Fast-Food Nation Part One: The True Cost of America's Diet

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The Minimum

Driving through the neighborhoods of Colorado Springs often seems like passing through layers of sediment in rock, each one providing a snapshot of a different era. Downtown Colorado Springs still has an old-fashioned, independent spirit. An eclectic mixture of locally owned businesses lines Tejon Street, the main drag. The Chinook Bookshop is as independent as they come – the sort of literate and civilized bookstore being forced out of business nationwide. An old movie palace that locals call the Peak, refurbished with lots of neon, has a funky charm that could never be mass produced. When you leave downtown and drive northeast, however, you head toward a whole new world.

The north end of the city, near Colorado College, is full of old Victorian houses and mission-style bungalows from the early part of this century. Then come Spanish-style and adobe houses, which were popular between the world wars. Then come split-level colonials and ranch-style houses from the golden age of suburbia. Once you cross Academy Boulevard, you're engulfed by the hard, tangible evidence of what America became in the 1980s and 1990s.

Immense subdivisions with names like Sagewood, Summerfield and Fairfax Ridge blanket the land, thousands upon thousands of nearly identical houses – the architectural equivalent of fast food – covering the prairie without any respect for its natural forms, built on hilltops and ridge tops, just begging for a lightning strike, ringed by gates and brick walls and puny, newly planted trees that bend in the wind. The houses seem not to have been constructed by hand but manufactured by some gigantic machine. Roads end without warning, and sidewalks run straight into the prairie.

Both the physical and the cultural landscape of Colorado Springs seem up for grabs; it is the fastest-growing city in one of the nation's fastest-growing states. Since 1970, the population of the metropolitan area has increased from about 230,000 to about 500,000. Many of the people who have moved to the city once lived in Southern California. Longtime residents of Colorado Springs often complain that the town is being "Californicated." They blame recent arrivals for the new subdivisions, the rush-hour traffic and the fledgling youth gangs. Hewlett-Packard has come to the city from California, and so has Focus on the Family, one of the nation's richest conservative Christian groups. All of the wild, contradictory impulses of the American West are on display in this modern boomtown. The city has old hippies, environmentalists, a large gay community – and the headquarters of the state's anti-gay movement. It has twenty-nine Charismatic Christian churches and almost twice as many pawnbrokers; a Lord's Vineyard bookstore and a First Amendment adult bookstore; a Christian Medical and Dental Society, and a Holey Rollers tattoo and body-piercing parlor.

A century ago, Colorado Springs was a playground for the wealthy, nicknamed Little London, populated by the offspring of Eastern financiers, penniless aristocrats and miners who'd struck it rich in nearby Cripple Creek. Until recently the local economy was for the most part dependent upon tourism and the military. In addition to the Cheyenne Mountain Operations Center, Colorado Springs is surrounded by installations belonging to the Air Force, the Army and the U.S. Space Command. The advanced communication networks installed to serve the military and the high-tech nature of the local air bases have encouraged computer manufacturers, telemarketers and software companies to locate in the city. The quality of life is a big draw, as is the local attitude toward labor. A publication distributed by the chamber of commerce notes that among the city's private-sector manufacturing and office workers, the rate of union membership is o.o percent.

The restaurant industry is now the largest private employer in the state of Colorado – as it is in the rest of the country. In Colorado Springs, the restaurant industry has grown at a much faster rate than the city's population. In 1968, Colorado Springs had a total of twenty chain restaurants. Today it has twenty Pizza Huts and twenty-one McDonald's.

The McDonald's Corp. has used Colorado Springs as a test site for some of its latest restaurant technology. Steve Bigari, who owns five McDonald's restaurants in town, showed me the new contraptions at his place on Constitution Avenue. It is a rounded, postmodern McDonald's in a year-old shopping center on the eastern edge of the city. The drive-thru lanes have automatic sensors buried in the concrete to monitor the progress of traffic. Robotic drink dispensers select the proper-size cups, fill them with ice and then fill them with soda. Ketchup dispensers powered by compressed carbon-dioxide gas shoot out uniform spurts of red liquid. An elaborate machine empties frozen french fries from a white plastic bin into wire-mesh containers for frying, dumps the containers into hot oil, lifts them a few minutes later, shakes them, lowers them back into the oil until the potatoes are perfectly cooked, and then dumps them under heat lamps, ready to be served. Computer screens in the kitchen instantly display the customer's order. And advanced computer software not only assigns food orders to various workers in order to maximize efficiency but also predicts future orders on the basis of ongoing customer flow. Bigari was cordial, good-natured, passionate about his work, proud of the new devices. He told me the new software brought the "just in time" production philosophy of Japanese automobile plants to the fast-food business – a philosophy that McDonald's has renamed Made for You. As he demonstrated one contraption after another – including a wireless, handheld menu that uses radio waves to transmit hamburger orders – a group of construction workers across the street put the finishing touches on a new subdivision called Constitution Hills. Streets in the subdivision have patriotic names, and the cattle ranch down the road was for sale.

The business historian Alfred D. Chandler believed that a high rate of "throughput" is the most important aspect of a mass-production system. A factory's throughput is the speed and volume of its flow – a much more important measurement, Chandler argued, than the number of workers it employed or the value of its machinery. With innovative technology and the proper organization, a small number of workers could produce an enormous amount of goods inexpensively. Throughput is all about velocity and speed, about doing things faster in order to make more. Although the McDonald brothers had never encountered the term or studied "scientific management," they grasped the underlying principles. The fast-food industry's obsession with throughput has turned kitchens into small factories, changed the way millions of Americans work and transformed familiar foods into commodities that are manufactured. At Burger King restaurants, frozen hamburger patties are placed on a conveyor belt and emerge from a broiler ninety seconds later, fully cooked. The ovens at Pizza Hut and at Domino's also use conveyor belts to ensure a standardized cooking time. The ovens at McDonald's look like commercial laundry presses, with big steel hoods that swing down and grill hamburgers on both sides at once. The only fresh ingredients at most fast-food restaurants are the salad greens, the tomatoes and some toppings. At Taco Bell, the beef arrives frozen and precooked in vacuum-sealed plastic bags. The beans are dehydrated and look like brownish cornflakes. The cooking process is simple. "Everything's 'add water," a Taco Bell employee told me. "Just add hot water."

Although Richard and "Mac" McDonald introduced the division of labor to the restaurant business, it was a McDonald's executive named Fred Turner who created an operating system of unusual thoroughness and attention to detail. In 1958, Turner put together an operations-and-training manual for the company that was seventy-five pages long, specifying how almost everything should be done. Hamburgers were always to be placed on the grill in six neat rows; french fries had to be exactly 0.28 inches thick. The McDonald's operations manual today has ten times the number of pages and weighs about four pounds. Known within the company as "the Bible," it contains precise instructions on how various appliances should be used, how each item on the menu should look and how employees should greet customers. Operators who disobey these rules can lose their franchises.

The regimentation and standardization at fast-food restaurants gives managers an enormous amount of power over their employees. "When management determines exactly how every task is to be done. . . and can impose its own rules about pace, output, quality and technique," the sociologist Robin Leidner has noted, "[it] makes workers increasingly interchangeable." The management no longer relies upon the talents or skills of its workers – those things are built into the operating system and machines. Jobs that have been "deskilled" can be filled cheaply. The need to retain any individual worker is greatly diminished by the ease with which he or she can be replaced.

Fast-food employees are the largest group of low-paid workers in the United States today. The nation has about a million farm workers, who earn an average of $5.58 an hour – and 2.5 million fast-food workers, who earn an average of $5.74 an hour. Although picking strawberries is far more difficult than cooking french fries, both jobs are filled by people who are generally young and unskilled. Moreover, the turnover rates for both jobs are among the highest in the American economy. The annual turnover rates in the fast-food industry now range from 200 percent to 400 percent, meaning that the typical fast-food worker quits or is fired in three to six months.

Teenagers have long provided the fast-food industry with most of its work force. The industry's rapid growth coincided with the baby-boom expansion of that age group. Teenagers were in many ways the ideal candidates for such jobs. Since most teenagers still lived at home, they could afford to work for wages too low to support an adult, and until recently their limited skills attracted few other employers. A job at a fast-food restaurant became an American rite of passage, a first job soon left behind for better things. The flexible terms of employment in the fast-food industry also attracted many housewives who needed extra income. As the number of baby boomers declined, the fast-food companies began to recruit other marginalized workers: recent immigrants, the elderly and the handicapped.

The fast-food industry has created millions of new jobs at a time when other businesses have been firing workers. It now employs some of the poorest, most disadvantaged members of American society. It often teaches basic job skills to people who can barely read, whose lives have been chaotic or shut off from the mainstream. But the fast-food industry's attitude toward unions, overtime pay and the minimum wage suggests that its motives in employing the poor and the handicapped are not entirely altruistic.

The McDonald's Corp. insists that its operators follow directives on food preparation, purchasing, store design and countless other minute details. When it comes to labor practices, however, the company's policy is strongly laissez faire. This allows operators to set wages according to local labor markets – and it absolves the McDonald's Corp. of direct responsibility for roughly three-quarters of the company's work force. McDonald's' decentralized hiring practices and the high turnover rate at its restaurants have helped thwart efforts to organize the company's workers. Whenever unions have threatened to overcome these obstacles, the McDonald's Corp. has suddenly shown tremendous interest in the well-being of these workers.

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, McDonald's organized a "flying squad" of experienced managers who were sent to a restaurant the moment that the company suspected union activity. The group was led by John Cooke, McDonald's' head of labor relations. According to author John F. Love, "Cooke's job was to keep the unions out." Some employees were forced to take lie-detector tests, allegedly to root out union sympathizers. Cooke confronted union organizers on 400 separate occasions and defeated them every time. Robert Beavers, a longtime McDonald's executive and board member, acknowledged that the flying squad's efforts in the early 1970s prevented unions from gaining a foothold at the company.

In April of this year, workers at a McDonald's in Macedonia, Ohio, went on strike for five days. Led by Bryan Drapp and Jamal Nickens, two college students employed at the restaurant, the workers demanded better pay and protested the behavior of an assistant manager with a banner that read, "Did Somebody Say Unqualified Management?" After the leader of a Teamsters union in Cleveland expressed support for the strikers, the owner of the McDonald's agreed to most of the workers' demands. Drapp and Nickens later attempted to help unionize the restaurant, without success. The two were fired in June after arriving for work with the word union painted on their faces.

The federal Fair Labor Standards Act mandates that employees who work forty hours a week must be paid overtime for any additional hours. Few employees in the fast-food industry qualify for overtime – and even fewer are paid it. Roughly ninety percent of all fast-food workers are crew members. They are paid an hourly wage, scheduled to work as needed and often sent home during slow periods. Managers try hard to make sure that crew members work less than forty hours a week, thereby avoiding overtime payments. A small number of fast-food employees are paid regular salaries. At a hamburger restaurant with sixty-five workers, perhaps four or five have a contract and fixed terms of employment. They usually receive medical benefits and participate in some form of profit sharing. They have an opportunity to rise up the corporate ladder. But they also work long hours for low pay. A little-known provision of the Fair Labor Standards Act excludes "executives" from receiving overtime, Fast-food assistant managers have for years been classified as executives, despite the fact that much of their work involves preparing food, serving customers and mopping the floors alongside their employees. According to Marc Linder, a professor at the University of Iowa Law School who specializes in labor-law issues, fast-food assistant managers working sixty to seventy hours a week may actually earn a lower hourly wage than some of their own crew members. A promotion may be the eventual reward for such hard work; yet most assistant managers will never receive that promotion.

A class-action suit was filed against Taco Bell in October 1996 by 800 of its former and present restaurant managers in California. The suit contended that managers were routinely forced to perform nonsupervisory tasks, to work fifty to seventy hours a week without overtime and to destroy employment records as a matter of company policy. It also alleged that Taco Bell threatened to fire managers who sought to be paid for their overtime hours and encouraged the hiring of illegal aliens to control costs. In 1997, Taco Bell agreed to pay eligible managers for any uncompensated work.

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