"A Clean and Snappy Place!"

by Don Boudreaux on April 23, 2008

in Environment, Everyday Life, Standard of Living, The Profit Motive

McDonald’s makes the world a cleaner place.  So concludes Wharton’s Adrian E. Tschoegl in his 2007 paper "McDonald’s — Much Maligned, But an Engine of Economic Development."  Here’s the relevant passage (from page 12):

McDonald’s emphasis on cleanliness, including or especially in restrooms, has led its competitors to upgrade their facilities.  Before the first McDonald’s opened up in 1975, restrooms in Hong Kong’s restaurants were notoriously dirty (Watson 1997).  Over time, competitors felt compelled to meet McDonald’s cleanliness standards.  The same thing appears to be occurring in China (Watson 2000).  In Korea, McDonald’s introduced the practice of lining up in an orderly fashion to order food; traditional practice was simply to crowd the counter, with success in ordering accruing to the most aggressive (Watson 2000).  In the Philippines, Jollibee mimics McDonald’s clean and well-lighted look.

Here’s yet another small way that capitalism makes humans’ environment safer and more pleasant.

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{ 37 comments }

FreedomLover April 23, 2008 at 3:59 pm

I dunno. McDonald's bathroom in the states are pretty filthy. I think it's more of a cultural thing then McDonald's.

Don Boudreaux April 23, 2008 at 4:01 pm

Well, you gotta compare McDonald's bathrooms in foreign countries to what the bathrooms in other restaurants in those countries were like before McDonald's arrived…..

FreedomLover April 23, 2008 at 4:23 pm

That's true, that their corporate policy would improve that. But it sure hasn't done anything for American bathroom cleanliness. Or should I say lack of it. TO their credit, my local Olive Garden has a very clean bathroom.

dave smith April 23, 2008 at 4:40 pm

And this also suggests that there is no race to the bottom.

That is, why didn't McDs just leave their bathroooms filthy?

Chris O'Leary April 23, 2008 at 4:42 pm

"That's true, that their corporate policy would improve that. But it sure hasn't done anything for American bathroom cleanliness. Or should I say lack of it."

I'm not so sure about this.

Bathroom cleanliness seems to be getting renewed interest of late.

I was in a gas station bathroom the other day that was nicer than my one at home. People seem to be trying to use bathroom cleanliness as a differentiator.

That is one thing that shows how competition can lead to overall improvements in standards.

Another place where you can see competition driving cleanliness competition is in gas station exteriors. Here in St. Louis, pretty much every gas station is clean and well-lit. The ones that didn't catch this wave seem to be closing.

When you are selling a commodity like gas, increasing the cleanliness of your bathrooms and exteriors may be one way to create a perceived advantage. The cleanliness benefits are secondary.

Jason April 23, 2008 at 6:30 pm

"That is, why didn't McDs just leave their bathrooms filthy?" This is an excellent point. Opponents use the race to the bottom argument against globalization, regardless of the evidence.

Why would an evil corporation waste their profits on cleaning a bathroom without the government forcing them to do it? This probably seems like a strange paradox to someone with certain assumptions i.e. corporations exploit workers and consumers.

Chris O'Leary April 23, 2008 at 6:42 pm

"Why would an evil corporation waste their profits on cleaning a bathroom without the government forcing them to do it? This probably seems like a strange paradox to someone with certain assumptions i.e. corporations exploit workers and consumers."

This points out the problems with monopolies in a back-handed fashion.

I tend to find that the more remote the gas station, and in a way the more monopolistic, the dirtier the bathrooms. That is because there is less competition and less repeat business. That means there is less incentive for cleanliness.

Part of McD's angle is consistency. You will never get great food, but the company implicitly promises you, via franchise agreements, that things will never get really bad. I also see McD's upgrading its facilities around here, in part due to increased competition.

FreedomLover April 23, 2008 at 6:55 pm

Corporations have a competitive incentive to not exploit their workers. OTOH, government being a monopoly by definition has no such incentive. Of course the muirducks of the world would try to convince us Hayekians that government bureaucrats are inherently more moral and noble then corporate execs.

FreedomLover April 23, 2008 at 7:03 pm

BTW – Joseph Stiglitz is a wanker.

bartman April 23, 2008 at 7:13 pm

I'm curious as to whether McD's has managed to deal with the "Indian queue": 50 wide and one deep.

dave smith April 23, 2008 at 8:45 pm

"BTW – Joseph Stiglitz is a wanker."

Don't be shy. Tell us what you really think.

gergle April 24, 2008 at 12:25 am

The question isn't why McDonald's cleans their bathrooms, but why they use open dimpsters, like everyone else, that attract rats and roaches to the neighborhood. Who bears this cost?

I'm new to this site. What I've seen so far is a mutual admiration society. Where's the debate?

Sam Grove April 24, 2008 at 1:07 am

Where's the debate?

Go ahead, start one.

brotio April 24, 2008 at 1:10 am

Gergele,

Step right up and tell us why you think more government is better than less, or that protectionism is good for the consumer, or that capitalism sucks and socialism rocks – and you'll find plenty of debate.

Jason April 24, 2008 at 2:29 am

"Who bears this cost?" The restaurant when a video shows up on youtube showing rats running around inside.

"a mutual admiration society" Woohoo! We've achieved what utopian lovers can only dream of.

Gil April 24, 2008 at 6:31 am

Heh heh heh. Well to be fair people who criticise food businesses for their shortcoming probably wouldn't pass a health inspection in their own homes. After all, since when in restaurants are the food preparers allows to give offcuts of meat to cats and/or dogs nearby?

Hammer April 24, 2008 at 8:52 am

Given what I have seen of rats and other vermin, a closed dumpster is hardly going to dissuade them. Just about anything that isn't hermetically sealed in iron doesn't slow them down.
Besides, does your appartment have open dumpsters? Your house? Do the garbage cans on the sidewalk incinerate anything the instant it drops below the rim? If not, there is a pretty strong argument to be made that you are suggesting holding restaurants to a higher standard than just about everyone else.

You can go looking for costs that are not born by the "proper" beneficiary all you want, but most really come down to the cost of living anywhere near other humans.

David Graf April 24, 2008 at 9:06 am

Freedomlover wrote "Corporations have a competitive incentive to not exploit their workers." That may be true in the long run, but history is replete with examples of how businesses will exploit workers when it is to their short term advantage. Ditto for workers when they're holding the advantage. From my perspective, it's a matter of ethics. Neither management nor employees should exploit each other.

Chris O'Leary April 24, 2008 at 9:06 am

"The question isn't why McDonald's cleans their bathrooms, but why they use open dimpsters, like everyone else, that attract rats and roaches to the neighborhood. Who bears this cost?"

Nobody.

The McD's where I live use standard closed dumpsters.

Maybe they use open dumpsters where you live, but that's the responsibility of the waste management company, not McD's.

Jody April 24, 2008 at 9:09 am

Re Indian queues at McDonald's-

I make it a point of trying out the local McDonald's when I travel abroad particularly for the regional specialities (had a lovely Chicken McKorma in London once).

In Madras (the only city where I ate in McDonald's in India), there was normal queueing – a bit of surprise given the lack of "queueing" in road traffic. (Had a chicken burger of some sort, wasn't very good.)

The only McDonald's I've been to where queueing completely broke down was at the main train station in Rome which was 20 wide and 10 deep. (Big Mac)

John Dewey April 24, 2008 at 9:12 am

FreedomLover: "I dunno. McDonald's bathroom in the states are pretty filthy. I think it's more of a cultural thing then McDonald's."

Not sure how old you are, so you may not remember this. McDonald's emphasis on cleanliness in the 60's and 70's led to a pronounced change in the condition of fast food restrooms. I worked in several fast food restaurants in three different cities in my high school and college days, and I remember well the transformation. After McDonald's came to town, every Burger Chef and A&W and Pizza Hut began to notice the condition of their restrooms as well.

In one of his books, Tom Peters mentioned how McDonald's emphasis on total cleanlines, and especially restroom cleanliness, was a key success factor for the chain.

McDonald's trains all its managers and employees to believe that cleanliness is one of the chain's four most important goals:

"Tha means having the freshest and cleanest restaurants – from the kitchen and dining room to the rest rooms and parking lot"

QSC&V – the Foundation that Built McDonald's Success

Flash Gordon April 24, 2008 at 9:39 am

My first real job was at the first McDonalds in Wyoming in 1961. It was owned by two retired Air Force officers. I was 16 and even though my mother always asked my if I washed behind my ears, my real introduction to hygiene and cleanliness was from my bosses at McDonalds.

McDonalds in those days did not have public rest rooms because they had no inside eating area. It was walk up and take out only. The employee rest room was kept hospital clean.

Every employee was indoctrinated in hand washing, not only the necessity of doing it but exactly how to do it as well.

The wash basin was not in the rest room, it was outside the door. When you came out of the rest room you went immediately to the sink and if you didn't, and if the boss noticed, he would grab you and physically place you in front of the sink and watch you wash your hands. They were not going to risk any food contamination.

Needless to say, every other area of that little burger stand was a model of cleanliness. During the slow time between the lunch rush and the dinner rush everyone busily cleaned their area.

Today I will not eat anything from McDonalds. The area viewable from the cash register never looks clean to me. The stinking mess in their rest rooms confirms my fear that it is not a clean place.

There many be many reasons for this. In my youth the stores were privately owned and are now mostly company stores. This may have something to do with why they are not clean anymore at least in the US.

Here is some real irony. One of the cleanest looking McDonald's I've seen lately is in Cairo. The irony is that Eygpt is one of the filthiest country in the world.

John dewey April 24, 2008 at 10:02 am

"In my youth the stores were privately owned and are now mostly company stores. This may have something to do with why they are not clean anymore at least in the US."

The public's standards for cleanliness have certainly been raised since 1961. Growth of the McDonald's chain has apparently made tight control of operations more difficult. Certainly McDonald's reliance on larger, multi-chain franchisees may have played a part. But the stores are still primarily owned by franchisees, though they may be different from the one you knew 47 years ago. from McDonald's website

Approximately 85% of McDonald's US restaurants are owned and operated by independent business men and women, our Owner/Operators.

OregonGuy April 24, 2008 at 1:17 pm

One of my friends owns several McDonalds restaurants.

The biggest deterent to the "clean" of the '60's is the minimum wage law.

In Oregon, the minimum wage is $7.95 an hour. For those of you who do payroll, if the employee qualifies for health care, you can easily estimate the actual hourly cost for a single employee at the minimum wage rate.

As the minimum wage has crept up, the number of employees has crept down.

In the '60's, McDonald's used to hire a lot of kids to work each shift. They took into account shrinkage as one of the hidden perks of employment. Not all employees were guilty of committing acts of shrinkage…all the time. Some, more than others. Mistakes happen.

And there was also a lot of goof-off time. Kids had fun working at McDonalds.

Now the state has priced kids out of the job market. They have no skills. No people skills, no marketable skills–generally–at all. And McDonalds used to imprint job behavours on a lot of kids. Now, instead of four of five kids per shift making sure the dining area is clean, you have one adult taking care of the back and out front. And, reminiscent of a comment made by former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfield, electrons move faster than planes. You can see a mess out front. But the one guy responsible is working…just, somewhere else.

McDonalds competes on taste and price. You wanna burger for a buck? You gottit. And if you haven't seen the capital equipment used in preparing your food, it's worth a trip. They squeeze productivity out of every ounce of space.

Want a return to a service based economy? Want to employ more kids, and folks without job skillz?

Get rid of the minimum wage.

Oh, and the best fries I ever had were at the McDonalds kitty-corner from the Lubyank in Moscow. Just down the street from "Children's World".

FreedomLover April 24, 2008 at 3:36 pm

I don't know about the 60s and 70s, but the average McDonald's is very filthy these days. The floors are sticky, the tables are sticky, the chairs/benches are sticky. The soda/straw/napkin dispenser areas are usually not clean. I would hazard to guess that you will only get a really clean McDonald's in a VERY upscale area, otherwise it's going to be garbage. Like any other restaurant.

John Dewey April 24, 2008 at 4:48 pm

freedomlover: "I don't know about the 60s and 70s, but the average McDonald's is very filthy these days."

Well, everyone is entitled to his opinion. My experience – or at least my perception of that experience – is very different from yours.

Mesa Econoguy April 24, 2008 at 7:38 pm

I think the same argument can be made for Disney.

I just returned from Disneyland, and the level of organization and cleanliness is astounding. The lengths they go to in order to ensure maximum seamless presentation and minimal guest visibility of “cast member” (employee) functions is impressive. They’ve spent years perfecting this, studying such things as how far people will walk to throw waste in the garbage (I think the answer is 40 ft.).

OregonGuy April 24, 2008 at 8:53 pm

I am not, nor have I ever been, a sock puppet for Mesa Econoguy…although his comments, here and there, have at times produced a chuckle.

Sam Grove April 24, 2008 at 9:45 pm

I once found myself in Norfolk, VA. I stopped at a McDonald's.
The the windows and door had protective bars and the toilet tank cover was chained down.

I think this is more reflective of the area than of McDs, same for dirty bathrooms.

FreedomLover April 24, 2008 at 10:57 pm

Sam:

Good point. Any restaurant will be a reflection of the area it's in. After all, I'm sure the Bel Air McDonald's is pretty nice.

vidyohs April 25, 2008 at 7:46 am

I picked up an infection of hepatitus A in Africa, 1962, which I kicked in 6 weeks of recovery. However, one becomes educated and concerned deeply about how cleanliness in kitchens. restrooms, and food preparers affects safe and healthy food.

By the time I was thinking of retirement in the late 70s McDonalds was the standard I had in my mind when I was designing my eventual house, and one I have used in remodeling some of the in-betweener homes.

The standard is, if it can't withstand boiling water, steam, and bleach then it doesn't belong in a kitchen or a restroom/bathroom, and if you don't wash your hands with soap and water after going to the bathroom then you aren't touching my food at any stage of preparation. Porcelain, stainless steel, tile, and cement can be disinfected quickly and easily, and they can be made very attractive.

My impression is in conflict with Freedomlover's, considering the amount of traffic they get of people from all levels of society and all ages, the average McDonalds is kept exceptionally clean.

I have also noticed that such cleanliness is a self breeder. In general,when people come into a dirty place they seem less inclined to do their part in self policing their activities; whereas, when they come into a clean place they seem more inclined to clean up after themselves to the degree possible with napkins and readily available trash containers.

Rick April 25, 2008 at 11:04 am

Re: comments that McDonalds has dirty bathrooms in the states — this has never been my experience.

What we're talking about here is not sterile-clean, shining fittings type cleanliness. We're talking working locks, soap, towels, actual water, no faeces on the floor, lit rooms, toilets unblocked after no more than a couple of hours.

Things can get so much worse that the current state of a McDonalds toilet.

vidyohs April 25, 2008 at 8:25 pm

Speaking of health, check this out.

http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/nation/5728443.html

"Daub of health not B-9 for games." Houston Chronicle 4/25/08

Can we say unintended consequences, chilluns?

Mesa Econoguy April 26, 2008 at 2:07 am

I am not, nor have I ever been, a sock puppet for Mesa Econoguy…although his comments, here and there, have at times produced a chuckle.
Posted by: OregonGuy

Thank you, sir (can I call you "guy?"), but this was actually one of my un-snide comments; Disney actually does study things like that (waste disposal), and that is in fact the answer (my wife used to work there).

I’m sure McDonalds is the same, studying how many people sit in line (queuing theory, poisson distributions of arrival times), how many use the bathrooms (especially traveling), where people sit, etc.

Although I just experienced the worst McDonalds ever in Blythe, CA. Stay away from that one.

Flash Gordon April 26, 2008 at 11:32 am

John Dewey: You are right. I stand corrected. But I don't think the franchisees today are much like my two retired air force sergeants (I mistakenly made them officers in my comment).

And the comments about the minimum wage are on the money. A sign of how little worth the average kid brings to the job is the necessity of putting pictures instead of numbers on the cash register buttons.

gergle April 28, 2008 at 11:11 am

Sam Grove,

I think I just did.

brotio,

Given that I never made any of those claims, who are you arguing with yourself?

Hammer, that is the lowest common denominator argument. I live near a McDonald's (about a block away). I have always thought I would not like to be living in the house behind it. Their business profits would lower my home value and create a extermination cost on my property. My question was and is, the bathroom is a common ploy to attract customers. Grocers do it, many restaurants do it, not just McDonald's. They hide their dumpsters in enclosures in the back. They could make a better effort to be a good neighbor, but they don't because it doesn't effect their bottom line. It does effect their neighbors. I would be calling the health department daily, if my house were behind one.

Minimum wage has zero to do with a policy of cleanliness. What a Kroc.(pun intended)

brotio April 28, 2008 at 5:31 pm

gergle,

Either you didn't understand my post, or you're being intentionally obtuse. I'll presume that I didn't make myself clear.

I never asserted that you made those claims, I asserted that stepping right up and making those claims would get a debate started.

Now, some questions for you: Who do you think owns those dumpsters behind McDonald's? McDonald's, or a trash company they contract with? Does the local trash company violate your community's health department regulations by providing uncovered dumpsters?

If it is legal in your area for restaurants to be provided with uncovered dumpsters, then you might want to write to your local health department and ask them why.

If it's not allowed and you know that your neighborhood McDonald's is being provided with uncovered dumpsters, then informing the health department should resolve the issue. If it doesn't, then I suggest that the problem is with the health department.

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