Things about France that surprised me: popularity of le hamburger

Allegedly the hamburger has overtaken the ham baguette in popularity in France. Now, I do find this hard to believe even though I live a short walk from two branches of McDonalds, one of which is a drive in, both of which are gold mines. Initially, I couldn’t understand the attraction but, having lived here a while, I now do.

Yes, McDo’s – as we call it in France – the world’s largest fast-food corporation has turned the home of world-renowned gastronomy and Michelin-starred restaurants into its second-most profitable market in the world. The chain has just shy of 1,400 restaurants in France — all locally owned franchises — and over 70,000 employees.

How has this happened? The three main reasons for McDo’s success are local responsiveness, rebranding and a robust corporate ecosystem. In other words, they’ve made it their own.

Local Responsiveness

Firstly, it understood the cultural particularities of French consumers who rarely snack between breakfast, lunch and dinner. Consequently, French meal times last longer, and more food is consumed through multiple courses, creating unique opportunities and challenges for fast-food dining. McDonald’s installed electronic ordering kiosks to free up staff to provide table-side service, particularly in taking orders from lingering diners inclined to order an additional coffee or dessert item. As a result, the average French consumer spends about four times what their American counterparts spend.

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To solve the issue of empty tables during non-meal times, McDonald’s introduced the much envied McCafé in France — a range of high-end coffees and pastries available from a separate counter. McCafé pastries come from the Holder Group, a baking conglomerate that operates the popular Paul and luxury Ladurée brand stores, which increased revenues by 5% but also contributed to the embourgeoisement (gentrification) of the chain’s image. It subsequently added another ubiquitous French food icon: the baguette (also supplied by the Holder group).

Ambience

Probably the most striking aspect about McDo’s isn’t on the menu — it is the restaurants themselves. McDonald’s franchisees have invested heavily in refining their tasteful, diverse and regionally appropriate restaurant interiors to create a welcoming environment which encourages customers to linger. Outside, the store’s visual profile and signage are so subdued as to be practically invisible to passers-by until customers are directly in front of the restaurant itself. And, let’s not forget the free WiFi which was introduced back in 2005.

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In trying to appeal to the modern restaurant goer, McDo’s has heavily publicised the “greening” of its image. Here, the golden arches are not surrounded by that familiar red background, but by a forest green colour. Furthermore, the company heavily promotes its green credentials in reducing gas emissions and recycling frying oil, paper and plastic.

In line with the strategy of redefining its image, McDo’s includes nutritional and caloric information on all all food packaging. In addition, it has reduced the amount of salt on french fries, introduced fresh fruit packets (2007) but “le Big Mac” with a whole-wheat-bun option has sadly been discontinued.

Suppliers as Partners

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Perhaps the company’s greatest strength, has been its ability to redefine the American model. It has created an entire ecosystem that has been critical to its current success. McDo’s ad campaigns tell customers more about itself, where it comes from, what ingredients it uses, and who it employs – demonstrating how French it has become. It then strengthened ties to French agribusiness, advertising widely that 95% of the company’s ingredients come from its partners in France, with the rest coming from the European Union.

McDo’s leverages its franchises and their proximity to customers by ensuring that 20 elected franchisee representatives vote on every marketing campaign and product launch before they are implemented. It consulted French doctors when discussing how to improve McDonald’s nutritional content, and engaged with Greenpeace over its environmental strategy.

Ask any French person the “nationality” of McDonald’s, and he or she will most certainly say it is an American brand. However, 95% of all McDo’s products are sourced from French farms. The company’s management, employees and franchisees are 100% French and operate nearly autonomously from the U.S. parent. Plus certain of its menu items, designed by French chefs, are found nowhere else in its global network of restaurants.

So, although McDo’s leverages the power of the global network — contributing to, and benefiting from, the brand and innovation — it has redefined itself as a French company that is constantly looking to adapt to the needs and preferences of the French culture, and therein lies its success.

Of course, hamburgers aren’t just sold in McDo’s. I’ve noticed that more and more local restaurants are serving them, and there’s plenty of hamburger only joints too. So, is le hamburger more popular than le jambon-beurre? Probably!