Food Story

When Steve Easterbrook, the new chief executive of McDonald’s, recently announced his plans to adjust the chain’s offerings and operating assumptions, he couched his message in terms of the need to “align our food story around the consumer’s definition of quality and value.”

The locution food story is one kettle of fish, with or without tartar sauce and fries.

Is Easterbrook enjoining his executives to get their story straight, as one might want covert operatives to be all on the same page? Or should we be bracing ourselves for a more public narrative about food and how McDonald’s relates to it?

The phrase food story  might seem a nod to the ever-expanding genre of food writing, from journalistic tales of souffles loved and lost to the more fine-grained essays of the sort that appear in journals like Gastronomica.

Since my own McDonald’s days coincided primarily with child-rearing, McDonald’s was the site of the Happy Meal, which I’m sure was and remains a small toy surrounded by comestibles. The Happy Meal was an earlier iteration of a food story, even if McDonald’s didn’t declare its corporate narrative in precisely those terms.

The connection between food and toys — critical to this earlier McDonald’s narrative — made it not only acceptable but necessary to play with one’s food — that is, to do  what one was explicitly told never to do at home. McDonald’s earlier food story was a toy story. 

Toy Story, that uneven but frequently brilliant cinematic trio of nostalgia adventures,  half-understands story as a narrative — there’s a tweaky wink at toy store buried in its tri-syllabic title. Life isn’t a cabaret, old chum, it’s a toy store, and life is, well — hankies ready — kinda toy store-y. Perhaps Easterbrook would like us to see McDonald’s as much a food store as a restaurant, a place as essential as a 7-Eleven if not a Whole Foods. That would make the experience of stopping under the arches food store-y.

One chapter in Easterbrook’s evolving food story involves the chain’s step back from antibiotics, though the Times’s report of the company’s position leaves a lot of wiggle room in that crucial plot development. Will the antibiotics be entirely eliminated? Will there be options with price points to match?

McDonald’s  food story seems ripe for sequelization, which might become the term of art for the commercial practice of shifting gears when one’s commercial story develops narrative complications of an economic nature.

Which presents us with a narratological question: Is McDonald’s food story a story or a discourse?

A century ago, the Russian Formalists developed the language of fabula and sjuzhet, the fact-y business of a narrative and the structures and valences without which the narrative could not be delivered to its readers. Seymour Chatman helped guide us through the nuances of narratology in his classic study Story and Discourse.

As he retools his business for a new generation of consumers, Easterbrook’s food story promises to be a set of new facts (the antibiotics will go) and a new campaign to present those facts to the implied consumer  (sorry, Chatman).

And while we’re on the sjuzhet, it isn’t really surprising that a corporation, even a giant international behemoth like McDonald’s, can get its food story aligned with its objectives, while a business like the lovable hydra we call higher education cannot.

Still, it would be nice if we had a monosyllable to put before story that could describe the narrative goals of the business we’re in. The answer surely isn’t test story, unless of course battery-hen education is what you’re aiming for.

We know that what we offer is nutritious, our outlets are everywhere, and our business practices try awfully hard to be cruelty-free.

C’mon folks. All we need now is a narrative.




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