Of Big Macs, KFCs, and Tall Lattes: A Full Menu of Global Indexes

October 9, 2017 § 1 Comment

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I’ve always wondered about the “heat index” and “chill factor,” ways to say, “We know how hot or cold it is, but here’s how it feels.” Obviously there are scientific factors figured into the calculations, but it makes me think we could also have a “Great Grandma Gordon Index”: “I’m telling you, it’s at least 125 degrees in the shade!” or a “Guy Who Lives Down the Block Index: “It’s so cold I can’t feel my left foot!”

When you travel, you see how much weather standards aren’t standardized around the world, either. For people in hot climates, the winter parkas might come out when the temperature dips below 60°F, or for those where cold is routine, when they register the same temp, it’s time to put on shorts.

But keeping track of relative weather norms isn’t the only concern when going abroad. There’s also that finances thing. You want to know how much money you’ll need to spend while spending time in another city—in terms that make sense. So you might be thinking “How much does, for instance, a Big Mac cost there?”

Well, funny you should ask.

One of the most well-known economic indexes has the answer. Taking its name from the classic McDonald’s sandwich, the Big Mac Index was developed in 1986 by The Economist “as a lighthearted guide to whether currencies are at their ‘correct’ level.”

“Burgernomics,” says The Economist “was never intended as a precise gauge of currency misalignment, merely a tool to make exchange-rate theory more digestible.” But the Big Mac Index has gotten a lot of weighty attention, garnering coverage in textbooks and academic studies. In fact, the index is taken seriously enough that a New York Times article postulated in 2011 that Argentina was artificially keeping its Big Mac prices down to influence its place on the scale. And Computerworld reported this year that the malware Fatboy, a ransomware-as-a-service (software that locks up a computer and demands payment to decrypt its data) uses the Big Mac Index to determine how much ransom needs to be paid for a particular location.

The Big Mac Index is based on the idea of purchasing-power parity. I’m not an economist, so it’s easy for me to get lost in the weeds on economic theories. But rather than use it as a rigorous currency-valuation metric, I see it more as a quick-and-dirty cost-of-living index.

If you have a hunger for that type of thing, too, I’m glad to tell you there’s much more on the menu than just the Big Mac. Here’s a list to whet your appetite:

The Tall Latte Index
Also called the Starbuck’s index, this is another iteration from The Economist, comparing prices from the coffee chain.

The KFC Index
Because McDonald’s has restaurants in only three African countries, the Big Mac Index doesn’t work very well on that continent. Therefore, Sagaci Research developed an index based on KFCs, which are present in nearly 20 nations in Africa. The metric is based on the price of an Original Recipe 15-piece bucket.

The Mini Mac Index
Invented by Benn Steil and Emma Smith of the Council on Foreign Relations, it compares the global prices of iPad Minis.

McDonald’s Index of Humanitarian Access
Jonathan Whittall, head of humanitarian analysis at Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders writes that

no country with a McDonald’s has ever rejected humanitarianism on ideological grounds. It is in those states where the economic and political influence of the west still has space that all components of the west’s foreign policy are accepted: both McDonald’s and INGOs.

The Coca-Cola Index
This analysis branches out a bit more, showing the relationship of Coke consumption with quality-of-life factors. Using UN figures, The Economist (those guys sure are busy), shows that countries’ higher rates of Coca-Cola drinking correlate with higher wealth, health, and political freedom. Have a Coke and a smile?

The Happy Planet Index
Speaking of smiles, the New Economics Foundation publishes this global ranking of “how efficiently residents of different countries are using environmental resources to lead long, happy lives.” (I really wanted to find a “Happy Meal Index,” but so far, it hasn’t been created yet.)

And while we’re on the topic of quality of life, we have

The Better Life Index
from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development

The Legatum Prosperity Index

The Human Development Index and The Gender Development Index
from the United Nations Development Programme, and

The Where-to-Be-Born Index
from the Economist Intelligence Unit

And finally, if you’re looking for some straight-up cost-of-living indexes, take a look at

Expatistan’s Cost of Living Index and

Numbeo Indexes
The Numbeo site describes itself as “the world’s largest database of user contributed data about cities and countries worldwide.” Not only does it have an overall cost-of-living index, it also includes indexes that compare property prices, crime, health care, pollution, traffic, quality of life, and travel costs.


(D.H. and R.L.W, “The Big Mac Index,” The Economist, July 13, 2017; Daniel Politi, “Argentina’s Big Mac Attack,” Latitude, The New York Times, November 24, 2011; Darlene Storm, “Local Cost of a Big Mac Decides Ransom Amount for Fatboy Ransomware,” Computerworld, May 8, 2017; Jonathan Whittall, “The McDonald’s Index of Humanitarian Access,” MSF Analysis, February 7, 2014)


[photo: “NRT: McDonald’s Menu,” by jpellgen, used under a Creative Commons license]

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McDonald’s, You’re like Framily

May 23, 2015 § Leave a comment

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Growing up on a farm, we didn’t eat out much, but I seem to remember enjoying a few Quarter Pounders with fries during my high-school days.

Then, during my time as a student at the University of Missouri-Columbia, my go-to lunch was a salad with a side of fries at the basement McDonald’s on Lowery Mall, across from the library. When I took my daughter for a campus visit to MU a few weeks ago, our student tour guide (who did an excellent job, I might add) pointed out where the McDonald’s used to be. He said at one time it was the highest-grossing McDonald’s location in the US. In the 80s, when I was there, we heard it was the busiest McDonald’s in the world. I think both statements are part of a Columbia urban legend—though I’d love someone to prove me wrong with some documentation.

When my family lived in Taiwan, we found McDonald’s in every city. That was especially welcome when we first arrived and couldn’t speak Chinese. It’s a lot easier to ask for a “Number 5” than to learn the vocabulary for ordering à la carte.

655846832_58ee159407_zMcDonald’s was popular with the locals, too, especially high school kids. It was common to see them gather there to study or work on class projects. It was a new experience for us to see young people in that group-centered culture pour all their french fries into a pile and share them together.

McDonald’s certainly is a global juggernaut. According to the company website, their more than 33,000 restaurants in over 100 countries serve over 69 million people each day. But there’s more to McDonald’s than just huge numbers. In honor of the chain’s 75th anniversary this year, Reader’s Digest ran a list of “75 Mind-blowing Facts.” Here are my favorites:

#2. The first McDonald’s drive-thru—in Sierra Vista, Arizona—didn’t open until 1975.

#22-22. French fries, McDonald’s best-selling item, were added to the menu in 1949. Before that, it was potato chips.

#50. As the result of a 1973 lawsuit, McDonald’s paid Sid and Marty Kroftt $1 million because the brothers claimed that McDonaldland had stolen the “concept and feel” of their Saturday-morning TV show H.R. Pufnstuf. (Remember that one?)

#58. Giving away (selling?) 1.5 billion toys each year in its Happy Meals makes McDonalds’ the largest distributer of toys in the world. (OK, that’s one of those “huge numbers.”)

#60. One out of every eight workers in the U.S. has at some time had a job at McDonald’s.

#66. Have you heard of the “Big Mac Index”? It was developed by The Economist in 1986 to use the local cost of a Big Mac to compare economies around the world.

I used to tell my Asian college-age friends that I don’t actually like McDonald’s, that most people in the US don’t actually like McDonald’s. But here’s what happens: You’re in a van with a bunch of young people on a trip and you ask them where they want to stop and eat and they say “Anywhere but McDonald’s” and they name other possibilities but when you exit the highway you don’t see any of the places they suggested and you’re running out of time and you decide to eat at the next place you see and—guess what?—it’s a McDonald’s. There’s always a McDonald’s close by, so that’s where you stop. It’s just too convenient.

This guy notwithstanding, McDonald’s burgers don’t garner much praise. In fact, when readers of Consumer Reports rated the hamburgers of 21 fast-food chains, they put the ones from McDonald’s dead last. The magazine called them a “Mc-disappointment.” When our local McDonald’s in Taipei ran out of hamburgers one day (I kid you not), maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing after all.

But there are those “world-famous fries.” McDonald’s calls them “golden on the outside, soft and fluffy on the inside.” I don’t disagree. And a whole lot of other people seem to be on board, as well.

Mark Eichenlaub, a graduate student in physics, decided to figure out just how many french fries McDonald’s has sold. He used the formula

equation

and came up with the figure “4 trillion, give or take a few.” I have a hard time following his detailed explanation (he lost me when I saw that squiggly S-thing before the numbers), but I’m pretty sure his estimate doesn’t even count fries sold outside the US.

Of course, McDonald’s gets knocked for a lot of things besides what’s on their menu. For instance, right now they’re the target of protests over low wages. Sometimes their negatives are symptomatic of the ills of American culture, but they’re magnified with McDonald’s because of the franchise’s large scale. And abroad, their ubiquity and visibility often make them a symbol of Western encroachment.

McDonald’s does give us plenty of reasons not to be “Lovin’ it.”

But again . . . there are those fries.

My second oldest son graduated from university last week. He drove about seven hours round trip to pick up my mother so she could attend the ceremony. The next day I took her back home, with an extra hour added on each way. After I dropped her off, she was worried that I’d fall asleep on the way back, but I told her I’d pull over and rest if I got tired.

4011734182_dc8d2f9bde_zA couple hours from home, in Lebanon, MO, I decided to stop and get something to eat. I parked at a McDonald’s, to go inside and stretch my legs and to use the free wifi. That and I got an order of fries.

The lady at the counter greeted me with “Welcome back.” How many businesses can say that to every customer and rarely, if ever, be wrong?

Sounds like framily. And when I say “framily,” I’m thinking of the Sprint commercials with their odd collection of characters—Ronald McDonald, Grimace, Hamburglar, Mayor McCheese, Captain Crook and the rest of the citizens of McDonaldland. It’s an imperfect, dysfunctional framily at times, but it’s still framily.

In the Lebanon McDonald’s, the fries were good, as they nearly always are.

There’s something to be said about consistency. And there’s something to be said about always being close by.

Framily.

(Daryl Chen and Brooke Wanser, “75 Mind-Blowing Facts about McDonald’s to Celebrate Its 75th Anniversary,” Reader’s Digest; “Best and Worst Fast-Food Restaurants in America,” Consumer Reports, July 2014; Mark Eichenlaub, “How Many Fries Has McDonald’s Served?Quora)

[photos: “McDonald’s,” by Mike Mozart, used under a Creative Commons license; “4 Combos Fries Mix,” by Shippou, used under a Creative Commons license; “plexi • burger.dude,” by Don Shall, used under a Creative Commons license]

Doing the Culture Slide: Living with the Confusing Effects of Globalization

February 4, 2014 § 2 Comments

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Donald McDonald at an iCon’Chicken event in Japan

The culture slide. It’s not a dance for expats—though sometimes it may feel like it.

Culture slide is the name I’ve given to the confusion and shifts in thinking brought about by globalization.

It’s when your kids grow up in Taipei and think that Giordano clothing stores must be from Italy (they’re actually from Hong Kong) and they must have outlets in the US (they don’t). Likewise, Napoli sounds Italian, but the pizza chain is Taiwanese. Then there’s NET (from Taiwan), Fnac (from France), and B&Q (from the UK). And as much as they may feel like GAP, Best Buy, and Home Depot, the kids didn’t find any of them when they traveled to the US.

It cuts the other way, too. Back in the States, we think we should be able to order corn soup and extra-spicy extra-crispy chicken at KFC. . . and tuna and peas should be available as toppings at Pizza Hut. And we’re pleasantly surprised to find out that IKEA and Yoshinoya are in the good ol’ US of A, too—even if they haven’t made it to our part of the country yet.

That last part reminds me of a story attributed to Den Fujita, founder of McDonald’s in Japan. In Asian Brand Strategy: How Asia Builds Strong Brands, Martin Roll writes about Fujita saying, “Once a group of Japanese Boy Scouts visited the United States and were asked by a local television station what their impression of America was. One boy replied, ‘I didn’t know that they had McDonald’s in the United States, too.’” Maybe you’ve heard that story before, but that time it was a Japanese boy in Florida or a Japanese girl in Los Angeles or a French girl in Times Square or a European boy or a little boy from Indonesia. It’s all so confusing.

Donald McDonald

Ahhh, McDonald’s, the king of globalization, and the instigator of so much culture slide.

Not only does McDonald’s localize their menus wherever they go—which might make Germans think that all the world’s restaurants have McCurrywurst—but they’re selections also cross borders in some fairly strange ways. A couple years ago, Germany’s McDonald’s introduced bubble tea, a drink with chewy tapioca balls that was invented in Taiwan. Here’s the commercial:

As others have pointed out, why is the actor yelling, “Bubblezzaaiii”? Is he trying to sound Japanese?

So that brings us back to Japan, the country with the second most McDonald’s restaurants, next to the US. Fujita brought “Donald McDonald” (it’s easier to pronounce that way) to his country in 1971, writes John Love in McDonald’s: Behind the Arches, with the idea that the restaurants would have to look “100 percent Japanese.” Love quotes Fujita as saying, “If I insisted that this was something that came from America, the Japanese would say, ‘This is American, and we don’t like it because we don’t like Americans.'” It seems that in Fujita’s eyes, they didn’t disdain all things Western, as he’s also credited in Love’s book with telling reporters,

The reason Japanese people are so short and have yellow skins is because they have eaten nothing but fish and rice for two thousand years. If we eat McDonald’s hamburgers and potatoes for a thousand years, we will become taller, our skin will become white, and our hair blond.

It will be some time before that can be proven or disproven, but it didn’t take nearly as long for McDonald’s in Japan to warm up to its American roots. Right now it’s in the middle of a campaign with throwback menus featuring “American Vintage” food from the ’50s, ’70s, and ’80s—or at least it features what some in Japan think is vintage American food. The offerings include a burger with two beef patties, an egg, and mashed potatoes between the buns (’50s), “Hot & Groovy” chicken sandwiches topped with salsa (’70s), and sandwiches with the addition of BBQ sauce (’80s).

Now that’s the way, uh-huh, uh-huh, I like it, uh-huh, uh-huh.

Sing Along with Me: “Baseball, Hot Dogs . . .”

I’m just glad that here in the US, we’ve got a pretty good handle on who we are and what is ours. We know that McDonald’s is a genuine American export, even if the menu changes around the globe. We also know that no matter how much the world tilts on its cultural axis, we’ll always be able to count on things like baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, and Chevrolet. Remember that chorus from the Chevy commercial in 1975?

To review, that’s baseball (where all the balls used in the Major Leagues are made in Costa Rica), hot dogs (which originated in Germany), apple pie (first made in England), and Chevrolet (which is the third-best-selling auto brand in the US, behind Toyota).

In 2006, Chevrolet came out with a new version of their song, once again advertising America’s “favorite brand.” The chorus was updated with several new versions, such as “stolen bases, goat-cheese pizza, bottled water, and Chevrolet.” The commercial ended with the tagline “The world has changed. But the love affair continues.”

I can’t attest to the love affair, but, boy, the world sure has changed.

Step, two, three, four. Doing the culture slide.

(Martin Roll, Asian Brand Strategy: How Asia Builds Strong Brands, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006; John F. Love, McDonald’s: Behind the Arches, New York: Bantam, 1995; Michelle Lynn Dinh, “McDonald’s Japan Serving ‘American Vintage’ Burgers Starting This January,” RocketNews24, December 28, 2013)

[photo: “iCon’ Chiken FES._064,” by TAKA@P.P.R.S, used under a Creative Commons license]

Exporting Fast Food: The Biggest American Chains

April 5, 2013 § 7 Comments

Ronald McDonald in Thailand

Ronald McDonald in Thailand

You already know that McDonald’s is the global king of fast-food success, but do you know which US chains are next in line outside of America’s borders?

Well, the answer depends on how you define success. If overall non-US sales is important to you, then number two is KFC, followed by Burger King (according to figures from 2011).

But if you’re more of a How-many-international-restaurants-do-they-have? kind of person, then Subway comes after the Golden Arches and KFC.

Or maybe you care about who’s expanding the most. In that measurement, McDonald’s isn’t in the top five. The three American companies that opened the most non-US units—from 2009 to 2010—are Subway, Dunkin’ Donuts, and KFC.

All this information comes from QSR‘s “Global 30,” a sortable list ranking the top American “quick-service” restaurants outside the US.

Below are the ten American chains with the most restaurants outside the US. That’s the list I’m most interested in, since that gauges your chance of running into one of them overseas. Most are in Taiwan, so I’m adding embellishments from my experiences during my time in Taipei. We had more than our fair share of American fast-food outlets in the capital city, but there were still some gaps. I mean, how can a city of 6 million be Taco Bell-less?

  1. McDonald’s – 18,710 units
    When we first arrived, we didn’t have the vocabulary to order individual items, so we just ordered meals by number. This meant a soda for even our smallest child, and we had four children. One day I walked up three flights of stairs (most McDonald’s in Taiwan are vertical) balancing 6 Cokes on a tray. I was pretty proud that I’d made it and pretended to stumble when I got to our table . . . and spilled the whole tray. . . . On another day we went to our local McD’s to find out that they’d run out of hamburger. I didn’t know that was possible.
  2. KFC – 11,798
    The extra crispy chicken at Taiwan’s KFCs is spicy hot, which we grew to like more than its American counterpart. And because the Taiwanese like dark meat better than white meat, when we ordered a bucket of chicken, we could substitute white for dark at no extra cost. One negative is that their KFCs don’t have slaw. I love KFC’s slaw.
  3. Subway – 10,109
    You could almost replace your vegetable-vocabulary unit in language learning with several trips to Subway. If you want the right toppings on your sandwich, you simply have to learn the words. Pointing at “that green thing” won’t do. Building a sandwich at Subway is like a chapter test. . . . By the way, a Subway near us in Taipei also ran out of meat. For a few days it was a salad shop.
  4. Pizza Hut – 5,890
    We had a Pizza Hut around the corner from our last apartment in Taiwan. Loved their pepperoni pizza. Not so crazy about toppings with peas or corn . . . or squid . . . or tuna.
  5. Starbucks – 5,727
    Most of what I have to say about Starbucks I’ve already said here. The chain has made a big enough impact on the tea-drinking island of Taiwan that several coffee shops have sprung up with circular green logos and/or copycat names (ecoffee, for example). My favorite was the shop that had a sign that said, in a small font, something like, “We’re Not,” over the very large, “STARBUCKS.”
  6. Burger King – 4,998
    For a while, my absolute favorite sandwich was a bacon cheeseburger from the Burger King in Keelung next to the train station, eaten on the train as I and a teammate rode back to Taipei after our evening Bible studies with students at the National Taiwan Oceanic University. My second favorite sandwich near the station was a da chang bao xiao chang, or “big sausage wrapped around a small sausage” (the outer “sausage” was made from sticky rice).
  7. Domino’s – 4,422
    After serving for two years as a Mormon missionary in Taiwan, Scott Oelkers returned to Minnesota and double majored in Chinese and economics. Following his graduation, he got a job as a buyer for Domino’s Pizza International and worked his way up to vice president. He sold franchise rights in Taiwan to a private equity firm, and the firm asked him to run the business for them. He did, and in the process became a minor celebrity in Taiwan with his humorous TV commercials. Now Oelkers is president and CEO of Domino’s in Japan. He’s still making commercials, like the one below that just came out last month. Betsy Isaacson of the Huffington Post calls it “the most awkward ad in the universe.” I guess one man’s awkward is another man’s profitable.
  8. Dunkin’ Donuts – 3,005
    When the first Mister Donut opened in Taipei in 2004, the lines were so long that there was a sign a ways back on the sidewalk that read, “240 minutes from this point.” Dunkin’ Donuts came not long after, and we were glad to see one open in our neighborhood. We held our team meetings there for a while because we usually had the upstairs mostly to ourselves. Not a good sign. It closed.
  9. Dairy Queen – 802
    There’s no DQ in Taiwan that I know of (and we usually heard about those kind of things). I do see from an article in Taiwan Today that one was slated for opening in 1986 “located near Church’s Texas Fried Chicken and Lotteria in Taipei.” Someone else with a longer history in Taiwan would have to say whether it ever opened its doors.
  10. Papa John’s – 755
    We’re getting farther down on the list, and neither is there a Papa John’s in Taiwan. But that doesn’t mean there’s not room for another pizza franchise, or room for some other kind of fast-food chain. The question is, which one should it be? . . .

For those of you living outside the US, are there any restaurants that you long for? For you American expats, what tastes do you miss, and what do you think would go over well among the locals?

Wendy’s? It comes in at number 11. Taipei used to have at least one. I’ve heard stories from my former coworkers, and a Taipei Wendy’s is even the setting for a short scene in Ang Lee’s 1994 movie, Eat Drink Man Woman.

Or how about Long John Silver’s? It didn’t make the Global 30. One came to Taipei for a short time. We ate there a couple times just to try it out. As I recall, it didn’t last more than a year.

Oh, yeah. There’s Taco Bell (#19). Why can’t you find more Taco Bell’s overseas? I can’t count how many times I heard American expats say that when they get back home the first thing they want to do is eat at a Taco Bell.

I asked a good Taiwanese friend—who had studied at a US university—if he thought Taco Bell would do well in Taiwan. He wasn’t sure that it would, as Mexican flavors don’t always fit the Asian palate. Then I asked him about Arby’s (#21). It seems to me that roast-beef sandwiches could fit in in a lot of cultures, and I like them a lot, too. He said, no, that he didn’t think that there would be enough room for parking. That seemed strange since most fast-food restaurants in Taiwan don’t have any dedicated parking at all. When I questioned that, he said that Arby’s are just too big for Taiwanese. I was confused. Were we talking about the same thing? They’re too big, he said again. Who in Taipei would have room to park an RV?

Hmmmm. Maybe our miscommunication has birthed an idea. How about setting up a fleet of mobile Arby’s in RVs around the globe. I wonder. . . .

(“The Global 30,” QSR Magazine, April 30, 2013; “Scott Oelkers: Bringing Something Extra to the Table,” College of Liberal Arts, University of Minnesota; “Personality, Pizzaz Mixes with Pizza,” Taipei Times, September 9, 2002; Ashley Chang, Tiffany Huang, and Alan Wu, “Mister Donut—Worth the Wait?” Centered on Taipei, December 2004/January 2005; Betsy Isaacson, “Domino’s Ad Featuring Japanese Computer-Generated ‘Vocaloid’ Hatsune Miku Is Incredibly Awkward,” March 8, 2013; “Dairy Queen Joins American Parade of Food Chains to ROC,” Taiwan Today, December 29, 1986)

[photo: “Sawatdee Khrab!” by iamagloworm, used under a Creative Commons license]

No McAloo Tiki for You!

March 27, 2012 § Leave a comment

Back in October, MainStreet came out with a list of 10 glocalized items—from American-based fast-food chains—that aren’t available in the US. Among the food that the author writes “we wish we could have” are McDonald’s McVeggie (India), Burger King’s Meat Monster (Japan), Pizza Hut’s Chunky Loaded Pizza (Malaysia), Wendy’s Rugby Combo (New Zealand), and McDonald’s Bubur Ayam McD (Malaysia)—”juicy chicken strips in mouth-watering porridge, garnished with spring onions, sliced ginger, fried shallots and diced chilies . . . just like mum’s cooking!”

(Matt Brownell, “10 Fast Food Items You Can’t Have,” MainStreet, October 11, 2011)

By the way, did you know that since late 2010 Burger King has been owned by a Brazilian investment firm? At the time of the purchase, for $3.26 billion, 3G Capital planned to increase BK’s international presence, including opening 500 new restaurants in Latin America by 2015.

(“Brazilian-Owned 3G Capital Buys Burger King,” Business Pundit, October 11, 2011)

[the photo is of a lady enjoying McDonald’s fried chicken in Thailand: “IMG_7529 by weenie dog, used under a Creative Commons license]

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