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

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According to these documents, the marketing alliances with other brands are intended to create positive feelings about McDonald's, making consumers associate one thing they like with another. Ads would link the company's french fries "to the excitement and fanaticism people feel about the NBA." The feelings of pride inspired by the Olympics would be used in ads to help launch a new hamburger with more meat than the Big Mac. The link with the Walt Disney Co. is considered by far the most important, designed to "enhance perceptions of Brand McDonald's." A memo seeks to explain the underlying psychology behind many visits to McDonald's: Parents take their children to McDonald's because they "want the kids to love them. . . It makes them feel like a good parent." Purchasing something from Disney is the "ultimate" way to make kids happy, but it is too expensive to do every day. The advertising needed to capitalize on these feelings, letting parents know that "only McDonald's makes it easy to get a bit of Disney magic." The ads would be aimed at "minivan parents" and would carry an unspoken message about taking your children to McDonald's: "It's an easy way to feel like a good parent."

The fundamental goal of the "My McDonald's" campaign stemming from these proposals is to make a customer feel that McDonald's "cares about me" and "knows about me." A corporate memo introducing the campaign explains: "The essence McDonald's is embracing is 'Trusted Friend.'. . . 'Trusted Friend' captures all the goodwill and unique emotional connection customers have with the McDonald's experience.. . . [Our goal is to make] customers believe McDonald's is their 'Trusted Friend.' Note: This should be done without using the words 'Trusted Friend.'.. . . Every commercial [should be] honest.. . . Every message will be in good taste and feel like it comes from a trusted friend." The words trusted friend were never to be mentioned in the ads because doing so might prematurely "wear out a brand essence" that could prove valuable in the future for use among different national, ethnic and age groups. Despite McDonald's' faith in its trusted friends, the opening page of this memo says in bold red letters: "Any unauthorized use or copying may lead to civil or criminal prosecution."

Success

Matthew Kabong glides his '83 Buick LeSabre through the streets of Pueblo, Colorado, at night, looking for a trailer park called Meadowbrook. Two Little Caesar's pizzas and a bag of Crazy Bread sit in the back seat. "Welcome to my office," he says, reaching down, turning up the radio and playing some mellow rhythm & blues. Kabong delivers pizzas four or five nights a week and earns the minimum wage, plus a dollar for each delivery, plus tips. On a good night he makes about fifty bucks. We cruise past block after block of humble little houses, whitewashed and stucco, built decades ago, with pickup trucks in the driveways and children's toys on the lawns. Pueblo is the southernmost city along the front range, forty miles from Colorado Springs, but for generations a world apart, largely working-class and Latino, a union town with steel mills that was never chic like Boulder, bustling like Denver or aristocratic like Colorado Springs. No one ever built a polo field in Pueblo, and snobs up north still like to call it "the asshole of Colorado." Kabong was born in Nigeria and raised in Nigeria and twenty-nine years old, studies electrical engineering at a local college and hopes to own a Radio Shack someday. We turn a corner and find Meadowbrook. All the trailers look the same, slightly ragged around the edges, lined up in neat rows. Kabong parks the car, and when the headlights and radio shut off, the street feels empty and dark. Then somewhere a dog barks, the door of a nearby trailer opens, and light spills onto the gravel driveway. A little white girl with blond hair, about seven years old, smiles at this big Nigerian bringing pizza, hands him fifteen dollars, takes the food and tells him to keep the change. Behind her there's movement in the trailer, a glimpse of a tidy kitchen, the flickering shadows of a television.

The wide gulf between Colorado Springs and Pueblo – a long-standing social, cultural, political and economic division – is starting to narrow. As you drive around the streets of Pueblo, you can feel the change coming, something palpable in the air. Throughout the 1980s, the unemployment rate in Pueblo hovered at about twelve percent, steel mills closed and nothing new was built. New things now seem to appear every month: an Applebee's a Lone Star Steakhouse & Saloon, an Olive Garden, movie theaters, a Home Depot. The subdivisions are creeping south from Colorado Springs along the interstate, turning cattle ranches into acres of ranch-style homes. Pueblo has not boomed yet; it seems right on the verge, about to become more like the rest, to be remolded. A recent strike at the city's last steel mill ended with all the strikers being fired and then replaced by scabs from out of state. The Oregon Steel Co, broke the local union, once and for all. Out of about 1,500 steel workers who went on strike in Pueblo, less than 150 got their old jobs back. The rest, are out of work, out of luck, and the scabs are doing just fine.

The Little Caesar's where Kabong works is in the Belmont section of town, across the street from a Dunkin' Donuts and not far from the University of Southern Colorado campus. The small square building that the Little Caesar's occupies used to house a Godfather's Pizza and, before that, a Dairy Bar. The restaurant has half a dozen brown Formica tables, red-brick walls, a gumball machine near the counter, white-and-brown-flecked linoleum floors. The place is clean but has not been redecorated for years. The customers who drop by or call for pizza are students, people with large families, ordinary working people and the poor. Little Caesar's pizzas are large and inexpensive, often providing enough food for a few meals.

Five crew members work in the kitchen, putting toppings on pizzas, putting the pizzas in the oven, getting drinks, taking orders over the phone. Marisio, a nineteen-year-old kid with two kids of his own, slides a pizza off the old Blodgett oven's conveyor belt. He makes $6.50 an hour. Adam, another driver, waits for his next delivery, wearing a yellow Little Caesar's shirt that says Think Big! Dave Feamster, the owner of the restaurant, seems completely at ease behind the counter, hanging out with his Latino employees and customers – but at the same time he seems completely out of place here.

Feamster was born and raised in a working-class neighborhood of Detroit. He grew up playing in youth-hockey leagues and later attended college in Colorado Springs on an athletic scholarship. He was an all-American during his senior year, a defenseman picked by the Chicago Black Hawks in the college draft. After graduating from Colorado College with a degree in business, Feamster played in the National Hockey League. The Black Hawks reached the playoffs during his first three years on the team, and Feamster got to play against some of his idols, like Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier.

On March 14th, 1984, Feamster was struck from behind by Paul Holmgren during a game with the Minnesota North Stars. Feamster never saw the hit coming and slammed into the boards headfirst. He felt dazed but played the rest of the game. Later, in the shower, his back started to hurt. An X-ray revealed a stress fracture of a bone in his lower back. For the next three months, Feamster wore a brace that extended from his chest to his waist. The cracked bone didn't heal. At practice sessions the following autumn, he didn't feel right. The Black Hawks wanted him to play, but a physician at the Mayo Clinic examined him and said, "If you were my son, I'd say, 'Find another job; move on. …'" Feamster worked out for hours at the gym every day, trying to strengthen his back. He lived with two other Black Hawks players. Every morning the three of them would eat breakfast together, then his friends would leave for practice and Feamster would find himself just sitting there at the kitchen table.

The Black Hawks never gave him a goodbye handshake or wished him good luck. He wasn't even invited to the team Christmas party. They paid off the remainder of his contract, and that was it. He floundered for a year, feeling totally lost. He had a business degree but had spent most of his time in college playing hockey. He didn't know anything about business. He enrolled in a course to become a travel agent. He was the only man in a classroom full of eighteen- and nineteen-year-old women. After three weeks, the teacher asked to see him after class. He went to her office, and she said: "What are you doing here? You seem like a sharp guy. This isn't for you." He dropped out of travel-agent school that day. He drove around aimlessly, listening to a Bruce Springsteen tape and wondering what the hell to do.

At a college reunion in Colorado Springs, an old friend suggested that he become a Little Caesar's franchisee. Feamster had played on youth-hockey teams in Detroit with the sons of the company's founder. He was too embarrassed to call them and ask for help. His friend dialed the phone. Within weeks, Feamster was washing dishes and making pizzas at Little Caesar's restaurants in Chicago and Denver. It felt a long, long way from the NHL. Before gaining the chance to own a franchise, he had to spend months learning every aspect of the business. At first he wondered whether this was a good idea. The Little Caesar's franchise fee was $15,000, almost all the money he had left in the bank.

Becoming a franchisee is an odd combination of starting your own business and going to work for someone else. Franchising schemes have been around in one form or another for more than a century. It was the fast-food industry, however, that turned franchising into a business model that would transform the retail economy of the United States. At the heart of a franchise arrangement is the desire by two parties to make money while avoiding risk. The franchiser wants to expand an existing business without spending its own funds. The franchisee wants to run a business without going it alone and risking everything on a new idea. One provides a brand name, a business plan, expertise, access to equipment and supplies. The other puts up the money and does the work. During the 1950s, franchising provided an effective means for fast-food chains – an entirely new form of business – to quickly expand using other people's money. Traditional methods of raising capital were not easily available to the founders of these chains, the dropouts and drive-in owners who lacked "proper" business credentials.

The relationship has its built-in tensions. The franchiser gives up some control by not wholly owning each operation; the franchisee sacrifices a great deal of independence by obeying the company rules. Everyone is happy when the profits are rolling in, but when revenues fall, the arrangement often degenerates into a mismatched battle for power. The franchiser almost always wins.

The franchise agreement that Dave Feamster signed gave him the right to open Little Caesar's restaurants in the Pueblo, Colorado, area. In addition to the franchise fee, he had to promise the company five percent of his revenues and contribute an additional four percent to an advertising pool. Most Little Caesar's franchisees have to supply the capital for the purchase or construction of their own restaurants. Since Feamster did not have the money, the company gave him a loan. Before ever selling a single pizza, he was $200,000 in debt.

Although Feamster had spent four years in college at Colorado Springs, less than an hour away, he'd never visited Pueblo. He rented a small house near his new restaurant, in a neighborhood full of steelworkers, the sort of neighborhood where he'd grown up. He expected to stay there for just a few months but wound up living there alone for six years, pouring all his energy into his business. He opened the restaurant every morning and closed it at night, delivered pizzas, took the receipts to the bank. His lack of experience in the restaurant business was balanced by his skill at getting along with all sorts of different people. When an elderly customer phoned him and complained about the quality of a pizza, Feamster listened patiently, appreciated her concern and hired her to handle future customer complaints.

It took Feamster three years to pay off his initial debt. Today he owns five Little Caesar's restaurants, three in Pueblo and two in the nearby small towns of La Junta and Lamar. His annual revenues are about $2.5 million. He employs fifty-three people, five of them full time. He earns a good income but lives modestly and without pretension. When I visited a restaurant operated by a rival pizza chain, the company flew a publicist from New York to Colorado Springs to accompany me at all times. Feamster gave me free rein to interview his employees in private and to poke around his business for as long as I liked. He said there was nothing to hide. His small office behind the Belmont store, however, is in an advanced state of disarray, crammed with stacks of sagging banker's boxes. While his competitors use computerized operating systems that take a customer's order and instantaneously display it on television monitors in the kitchen, Feamster's restaurants remain firmly planted in the era of ballpoint pens and yellow paper receipts. He worries that Papa John's will soon enter his area. Papa John's is one of the fastest-growing fast-food chains in the country, selling deluxe pizzas from shiny new stores. The Little Caesar's chain has been losing market share for the past few years. Feamster's continued success now depends largely on how his employees treat his customers every day.

Feamster has established roots in the local community. His girlfriend is a fifth-generation native of Pueblo, a schoolteacher. He's coached local youth-hockey leagues for years. And he recently helped to organize the city's first high school hockey team, which is composed of players from all the schools in the district. Feamster paid for their uniforms and equipment, and serves as assistant coach. The majority of the players are Latino, from the sort of backgrounds that do not have a long and illustrious tradition on the ice. The team's record last year against Colorado Springs high schools, which have popular and well-established hockey programs, was 10--6.

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