McMystery: Billions of What?

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I was cleaning out my files recently (new year, new start kind of thing) and stumbled upon the following piece I wrote for a post-graduate journalism class I took in New Haven, Connecticut. It still made me laugh all of these years later, so I thought I’d share it. Besides, McDonald’s hasn’t stopped counting. Bon appetit! 

Did you ever wonder what the McDonald’s golden arches slogan, “Over Eighty Billion Served,” actually refers to? Okay, well, I did. Last week. For the first time.

There was nothing unusual about my day. Same road, same car, same destination. But  this time I drove by the golden arches and wondered … but, eighty billion what? The more I thought about it, the more curious I became. So I decided to go right to the source—McDonald’s employees and customers—to find out what it meant. 

I soon realized I was facing a McMystery of enormous scope, one that baffled veteran managers, customers, and staff at corporate headquarters alike.After scores of interviews with employees and customers I discovered:

1. I am the only person who has ever asked, “But, eighty billion what?”
2. People do not willingly talk to strangers asking questions.
3. Despite some fairly good guesses and lots of laughing, no one really knows what the slogan means. 

I began my investigation at a drive-thru in New Haven. I ordered the usual: chicken sandwich with cheese, no lettuce, and a Diet Coke. Then I asked the server who took my order, “But eighty billion what?”

He said it represented the number of customers served. 

“Are you sure? I heard rumors that it might be hamburgers. Or all of the food you serve on buns.”

“No, it’s not,” he said. “A lot of people think it’s hamburgers, but it’s really the total number of customers.”

His initial look of surprise had disappeared, and had been replaced with one of cautious cheeriness.

“Is that an international or a national total?” I asked.

“International,” he replied confidently. 

Indeed, “customers” was the number one response of those willing to give one. When I posed the question to a group of employees at a Danbury restaurant, I was greeted with wide eyed stares, uneasy smiles and shrugs all around. 

“Can you maybe ask your manager?” I said to the woman who initially fielded my, “But eighty billion what?” question. 

She seemed frozen to her position behind the counter, apparently unsure if her nervous laugh and casual shrug would be enough to make me go away. 

Maybe I should’ve ordered something. 

“Okay,” she said, shrugging again and disappearing behind the french fry grill. 

I asked the other women behind the counter what they thought. I had to repeat my question twice. 

“I always thought it was customers,” a brave woman finally answered. The others around her mumbled something that sounded like, Yeah, yeah. Customers. Thought it was customers. Yeah.

The customer next to me, a James Woods look-alike, said, “I have no comment.” Seriously.

By this time the manager had arrived—a lanky, ten year McDonald’s veteran in his mid-thirties, sporting spotty patches of razor stubble. He rested his elbows on the counter in a casual, yet somehow authoritative posture, and leaned forward.

“The eighty billion represents the number of customers served,” he said, adding that the number is definitely international. 

More mumbling and head nodding from the employees standing around him. 

But five minutes away at another McDonald’s, I got a completely different reaction and set of answers.

This time I ordered medium fries and a large Diet Coke. I asked the woman behind the counter, “But eighty billion what?”

She paused for a second, smiled, then laughed and finally said, “It’s just burgers. But let me check.”

She turned to another woman, her head barely visible behind the gray metal stand where the burgers and sandwiches sat under heat lights, for her opinion. 

“It’s just hamburgers and cheeseburgers,” she reported back. 

“Does that include Big Macs and Quarter Pounders?” I asked. 

She smiled and laughed and again asked the woman behind the burgers. In the meantime, I turned to the customers behind me in line for their opinions.

One woman stared at me with a very nervous smile and said, “customers.” 

Another woman said she thought it included all burgers, but not the chicken and fish sandwiches. I only had to ask her twice. 

“No, it doesn’t include Big Macs and Quarter Pounders,” the first employee said cheerily, now stuffing my fries into a new recycled bag. 

“Is the number international or national?” I asked. 

“You’ll have to check with my manager.”

Turns out the woman behind the burgers was the manager, who was now helping a customer at the counter. 

I got in her line and when it was my turn to order I asked her about the number. 

Another ten-year veteran, she said she believed the number was based on international sales. 

The manager at the McDonald’s in New Milford, a five-year veteran, agreed in a telephone interview that the eighty billion figure represented only the number of hamburgers and cheeseburgers sold. He thought it was based on national sales. 

Another manager in Brookfield told me in a telephone interview that she thought the eighty billion number was based on hamburger sales too. 

When I asked her if that included Big Macs, she laughed and said she wasn’t sure since no one had asked before. Then she gave me the regional office telephone number in Bridgeport. 

An employee at the Southbury McDonald’s, also in a telephone interview, told me that the eighty billion represented the total number of hamburgers sold in the country by “all McDonald’s companies.” 

When I asked him to explain what other McDonald’s companies he was talking about, he said, “It’s not just the number sold at this McDonald’s.” Thanks for clearing that up. 

He also referred me to the regional office in Bridgeport, so I figured it was time to give them a call. But they didn’t want to talk to me. They referred me to McHeadquarters in Oak Brook, Illinois. 

So I called them. I asked a woman in customer relations (not McCustomer, sorry), “But eighty billion what?”

She said it was the number of customers (though what else would you expect from her department) but wanted to double check. She put me on hold. 

“Good thing I checked,” she laughed. “It doesn’t represent customers but hamburgers.”

You can guess my next set of questions:

“Does that include Big Macs and Quarter Pounders?”

She laughed again and put me on hold. 

“It’s all of the hamburger meat patties sold.”

“Is that an international or a national number?”

Pause. “Aahh, national.” 

Aahh, I don’t think she had any idea. But putting me on hold for a third time so she could research very basic questions about a giant slogan outside of every McDonald’s might be embarrassing.  

She also told me that I was the first person to ever ask about the slogan. Clearly. 

After I hung up the phone, I theorized that if the number was based on meat patties alone, then a Big Mac would count twice since it had two beef patties. 

I called customer relations again. 

No, I was told by a different woman. The Big Mac counts only once. They don’t count the patties individually, but count any sandwich with a beef patty in it as one.

When I said this seemed to contradict what I had been told earlier she said, “No it doesn’t.” 

I had one last question before she hung up. 

“How long has McDonald’s been tracking meat patty sandwiches?”

“Since 1955.” Goodbye. Click.

Now if they would only tell us what’s in the secret sauce. 


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