Happy meals: Why McDonald’s has been a positive force for change

The great philosopher John Travolta once observed that, in France, a Quarter Pounder with Cheese is known as a “Royale with Cheese”, while they call a Big Mac “Le Big Mac” and allow you to wash it down with beer. That’s the “funniest thing” about Europe, he concluded, during the often quoted opening scene of Pulp Fiction: its people have embraced American culture without entirely losing their soul. “A lot of the same s— we got here, they got there. But there, they’re just a little bit different.”

Another thinker, Thomas Friedman, has also used McDonald’s to riff about globalisation. In his bestselling book The Lexus and the Olive Tree, Friedman famously ventured that: “No two countries that both had a McDonald’s had fought a war against each other since each got its McDonald’s.” Once a nation dines under the golden arches, he argued, it buys into freedom, democracy, and the American way. Children who grow up eating Happy Meals would rather spend their lives scoffing mass-produced burgers than making war.

On Saturday, the golden arches that provided Friedman, Travolta and legions of other modern opinion-formers with food for thought will reach an important milestone: their 70th birthday. On 15 May 1940, two brothers, Richard and Maurice (Dick and Mac) McDonald, opened their first restaurant, in San Bernadino – an unlovely city fringed by mountains, an hour’s drive east of Los Angeles. Today more than 32,000 outlets in 117 countries bear their name. Three new ones open each day. China has over a thousand. The company that dreamt up “Le Big Mac” has managed, in the span of a single human lifetime, to devour the world.

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