the design catalog.

This is not your kid's McDonald's. The new sleek design is more like the love child of McDonald's and Starbucks.

Ronald Gym Club is hip and colorful, but it also stays away from the plastic look of the old McDonald’s. One feature is an alcove with two stationary bikes hooked up to a computer screen where the riders can race against each other. Another marriage of exercise and technology is the oversized game control pad which is manipulated by jumping back and forth on the controls rather than using thumbs.

All the restaurants we visited incorporated the McCafé into the design, and Paris was no exception. The pastries were from local sources, so what we sampled in Munich was very different from the smaller bites of pastries the Parisians prefer.

Some of what we saw in Europe will make its way across the pond. McDonald’s is already testing recycled cooking oil in the buses that travel around headquarters in Oak Brook, Ill. And, animal welfare is a concern of U.S. consumers also. But just as the French staff had to educate their citizens about this American-iconic brand coming to their stalwart center of all things culinary, so will Americans need to be reeducated to think of McDonald’s in a different light.

Are Americans ready for a grown-up McDonald’s? Will we abandon Starbucks and its clones to log onto our computers and sip an espresso at a McCafé?

I don’t have the answers. But, just like the star-crossed lovers in “Casablanca,” I’ll “always have Paris.

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