I remember reading last year in the Wall Street Journal that Subway had surpassed McDonalds as the world’s biggest fast food chain—and that stuck with me not because I like keeping up with financial news pertaining to America’s favorite restaurants, but because I was surprised that Subway was officially classified as a fast food restaurant.
I don’t think of Subway as eating “fast food” but maybe that’s just the MURRICAN in me, because I “Eat Fresh!” there and there aren’t any French fries!
But, wow, four candy canes (sugar-free ones, of course) for you, Subway. Beating McDonalds? Forget the Golden Arches, you get the gold medal. McDonalds was always so high up on my (limited) understanding of fast food restaurants and has been since I was able to understand that the cool place with the indoor playground wasn’t exactly the best place to eat at.
I was actually learning about McDonalds and globalization in an anthropology class I took last spring right around when the Wall Street Journal article came out. We learned how one of the reasons why McDonalds was able to find so much stable success abroad was because it adapts to the customs and culture of the overseas countries—like how the McDonalds in India feature more lamb, chicken, and vegetarian options than any other McDonalds because beef is not commonly eaten in the Hindu population, and how the Asian McDonalds feature more fish-based products because that’s more common over there.
And I knew from personal experience and various French classes that the McDonalds in France served beer and wine and macarons and baguettes and a McDonalds version of the iconic French sandwich the Croque Monsieur—which is called, of course, the Croque McDo—in all of the MacDos here.
And because I’m gonna be a smarty farty and use multimedia, watch this clip (or don’t and just read the excerpt from the screenplay) in this scene in Pulp Fiction that I’ve been playing in my mind ever since I got here:
John Travolta as VINCENT: In Paris, you can buy beer at MacDonald’s. Also, you know what they call a Quarter Pounder with Cheese in Paris?
Samuel L. Jackson as JULES: They don’t call it a Quarter Pounder with Cheese?
VINCENT: No, they got the metric system there, they wouldn’t know what the fuck a Quarter Pounder is.
JULES: What’d they call it?
VINCENT: Royale with Cheese.
JULES (repeating): Royale with Cheese. What’d they call a Big Mac?
VINCENT: Big Mac’s a Big Mac, but they call it Le Big Mac.
JULES: Le Big Mac. What do they call a Whopper?
VINCENT:I dunno, I didn’t go into a Burger King.
That says it all, to me. McDonalds changed the name of the Quarter Pounder because, as Vincent eloquently stated, the name wouldn’t mean a thing to someone who uses the Metric system. So McDonalds adapted to the host country. And, McDonalds is the biggest American hamburger chain there: Burger King didn’t adapt or compete as well as McDonalds and there hasn’t been a Burger King in France for like fifteen years (this is learned in a French class, not an anthropology class).
And I’ve seen the advertisements in the Metro, even if I haven’t gone to McDonalds yet: you can get an espresso in a little porcelain espresso cup with a little silver spoon and two little sugar cubes identical to the ones my host family takes with their coffee and, best of all, two cute little pink macarons. All for under 2 euros. That’s what’s up, McCafe.
McDonalds is a thing here. I read this memoir, Paris I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down, before coming here, and there was a passage that stuck with me. Like my father, the author, Rosecrans Baldwin, took a job at a French company in the just pre-Sarkozy France without having any comprehension of the French language or French culture.
And like my dad, he learned that this wasn’t Hemingway’s Paris and that the Moveable Feast here was the McDonalds, where people took 45 minutes to eat a four-course meal with McNuggets as appetizers, then a sandwich, then a salad after the meal (très French), and then a dessert. This is the kind of international McDonalds dining experience that makes non-Americans love McDonalds, like the Hong Kong couple that got married in a McWedding where a “cake” made of stacked apple pies was served.
But this French Subway? Like in the United States, I didn’t even want to eat in the restaurant, let alone get married there or sit there for 45 minutes. I was surprised by how similar everything looked. Same brown linoleum floors. Same tan wallpaper. Same glass separating eating space from workspace and customer from creator, same lettuce and tomatoes and vegetables.
Subway didn’t add anything to their menu. In fact, the menu seemed like a bare-bones version of the American menu.
No Subway breakfast sandwiches. No Subway pizza. No Subway soup. Nowhere near as many hot Subway sandwich offerings (ie. chicken parmesan, buffalo chicken). There were bags of chips, which surprised me—in the States, the meal plans at little takeaway restaurants is a sandwich with a bag of chips and a drink, but in France all of the sandwich places I’ve seen don’t even offer chips and instead have meal plans with a sandwich, a pastry item, and a drink.
Rest assured, there were still Subway cookies … but you could also get Subway doughnuts now! The French really love their doughnuts. Doughnuts are a dessert here, not a breakfast item. I wonder what would happen if a Frenchie walked into a Dunkin Donuts in the states at nine in the morning. I’m actually surprised Dunkin Donuts hasn’t expanded into France yet—they need to get on that real fast.
I ordered my usual turkey sandwich in my usual Italian bread with my usual lettuce and tomatoes and Chipotle Soutwest mayo. Only difference was I didn’t pick out my cheese, but the server didn’t ask anyone in our group about that so maybe there isn’t that option here.
And you know what? I didn’t get the Baked Ruffles Cheddar and Sour Cream chips that I usually get, but the sandwich tasted the exact same. It tasted like the same sandwich I order in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and the same sandwich I order in Medfield, Massachusetts.
Subway seems to prize itself on that. The Subway international website reads:
Wherever SUBWAY® restaurants are located, the core menu stays relatively the same — with the exception of some cultural and religious variations. World travelers can expect the same high quality of ingredients regardless of what nation they are visiting. You can enjoy a footlong Turkey Breast Sub, with your choice of a variety of vegetables and condiments served on bread baked right in the restaurant in Jamaica, then travel to New Zealand and get the same footlong Turkey Breast Sub!
Of course, John Travolta’s Vincent in Pulp Fiction seems to know something about the world that the entire Subway chain does not, which is that America is the only country in the whole wide world that doesn’t use the metric system so the idea of a “footlong” sandwich doesn’t translate in Jamaica or New Zealand or France, for that matter (unless, of course, Subway wants its international customers to measure their sandwich size against their feet size). It’s a 15 cm sandwich or a 30 cm sandwich here.
I ordered the 30 cm sandwich because one of my friends was given a coupon book for Subway—the whole reason we went here, in fact—and a friend and I used the “buy one 30 cm sandwich get a second for 3 euro” one.
There are two Subways within walking distance of our school in the second arronidssement, compared to the one McDonalds I’ve found. But from what I’ve seen in the Subway I went to and the McDonalds I’ve walked past a dozen times, the McDonalds changed its interior design and made it fancier, cleaner, and prettier than the grungy McDonalds in the United States. The inside seems bigger too. But the Subway I went to was tiny—two two-people tables only!—and there was a line of people extending outside of the restaurant because it was so small it was probably as big as a kiosk at a state fair.
This surprised me, but after reading the international Subway manifesto, it doesn’t really. There isn’t a large grab-and-go culture in France; people eat most of their meals at their house and when they do venture into a restaurant, they take their time eating whatever it is they order and that’s pretty much why French service is so slow. But with this Subway, you’d have to have the opposite of whatever claustrophobia is in order to want to sit down.
To my uneducated and unprofessional eye, Subway and McDonalds seem to have been pretty neck-and-neck, globally speaking. Subway might have beat McDonalds in 2011, but 2012 remains to be seen. The Subway international site reveals that there are 37, 729 restaurants in over 100 countries, whereas from what I’ve seen of McDonalds, they’re boasting 32,000 outlets in 117 countries. And, you know, in the Louvre (SACRE BLEU!).
Again, I’m not an expert or a researcher or anything other than a twenty-year-old girl living in Paris who likes to eat, but I’d be interested to see who ends up taking the metaphorical cake, so to speak, in 2012: the McDonalds that prides itself of adapting to its environment or the Subway that prides itself of being able to taste the same anywhere you try it.
Can Darwin’s survival of the fittest work in the fast food industry? Only time, and bread and meat and vegetables, can tell.
Maybe I’ll force myself to go to McDonalds sometime and write a follow-up post. I can’t even remember the last time I went to a McDonalds in the States and, more importantly, I can’t remember the last time I wanted to go to a McDonalds. But I signed up to get the full French experience here and if that means going to a MacDo and ordering Le Big Mac, I will do it.
Who knows, maybe heart burn is cuter in France too.