Burgers for Britain: A Cultural Geography of McDonald's UK

Article excerpt

The geography of food has recently come out of the pantry.--Richard Pillsbury, No Foreign Food.

ABSTRACT. McDonald's restaurants, which are often described as a unilateral symbol of American imperialism, have been a presence in British high streets since the 1970s. In fact, the official company history says that McDonald's does not modify its way of doing business to adapt to foreign cultures, but changes local cultures to meet its own needs. How successful has this approach been in Britain, which has a "special relationship" with the United States? Using a variety of sources, this study examines the material landscape of McDonald's, first in the United States and then in the United Kingdom. This paper summarizes the growth and development of the company from the 1970s to the early twenty-first century, and then focuses on the exteriors, interiors and restaurant menus of McDonald's UK. The creation of a two-tiered system of restaurant exteriors and interiors is discussed. Although the chain now has over a thousand outlets in Britain and is a familiar part of the British downtown streetscape, it is still strongly identified with the Americanization of Britain.


Tourists walking up London's Charing Cross Road in summer 2003 could see a book with a familiar logo prominently displayed in a Muslim bookshop window. The cover of this book, Globalization, Americanization and the British Muslim Identity, showed children in Muslim dress standing across from a McDonald's restaurant. The children were part of a black and white photograph, but the McDonald's sign was in color, drawing the reader's eye toward its well known red and gold design (Ameli 2002). Today McDonald's is an easily invoked metaphor for America's expanding global influence (see for example Kincheloe 2002 and Schlosser 2002). The terms "McWorld" and "McDonaldization" express this Americanization of global culture (Barber 2001; Inglehart and Baker 2002; Ritzer 2000; Ritzer 2002). Since 1986, The Economist has published an annual "Big Mac Index" based on the theory of purchasing power parity.

This interest in McDonald's reflects the company's global reach. By 2001 McDonald's total sales reached $40 billion, with 28,700 outlets in 120 countries (The Times, February 1, 2001). Globalization, however, does not mean complete homogenization. While McDonald's has been described as "erasing the differences between this place and that place" (Smart 1994, 172), if one looks more closely, it is clear that the famous golden arches represent different things in different places. (1)

Despite all of these interpretations, one common theme is the challenge posed by McDonald's and by other multinationals to national and cultural identity, a topic that is also a popular research area in cultural geography today (see for example Mitchell 2000). As Don Mitchell suggests, nation, nationalism, and cultural identity are never anywhere fixed but are always contested (Mitchell 2000). Indeed, the proliferation of American-based fast food restaurants outside the United States has a multitude of effects, far too many to discuss in one brief paper. The focus here is upon the development, growth and diffusion of McDonald's restaurants in the United Kingdom, and the material culture created by McDonald's as exemplified in its buildings and menus. Structures are traditionally used in cultural geography to decipher cultural trends and patterns, and recently food and its consumption have also been a source of study (see for example Bell and Valentine 1997), including studies on the cultural landscapes of food. Why focus upon McDonald's UK? First, because American culture itself, according to Zelinsky, is derived "in all essentials from that of Northwest Europe and most particularly, of Great Britain" (Zelinsky 1992, 5). For much of American history, large sections of the American elite and middle classes have copied or modified British styles in literature, domestic architecture, men's fashion, and garden design (see for example Tunnard and Reed 1955; Furnas 1969). …