Monday, January 24, 2011

Fast-food (& Slow Food) Restaurants As Socially Mediated Spaces: The McDonald’s Effect

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In today’s day and age, there are all kinds of restaurants which serve an endless array of food with its multicultural flavors and in varying levels of speed and formality. Fast-food and drive-through places which emphasize convenience and low prices seek to earn profits from mass numbers of customers, whereas fancier restaurants can charge higher prices for their attention to details, service, and of course, taste. A major way to define the restaurant's style and corresponding social protocol lies in its spatial design and architecture which strongly shape the way the restaurant is run and in turn, how its customers respond.

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As a very straight-forward example, McDonald’s and other comparable fast-food restaurants are sociologically significant, because they are spaces which are structured to mediate customer behavior in specific ways. What many sociologists refer to as “McDonaldization,” beginning with George Ritzer’s The McDonaldization of Society, provides an effective way to understand the social dynamics of physical space. I have read parts of this book for a sociology course I took on food, and I recall its explanation of how the common fast-food restaurant also has a strongly embedded cultural system within it as exemplified in part by the undeniable success of the McDonald’s fast-food chain.

Ritzer argues that the success of McDonald’s has been premised on values of rationalization, such as calculability and efficiency, by means of controlling both the workers and the customers. McDonald’s production is heavily standardized and monitored, and the culture of eating at McDonald’s is also – perhaps subconsciously—controlled as well. Fast-food customers somehow adapt to the space and its processes by adjusting their behavior accordingly.

Spatial cues such as the positioning of the menu, the uncomfortable chairs, the presence and locations of trash cans, and the layout of self-serve fountain drinks and condiments all add to the customers' ideas of how to act.

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One of the defining features of the fast-food restaurant is the
trash can which is intended for the customers to clear their 
own tables after finishing their meals.
People familiar with eating at a fast-food restaurant in the U.S. know that it is not a place to sit down and wait for a server. Instead, people wait in line and prepare their order in their head before they get to the cashier. If they have trouble deciding, the cashier is trained to prompt the customer for answers in a specific way and to input requests for more customized orders into the cash register. The customers are then given a number and must wait for their order to be called when ready. Ritzer explains that fast-food places like McDonald's use these numbers to keep track of how many orders have been prepared for the day and what kind, so as to optimize the business strategy. Also, the customer knows that the order shouldn’t take too long; if it does, s/he will probably want to verify the order or complain. Also, as Ritzer points out, most people who eat at the fast-food place understand that they are to bus their tables themselves.

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In contrast, fancier sit-down restaurants design their interior spaces to convey a different ambiance and kind of social space with their particular attention to details. For instance, the combination of colors, light fixtures, decorative pieces, tables, chairs, floor panels, silverware, sound, waiter outfits, and overall geometry all add to an image. This image contributes to customer expectations of service, and may also explain to the customer why the bill is larger, making higher prices seem more legitimate. (However, even if the restaurants scores low on interior design points, it could still do relatively well given that the food is impressively delicious and less expensive, the place isn't horrifically dirty, and on top of that, the restaurant has a long-standing positive reputation.)

I may be pointing out the seemingly obvious here, but for the designer of the space, the decisions made about all these details in a restaurant are important. When a customer walks into a place to eat, the details I have examined come together to influence expectations, attitudes, and behavior. I would say that another emerging aspect of analysis, though, is cyberspace where a restaurant’s reputation and online presence --like a business website or web page on social networking/review sites like Yelp-- are now of greater importance than ever before.


  1. This is very true. I'm in the process of helping to lead a big remodel at my church. We've been thinking about what kind of visual cues should be in place for people to feel comfortable when they enter. The structural design definitely influences expectations and the flow of traffic. Great thoughts =) I enjoyed reading it.

  2. Wow! I definitely think about restaurants that way. It's very interesting here your point of you because it makes so much sense. Next time I enter a McDonald's or any other fast food restaurant I'll take notice in their obvious tendencies of simple and functional as compared to a fancy restaurant, which expects return business based on looks and more so, service.

    This also relates to a feature in marketing and money management. A customer going to a fast food restaurant is less likely to care about the physical appearance of the place as a customer going to a non-fast food restaurant. Therefore, non-fast food restaurants spend more money on physical appearances, while a fast food place would spend more money on efficiency and quantity of their food.