Right. So I can probably count the number of times I’ve been to a McDonald’s in Cali over the past several years on one hand. Usually when I am craving soft serve and there’s no frozen yogurt place nearby. The last time I ordered actual food from there, I can’t even remember. Not that 99-cent Chicken McNugget Tuesdays don’t bring back very fond memories of university roommates and scrounging in couches for spare change, but… let’s face it, there’s a stigma attached to eating at McD’s if you’re not a cheap student or a parent of rugrat-aged children. They cater to a very specific crowd and anybody who wants a decent hamburger is better off going to Carl’s or In & Out… or, if you have the time to sit down, Fuddruckers or Fatburger. Burger chains are numerous and stratified to fill certain niches, and there’s little room for them to step out of the customer range they’ve boxed themselves into. Not so much the case hereabouts, either in Finland or Europe in general (from what I’ve heard).
McDonald’s has only one major competitor here, the nation-wide (Baltic-wide?) chain Hesburger, known for its creative use of rye buns and tasty range of sauces. And here’s the thing, if you’re a local and you’re told to choose between buying a burger from a locally-owned chain or one run by the Americans, you’re probably going to buy local unless the other guys are offering something different and interesting. So fast food evolution happened.
Despite having visited Finland several times before moving, it never occurred to me to have lunch at McD’s until earlier this week, when I figured it’d be good to try out, if only for comparison’s sake. I avoided the place like crazy back home, so what could be so different, right? Let’s see…
This is our local McD’s. There is not a jungle gym or giant hamster tube in sight. Everything is pristine. The building is surrounded by these picturesque, well-tended planters of flowering shrubs. There is a meeting courtyard in the front (which doubles as an outdoor cafe area on nice days, I bet) and decorative wooden lattices break up the light coming in through the plate glass walls. But what’s inside…?
The interior is decorated in light wood, with faux leather bench booths, and coffee-shop-esque elevated bar benches along the walls. It’s hip in that spare, clean Nordic sort of way.
This is “The Mac with Bacon”, which seemed to be the closest permutation to a Big Mac that was on the menu. It’s on a large toasted ciabatta bun and tastes like something I would have ordered at Carl’s Jr. At €7ish for the meal, it costs about as much as Carl’s, too. Now, maybe the McD’s back home have upgraded their menus since I left, but I sort of doubt it. This sandwich is simply aimed at an entirely different audience — people eat out less here and when they do, they’re more willing to drop a certain amount for something they wouldn’t be able to make at home in a couple of minutes for much cheaper. There are simpler items on the menu as well, but for the most part, they all seem to veer away from children’s fare.
Adorable promotional Coke glasses! I’ve been sort of lukewarm about the previous Coke glass collections, but this set was just so gorgeous that I had to get them. Another departure here was that what little poster advertising they had up was promoting these glasses instead of the toys in the kids’ meals, which were relegated to a little case off to the side. Yet another sign of their not-entirely-for-the-kids focus.
In the middle of writing this post, by the way, I was browsing through my RSS reader and caught an interesting tidbit from Chowhound (in turn pimping a post from Eater) along similar lines, about how the Denny’s in Japan are now serving foie gras and truffles. In both cases, these eateries found themselves being nearly the only purveyors of a certain type of food, and expanded to fill the menu space that is typically reserved for specialist restaurants back in the States. In both cases, the stigma of going to these places to eat doesn’t exist. They’re just names and do not automatically conjure images of smelly, sticky plastic chairs, loud children, truck stops and a general seediness. Looking at something so familiar and taken for granted through a different lens really did make me realize I was in a different country. And in this particular case, what I saw turned out to be a happy surprise.