McVersity for Money

McDonald's adds a Latin touch, or just a cynical one

You have to admire the arrogance.

When McDonald's unveiled its New Tastes Menu of South Florida about six weeks ago, the response was both immediate and unanimous. Those culinary professionals who actually pay attention to such things -- meaning those who aren't so snobby they ignore fast food altogether -- were downright outraged. How dare McDonald's Corporation appropriate ethnic icons such as the Cuban sandwich and dulce de lecheand turn them into quick-service items? It's taking the melting pot too far! It's adulterating Cuban gastronomic tradition (an oxymoron in itself)! It's all just a marketing ploy!

Well, of course.

Despite its success in brand conformity, the numero uno fast-food chain in the world is naturally interested in appealing to regional tastes. The credo is right there on the McDonald's Website: "[Our mission is] to leverage the unique talents, strength, and assets of our diversity in order to be the World's best quick service restaurant experience. [Our vision is to] harness the multi-faced qualities of our diversity -- individual and group differences among our people -- as a combined, complementary force to run great restaurants, [and to] maximize investments in the quality of community life in the diverse markets we serve."

Okay, so the diversity speechmaking rings a little false. We all know what McDonald's always is and always will be after: the almighty buck. And with 93 franchises in Miami-Dade County alone (with another 111 in Broward and Palm Beach counties), the corporation is wise to take the ever-burgeoning Hispanic population into account.

But I don't believe, as Sun-Sentinel writer John Tanasychuck does, that "McDonald's has gone Latin with the introduction of four new products [Latin McOmelet, Cuban sandwich, Chicken McNuggets with pineapple-mango dipping sauce, and dulce de lecheMcFlurry] designed to appeal to Hispanic customers." I can't agree with his source, Phil Lempert, food trends editor for NBC's The Today Show, who "applaud[s] them for saying we need to address the nutritional needs of this population. But we really have to do it smart." I don't even think it's the indigenous or immigrant Hispanic population that's being targeted.

For one thing McDonald's is a corporation. Shrewd? Yes. Smart? Um, not exactly. For another I highly doubt McDonald's is overly concerned with the "nutritional needs of the [Hispanic] population." If that were the case, the trillion-calorie dulce de leche McFlurry would have been scratched at the outset -- along with the Big Mac, the Filet-O-Fish, and all the rest of the prefab, flash-frozen, dehydrated, reconstituted, sodium-ridden, high-caloric junk. And the chain would stop pushing eight-year-olds -- Hispanic or otherwise -- toward lifelong obesity.

Nor should McDonald's, however, the epitome of an all-American chain, attempt to get any more in the Hispanic head by taking Lempert's suggestion of putting something like rice and beans on the menu or by expanding table sizes to suit the general proportions of the average Latin family. And not just because McDonald's has neither the equipment nor the training manual to pound plantains or dress yuca with mojo, let alone accommodate a Catholic approach to birth control. That's what Blue Sky Food by the Pound is for.

No, let's be even more cynical about this. All McDonald's is really trying to do here is to avoid judgments like the ones Eric Schlosser makes in his book Fast Food Nation: "The basic thinking behind fast food has become the operating system of today's retail economy, wiping out small businesses, obliterating regional differences, and spreading identical stores throughout the country like a self-replicating code." As a corporation McDonald's is interested in appearances, not authenticity.

Which is why McDonald's offers Kiwiburgers (with a fried egg and a slice of beet) in New Zealand, frankfurters and beer in Germany, and a chicken tatsuta sandwich dressed with soy sauce and ginger in Japan. And which is why it is just plain rich to assume that South Florida has been targeted as some kind of Hispanic test market. Truth is, not only is the New Tastes Menu nationwide, with different products debuting in diverse regions (think bratwurst out west), this isn't the first time McDonald's has unveiled this kind of marketing scheme. In Boston a couple of years ago, customers were treated to lobster rolls, of all things. Southern California debuted its Fiesta Menu, featuring breakfast burritos and torta sandwiches with guacamole. Novelties, not permanent items by a long stretch of the culinary (if such a term can be applied) imagination.

So I'm pretty sure that McDonald's is doing what it's always done: survival of the fattest. Minor adaptations designed to fool the enemy -- that would be Burger King, my maduros-eating amigos, not Pollo Tropical -- into believing you're both cutting edge and forward thinking. Acknowledging regional differences to suit the tourist, not the local. I mean really, what Hispanic in his right mind is going to hit up Mickey D's for a Latin McOmelet and a cup of watery joe when he can get a tortilla and a cortadito at any street-corner cafetería?

 
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