Column: The half-hour cookie: how fast food isn’t one or the other anymore | Opinion
My love affair with fast food began about 45 years ago. With his new driver’s license and one of Dad’s big cars, my brother Paul would ask to go to the public library in Oxon Hill, Maryland. Our small town of District Heights had just had a tiny house converted into a library, and the Oxon Hill branch had a veritable collection to browse.
There was also a McDonald’s nearby.
Several times I followed, so with my books on football heroes and fire trucks, I could always expect a detour for a burger, fries and a chocolate milkshake.
I remember a few “don’t tell mom”. Mom disapproved of wasting money in “trash” when there was good food in the house. McDonald’s was reserved for the rare occasion when Dad was out of town and Mum was too tired to cook.
But Paul had his own after-school work money, and bribing his little brother on a trip to the library was a small price to pay to get his own fix, I guess.
Mom was right, of course. The food was junk food, loaded with salt, fat, and sugar – in short, staples of the American diet. But we didn’t care. Our love of fast food has grown over the years, as has our waistline. Satisfactory? Who can honestly say that McDonald’s fries are not “satisfactory”? A Burger King Whopper, dripping with salad dressings? A Wendy’s salad and a bare baked potato never stood a chance against a “value meal” double cheeseburger.
I started “righting the ship”, so to speak, in 2010 after committing to living and eating healthier and reading books like “Fast Food Nation” and “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”. I had oversized myself and needed to undo what had been done. I worked out, avoided fast food, and ate and drank “healthier”, if not perfectly. I lost 52 pounds in about nine months.
Then, at age 50, I had a heart attack. Maybe it was stress, maybe it was bad genes, maybe it was all those cheeseburgers and fries catching up with me. I was only able to eliminate two of the three, so I did.
To be clear, it was a fair choice for me. I did not force this on my two children, but they knew how I felt about this “food”. My son in particular loves McDonald’s chicken nuggets and sausage cookies. And I’m not a total Puritan; I collapsed several times and indulged in a burger or an order of fries. I’m looking for things with less calories and skipping the cheese, but who is kidding who? None of these foods move the nutrition needle.
Of course, the biggest selling point of fast food – that thing that draws tired, time-short moms and dads in the queue behind the wheel more than anything else – has always been speed.
Because of its adjective alone, “fast food” was never something that lovingly lingered in the preparation phase. No one prepares your order with a sprig of parsley. Shoot to the squawk box, place your order and shoot to the next window. In five minutes, you and your hungry loved ones are stuffing fries in your face, and if they’re hot, it’s almost as good as hitting the Powerball.
So while we tacitly understood that fast food was never a strong nutritional choice, we reconciled our guilt by knowing its immediate availability when we atoned for our reluctant choices.
Except now we don’t even have that. Have you recently crossed a drive-thru lane? I saw California highways at rush hour that moved faster.
The pandemic, combined with an ongoing global shift in employment dynamics, has hit every business hard, but it has all but emptied the workforce in fast food restaurants.
Franchisees cannot find enough teens or young adults willing to take on these jobs at hourly rates that are at the lower end of the salary scale, and the long-awaited automation of order taking and preparation n has not yet been completed. I recently saw such an establishment with three people working: two preparing orders and one taking them.
Additionally, few fast food restaurants have reopened their dining halls due to social distancing and COVID protocols, forcing customers into queues that surround the exterior of the building. With dual control stations and even employees in the parking lot taking additional orders, the wait for “fast food” quickly exceeds the time it takes to get home and reheat a pizza in the oven.
I recently drove to a Bojangles in the middle of the week to get a box of chicken and cookies to take home for dinner. I waited about 15 minutes with several others in what seemed like a painfully slow line. As I finally made my way to the command post, the car in front of me pulled up to my right. “There is no one in there. It’s dark. ”Yes, it was. And there was no sign telling customers.
Last week, when I was taking Ayden to school, he wanted breakfast. Uh, okay. We skipped McDonald’s in Pinehurst as a line of about 20 cars wrapped around the building and one of the two control stations was closed. At this rate, he could have made it to school on the second block.
We continued to US 1, where we waited 30 minutes for three cookies and a tea. I could have – I should have! – makes breakfast at home. I had the food, it would have been healthier, and we would have saved time. Or at least I would have used my precious time more efficiently than slowly browsing a line for a cookie with my maximum daily sodium intake.
When I got to the office and unwrapped my chicken cookie, I was overwhelmed – not the smell of hot butter or the air of crispy fried chicken. No, I was really overwhelmed by the way I had suspended my disbelief for all these years that it was all worth it.
Businesses and marketers can transform it however they want. But in this shriveled chicken cookie on my desk, I saw no nutritional value and no time value. My fast food was neither.
Mom, you were right from the start.