Documenting the world’s most endangered McDonald’s
A video-game designer from Pittsburgh has made it his mission to track down the world’s most outlandish McDonald’s restaurants. Now he’s on a race against time to document them before they disappear forever.
Each new tweet posted by the @nonstandardmcd account comes with a single-word activity report. A fair few diners featured on the page say “active”, but the most clicked destinations by far are those marked “deceased”. Users contribute morosely to that pile, tweeting in when their favourite non-standard McDonald’s shuts down. Each obituary receives the same standard reply from the page: “We are sorry for your McLoss.” The funereal drama of it all is quite McAbre.
“The tweets about deceased locations create way more discussion than those that are active,” says Max Krieger, a video-game designer from Pittsburgh who has made it his mission to track down the world’s most outlandish McDonald’s restaurants. The account recently celebrated its first birthday; in that time, Krieger has shared more than 120 locations and he informs me that he’s sitting on at least another year’s worth of content.
The account taps into a psyche many 20-somethings didn’t realise they had. “Millennials have these strange half-memories of going to a non-standard McDonald’s that are distant enough to ask themselves, ‘Did I just imagine this place when I was a child? Did I just dream this place up? Or did I actually go there?’ Then they see photos of it on the account and they have this surreal moment where it all comes flooding back and they go ‘I’m not crazy! That place actually existed!’”
The restaurant in question might be the Independence McDonald’s in Independence, Ohio, which looks like a house built during the American Revolution; Montrose, Colorado’s McDonald’s with a single arch; the Swedish McSki, the Modernist McDonald’s or even Florida’s frankly odd “European” McDonald’s.
But what defines a non-standard McDonald’s? First, there’s the eccentric architecture, Krieger says: “You know, novelty statues, or a giant dinosaur with a pompadour playing an electric guitar.” Then there’s location – this includes both McDonald’s restaurants on cruise ships, barges and diners that are worked seamlessly into their, mostly US, surroundings. He rules out any restaurant where you can’t buy a Big Mac, so the dessert-only McDonald’s that are popular in East and South-East Asia don’t make the list. But there are other regional oddities that Krieger does accommodate.
“Often with non-standard McDonald’s, the concept behind them isn’t dreamed up by McDonald’s corporate, it’s whoever runs the individual franchise. Somebody who really likes stock-car racing or really enjoys Hollywood memorabilia, something like that. And they decided to dedicate one of the restaurants to it.” There’s a strange element of community resistance embedded in the idea of a non-standard McDonald’s. Bound up with contradictions between local communities and international companies, they exist within the symbolic framework of the world’s most recognisable brand, as part of a company synonymous with rampant consumerism.
Talk of “a race against time” to avoid “extinction” means the project gives off an Attenborough-esque aura – the page has even launched a Kickstarter to enable Krieger and some documentary-makers to tour Florida (a hotbed for interesting sites).
“I’ve always tried to give non-standard McDonald’s a strange overtone,” he explains. “It’s like we’re cataloguing an endangered species or dealing with something potentially dangerous.”
There is a risk of losing these unusual buildings for good though, particularly in the US. The move away from the trademark red and yellow colour scheme towards a green-orientated look around in the late 2000s is something well-recognised on this side of the Atlantic, but in light of rising press criticism over the health effects of the chain’s fast-food, this also resulted in a reduction in the number of child-friendly non-standard restaurants.
“McDonald’s began to see those locations as a liability,” says Krieger. A memo from McDonald’s corporate in the late 2000s accelerated the rate of standardisation – “they essentially sent an edict down saying ‘you have to remodel to our current brand specifications or we’re going to pull your franchise rights’.” A cursory look through the account’s recent posts sees a spate of non-standard restaurants shutting in the five years between 2010 and 2015.
As flippant and ironic as the account may seem, Krieger is well aware of the minefield of socioeconomic and geopolitical issues involved in documenting some of the decaying relics of consumer capitalism.
“These deceased’ locations symbolise to people the departure of a bygone era and it gets worked into that narrative in sometimes alarming ways. These strange right-wing propaganda accounts try to invoke people’s feelings of nostalgia and attempt to radicalise them [via my account], but I block them straight off – I don’t want them co-opting my work.”
Krieger walks a political tightrope, administrating a popular meme-adjacent account that offers a quiet challenge to one of the world’s biggest global brands. “McDonald’s know we’re there. They keep up with the account and I think if they were going to cease-and-desist us, they would have done that already.’
The most Krieger hopes to do as a result is to get the cultural conversation going. But what about the future? “I think part of the company does really understand the appeal,” he says, diplomatically. “And though I can’t rule out a future where we see more non-standard McDonald’s, I know at the very least they’re listening.”
Max Krieger’s top five non-standard McDonald’s
1. Epic McDonald’s (Orlando, FL)
“I love this non-standard McDonald’s because it’s the non-standard concept taken to absolute excess. One of my favourite bits is the statue of Ronald McDonald’s hands, cradling planet Earth.
“The restaurant existed like this up until 2015, when McDonald’s really started to try reining these things in. With this one, McDonald’s met them halfway and decided to keep a two-floor restaurant with a lot of features. But they built an entirely new building that’s more in line with their corporate branding. And it’s a lot more corporate as a whole.
“Today, there’s still a playground and you can still order a McPizza from Epic McDonald’s. But a lot of the chaos and homemade quality of the original incarnation has been painted over. Even though it hasn’t been standardised on paper, it feels a lot more standardised in spirit.
“Not only is it just a magnificent monument to what a non-standard McDonald’s can be, it’s also emblematic of the change that took place and why these are dying out. It gives people the sense of documenting an endangered species before it becomes extinct.”
2. McDonald’s The Future (Chicago, IL)
“There’s a great big Greco Roman arch welcoming you into this place. This mall is connected to a glass rooftop garden, a children’s museum and a shopping centre along with an Imax theatre, and there’s a stained-glass museum down the way.
“It reminds me of the term ‘edutainment’. The 1990s was really focused on reaching out to children in a way that somehow stimulated their brain. And this has all the aesthetic trappings of that, but none of the substance. In the third photo, you can see the ring of lights around the top of that strange central oculus – that’s where the light shows took place and there are speakers there that played music. Look along the ceiling, there’s this strange hero who I can only assume is Atlantis. So yeah, there’s a lot to unpack here.
“And yet, even by the time I went there during college, nobody batted an eyelid. It was just completely mundane. It represents the strange duality of people really mourning non-standard McDonald’s when they’re gone, but when they’re present, people’s eyes gloss over how strange they are. This looks completely outlandish, but that just wasn’t the perception in person.”
3. Hundertwasser McDonald’s (Bad Fischau, Austria)
“This building was really just designed to be a rest stop, but it’s home to a McDonald’s now. This is one of those incidents where there’s a beautiful space that was purpose-built to be a restaurant and then McDonald’s moved in. It’s a combination of a great commission and painstaking design being taken into consideration when building something as mundane as a roadside food stop.”
4. Darling Quarter McDonald’s (Sydney, Australia)
“It’s open-air, a sporty design with shade sails. It was entirely white and almost utopian. It’s by a natural water feature and there’s a lot of greenery. It’s right out of a concept rendering of the year 2005, circa 1991, and yet, this is just so far from what we associate McDonald’s with now. The only existing film footage of it I could find was from the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers movie in 1995.”
5. A&S Plaza McDonald’s (New York, NY)
“I found this design really striking. It was part of an early ’90s project now referred to as the Manhattan Mall and it has this combination of ’80s postmodernism and a more urbane ’90s flavour. A lot of brushed metal, reflective surfaces, lots of neon, but the company colours of red and yellow? There’s red, but it’s more of a red and blue.”