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October 19, 2012

In hard times, hungry consumers still flock to the Golden Arches

In late September 2008, when global stock markets fell off a cliff, a funny thing happened to McDonald's. While the financial industry and consumer goods were cratering, same-store sales rose 8.2 percent the next month. And remember Morgan Spurlock's damning 2004 documentary, "Super Size Me," which painted the fast-food giant as the corroded heart of America's obesity crisis? Since then, the company's share price has nearly quadrupled, making MCD's stock ticker look more like a hockey stick than the peaks and valleys of the Golden Arches. While the opening of a new McDonald's (there are already some 33,500 in 119 countries and counting) might not have the buzz of an Apple Store launch, Mickey D's is a Wall Street darling, and a savvy customer too, constantly tweaking providers to lower costs while passing the savings on to budget-conscious consumers.

McWorld may not save us from global jihad, the ravages of interstate conflict, or the eurozone financial collapse, but in a cow-hungry world, the plastic contours of the planet's largest restaurant chain shimmer with promises of long-term prosperity. After weathering everything from scalding-coffee lawsuits, cringe-inducing calorie labeling, and tides of anti-globalization food rioters, the evil empire of burgers and fries finds itself in an excellent spot to prosper in nasty and brutish times. The sad truth is that in most of the world, the McDonald's menu doesn't scream antibiotic-addled livestock and high-cholesterol death diets; instead it whispers of middle-class aspiration. Who in São Paulo or Shanghai has heard of Jonathan Safran Foer, much less his plea: Can't we all be vegetarians and get along?

Still, skeptics ask: Haven't we hit "peak burger"?

The question implies an egregious misreading of McDonald's philosophy and history. A long time ago, burgernomics evolved into chickenomics. Today, McOptimization of priorities has cooked up a feast of cross-cultural patronage: In New Delhi you'll find the McAloo Tikki spiced-potato sandwich and in Tokyo, the Ebi Filet-O shrimp burger. McDonald's is no longer foisting burgers and American values on its booming numbers of international patrons; it's offering burgers and local fare, and, yes, value.

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