Schafer: Airport McDonald's is a reminder that we value the familiar

  • Article by: LEE SCHAFER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 29, 2013 - 10:56 PM

A revered American culinary tradition has been restored just in time for this busy Thanksgiving holiday travel season.

Travelers who pass through what used to be called the Lindbergh Terminal at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport can once again eat at McDonald’s.

It may seem like a stretch to suggest sitting down to a Happy Meal is somehow akin to the kind of uniquely American feast many families enjoy at Thanksgiving, but we like both for some of the same reasons.

What most of us want for Thanksgiving is to gather with family and close friends to share foods that we grew up enjoying. Please, no exotic new recipes. Bake it exactly the way grandma did.

By being familiar, by being something that triggers nostalgia for a quick trip to McDonald’s that celebrated a dance recital or Little League season, and by simply being what we can trust, the Big Mac and Egg McMuffin are versions of grandma’s pecan pie.

Taking them out of MSP was a terrible idea.

It was Delta Air Lines, not the Metropolitan Airports Commission, that booted the Golden Arches at the end of 2011 as part of Delta’s makeover of the G concourse. McDonald’s was out, and what was in were celebrity chefs and iPads everywhere Delta could fit one.

Delta’s instinct, that McDonald’s was a little too down-market for its new G look, reflects half of what George John, the associate dean of the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota, called a “mixed” attitude most of us have toward the likes of McDonald’s.

“People like to grumble about the McDonaldization of the world,” he said. “Yet when we are traveling down I-35 and it is late at night, McDonald’s is what we want. I know I am not going to die three hours after I eat. I know what I’m going to get.”

McDonald’s is actually famous, as in business school case-study famous, for the consistency of the food and customer experience. Walk into a McDonald’s anywhere, and in fact you do know what you’re going to get.

This week an estimated 43 million Americans were traveling more than 50 miles for the holiday, by far most of them in their own cars rather than on an airliner. Most went past one of the country’s roughly 14,000 McDonald’s restaurants, and more than a few stopped in.

McDonald’s hasn’t reported booming same-store sales in recent years, but it has durable popularity that has persisted through years of media coverage questioning the nutritional value of most fast foods. About eight out of 10 Americans still eat at fast food restaurants at least once a month, according to a poll taken this summer by the Gallup organization, and that hasn’t changed much since a similar poll taken in 2006.

Let’s be honest, Americans generally know there are healthier ways to eat than grabbing a Double Quarter Pounder with cheese, at 750 calories and 43 grams of fat, and a large order of fries with 500 more calories and 25 more grams of fat.

On the other hand, if cardiovascular health concerns were top of mind when my family planned the meal for Thanksgiving, much of what made it to the table Thursday probably wouldn’t have been there.

Fortunately, everything that was expected was there, including, particularly, the turkey gravy. If a family member has a favorite new dish featuring kale, she had the good sense not to bring it.

The people who run Minneapolis-St. Paul International appear to have been aware of how hungry air travelers — a little tired and a little anxious — would also be looking for something familiar in the form of a McDonald’s meal.

When Delta went ahead with its plan to be rid of McDonald’s — one of the dumber decisions in the airline’s 89 years in business — it seems safe to assume that some of the loud grumbling that followed came from Delta’s best customers, the SkyMiles Medallion members. The MAC got more complaints on this than it has received for all of the other 55 restaurants at MSP combined.

“Familiarity is important when people are traveling,” said Pat Harris, the city of St. Paul’s representative on the MAC. “There’s a reason there’s been 300 billion served, or whatever the number is. We really needed to bring McDonald’s back.”

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