Walk into most any fast food establishment, approach the counter to order, and what do you see? Typically a bank of dispensing stations with the actual food preparation nowhere in sight. I think separating the kitchen from the people who serve and eat the food is one of the reasons fast food disappoints today.
My local McDonald’s is unusual because the counter is especially wide, and I can stand at one particular spot and watch the activity behind the scenes. As I waited for my two Quarter Pounders with Cheese the other day, I observed a number of assembly operations in which cooked meats are taken out of a drawer with tongs. Also watched a desolate dropped bun lying on the ground, and an employee banging some frozen object against a cabinet in hopes of separating the components that were within (I think they were burgers) then giving up in frustration and tossing the object in the trash. I did not see any grilling, though I was able to identify the double griddle that cooks the burgers on top and bottom at the same time. All in all it was not a view that makes me feel a tasty meal is being created for my enjoyment.
Compare that to the counter experience at In-N-Out Burger, where the kitchen is in plain view and you can observe employees grilling burgers and also slicing onions and chopping potatoes for fries. Real food preparation is going on, and you can participate by ordering from their “secret” menu or doing your own mods which they are happy to accommodate.
McDonald’s has a new CEO who has been credited with some promising changes, including a directive to “toast its hamburger buns longer so sandwiches would be warmer, and change the way it sears and grills its beef so that the patties are juicier” according to the NY Times. Indeed, both the meat and the bun on my burger were fine. As an experiment I tried asking for a In-N-Out style mod. I wanted one of my Quarter Pounders with mustard but no ketchup, and after several “voids” at the register that’s what I got. It’s on the right in the picture above. The amount of mustard has not been adjusted (maybe it’s dispensed by a volume-regulated nozzle like they use in bars) and is unconscionably paltry. It’s not possible that the person who prepared this gave any thought to the fact a real person is going to eat this and hope to enjoy it.
The folks who prepare and dish up the cuisine in many fast food restaurants (who will soon be earning $15/hr in New York State, same as many beginning chefs) have no training or inkling they are in the foodservice business. And therein lies the problem.