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Monday 16 May 2005

McDonald’s Needs A Taxonomy

I was at McDonald’s this afternoon, and after I was told off by the counter person for specifying the size of my meal-based order after the special instructions about the burgers, it struck me that McDonald’s desperately needs a Taxonomy Of Fast Food.

A taxonomy is, as the word itself suggests, a scheme for arranging things; in practical use, it has a strong connotation of a hierarchical arrangement.

Carl Linnaeus developed a system of naming biological entities according to a hierarchy. In the Linnaean taxonomy, everything is, to begin with, a member of a kingdom. There are between three and six biological kingdoms, depending on who you ask. The simplest approach is to hold that there are three: animals, plants, and wee beasties.

Going on down the hierarchy are phylum, subphylum, class, subclass, order, family, genus, species. Thus you have:


It’s very convenient, and it’s stable from language to language: it thus facilitates unambiguous communications, which is good.

And this ability to communicate clearly is what McDonald’s — and a lot of other businesses — almost totally lack.

Starbucks is one of the places that gets it right. Here’s a Starbucks drink you might order:

Venti iced americano with room

Venti means twenty in Italian, and it’s one of Starbucks’ trademarked terms for size: it means twenty ounces.

Iced you can probably figure out on your own; americano is Italian for ‘American’. A lot of places in Italy only have espresso machines, so if you want what would be considered a cup of coffee in the United States, you ask for a caffé americano, i.e. espresso mixed with hot water. (American-themed places like burger restaurants serve ‘authentic’ caffé americano and have big US-made Bunn coffee makers on display just as places in the US show off their giant Marzocco machines from Italy.)

Room means don’t fill the cup up to the top: this way there’s room for cream, half-and-half, or whatever.

If you show up and order a ‘Venti americano with room, on ice’, the Starbucks person will read the order back to you in the standard Starbucks order, every time: ‘Venti iced americano with room’, thus subtly training you to order it that way the next time.

This is important, because it streamlines Starbucks’ operations. As soon as the word ‘Venti’ is out of your mouth, someone’s grabbed a 20-ounce cup. When you say ‘iced’, they can scoop ice into the thing. When you say ‘americano’, they start throwing in espresso and water; and when you say ‘with room’, they know to stop filling the cup before the water gets to the top.

You have to say things in some order, because trying to say ‘Venti’, ‘iced’, ‘americano’, etc. all at the same time wouldn’t be very clear, and you might injure your tongue besides. But Starbucks has carefully thought about the order in which you say these words, because even something as subtle as this can help or hurt their business.

The size comes first, because you’ve got to have a cup in your hand (and thus know the size of the drink) before you can start doing anything: but an ‘iced americano’ is also quite different from an ‘americano with ice’.

If you make an americano (i.e. espresso plus hot water) and then put ice in it, it’s not going to be cold, and because of all the ice melt it’s going to be watery — and never mind that you can’t regulate the ‘room’ easily this way. If you pour espresso over ice, then add more ice to make up for the ice the espresso melts, and then fill the cup with cold water, it’s a very different drink.

So: 20-ounce cup, put ice in it, put espresso in it, put water in it, leave some room. All drinks are subclasses of one of the three Sizes, then Iced-State. More complex drinks might be subclasses of Whipped or No Whip; Caffeinated (default) or Decaf. A ‘Venti one-pump vanilla decaf skim cappuccino’ reflects the order of its construction just as the iced americano does.

(I will here not veer off into a discussion of adjective order in general, except to say that in English, it’s nearly always opinion, size, age, shape, color, origin, material, qualifier: ugly big old lumpy round green French plastic bag.)

By having a nomenclature that not only describes a drink, but that describes the way the drink is made, Starbucks saves a second or two on every drink: maybe even more, because it cuts down on mistakes. Starbucks says they have 33 million customers per week, and if we assume that each one of them buys 1.5 drinks during the week, saving two seconds per drink saves Starbucks over 23,800 hours (or three man-years) per year.

McDonald’s, on the other hand, gets this exactly wrong: if you were trying to come up with a system that fosters frustration and confusion, you’d have a hard time doing better. Not only do they lack a clear taxonomy, they also are fighting an uphill battle with grammar.

To begin with, the menu doesn’t actually list everything they sell. They still offer a ‘two cheeseburger meal’ (i.e. two cheeseburgers, fries, and a drink), but the customer just has to know this. If you order two cheeseburgers, fries, and a drink à la carte, it’s more expensive.

Then, there’s the question of what order to ask for all of this stuff in. The McDonald’s electronic till requires the size first: that is, a large two-cheeseburger meal is a separate item from a medium two-cheeseburger meal — which what you get if no size at all is entered. In McDonalds’ without do-it-yourself soda fountains, or in the drive-thru, you then have to specify what you’d like to drink. Or maybe you first need to tell them you want extra pickles?

Based on my experience this afternoon, I think they want you to ask for ‘a large two-cheeseburger meal with extra pickles and a Coke’. Which is nuts, because the large has nothing to do with the cheeseburgers, and the fries are totally unstated. The pickles or whatever special instructions you have about the burgers are marooned out there with the drink, and grammatically the pickles relate to the meal, not the burgers. I don’t want a meal with pickles: I want a meal, one (or two, as it happens) of the constituent parts of which I would like with extra pickles.

How much simpler it would be if they recognized that grammar exists for a reason! Everyone who spoke English would already know what to ask for: ‘two cheeseburgers with extra pickles, large fries and a large Coke’. If they really wanted to discourage people from choking down their burgers dry and unaccompanied by fried potatoes, the computer could give a discount to compliant orders, without requiring the humans to screw around with contradicting everything they subconsciously know about language.

Posted by tino at 16:08 16.05.05
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I have to wonder why, when you are quick to stop frequenting other businesses that piss you off, you keep going back for more at McDonald’s. Are you and enternal optomist about McDonald’s actually improving their service or are the dining options in Front Royal so limited that you need to keep going back?

Posted by: Paul at May 17, 2005 09:23 AM

Hey Paul, apparently you don’t live in or near Front Royal. Dining and shopping options are extremely limited. Although surprisingly there are two McDonalds restaurants. I guess that makes it the premiere restaurant in town. Should you ever swing by look for the Main Street Gril - that’s some good food - a bit atypical of most offerings in town.

Posted by: Michael at May 17, 2005 10:58 PM

You can say that again. Front Royal is pretty large as small towns go, and, except in the winter, it gets a lot of tourist traffic. Yet there is very little in the way of decent food, or even fast food that’s not an ordeal.

The McDonald’s on South Street is the best of the lot, but that’s mainly by default: it has had its ups and downs as good managers come and go. Next door, the Burger King has tumbleweeds blowing through the parking lot because they’ve managed to train everyone to avoid the place at all costs; at Taco Bell, the teenage staff is, I think, getting a little too high out behind the dumpster; at Wendy’s they’re nice, and they seem to try hard, but every time I’ve ever tried to eat there it’s been a total nightmare.

Most of the non-fast-food restaurants range from actually terrible (the diner at the K-Mart) to inoffensive but fantastically bland (Jimbo’s). I have no idea what Jimbo’s does to their food to so completely remove all the flavor from it. Few of the tables there are level, too, which is far more annoying in practice than it sounds like it would be.

The overall situation is so dire that the proposed Houlihan’s to be built as part of the Blue Ridge Shadows thing will actually be an improvement.

The Mill is quite good: the only problem I have with it is that I don’t like eating at the same place all the time, which is hardly their fault.

I have not actually eaten everywhere there is to eat in Front Royal, though, so maybe I’m missing something.

Posted by: Tino at May 18, 2005 05:41 PM

Probably not exactly what you were looking for, and it’s unofficial.


Posted by: steel at May 18, 2005 10:06 PM


It was really weird to hear you describing to the pip EXACTLY what has been bugging me about McD’s for a while now, even to the part about the Two-cheeseburger meal (which is what my daughter prefers on the odd weekend we stop there).

Your description is spot on and it was nice to finally agree with you about something, even it’s junk food we don’t need.

FYI: Wendy’s, will not give you problems along this line, and actually has a wonderful way of dealing with this. You can order your meal first and THEN tell them what size it will be.

ME: I’d like a number one with cheese, everything, no onion, and a Sprite.

THEM: Would you like to Biggie Size that for sixty-nine cents more?

ME: No thank you, medium is fine.

THEM: Would you like anything else with that?

ME: Yes, I’d like an order of chicken nuggets with BBQ Sauce.

THEM: Thank you. That will be $X.XX, please pull to the first window.

No only do they do they do a nice casual upsell with no pressure (they are never crude if you say no to the Biggie Size) they are reminding you in a pleasant way that your combo comes in more than one size and this is the time to choose and STILL they made an extra sale on the chicken nuggets.

Once upon a time, Wendy’s had the slowest drive through times in my area (Greater Cincinnati). Now they are the handiest, fastest and MOST ACCURATE. I can go there when they have a line and get through faster than if I’d been the only car at Burger King or McDondalds (this is not an exaggeration) AND they will get my order right.

OK, occasionally they leave out the BBQ Sauce, but since they get me back to work on time every time, they are heartily forgiven.

Posted by: Deborah Nesbit at May 19, 2005 10:20 PM

I think Tino’s heard me bitch about my messed up iced Americanos from Starbucks. Ice first, not water.

The people at our Wendy’s are very nice, but it’s almost impossible to get all your food at the same time. No matter what you order, something will be coming along later or everything will be cold. Once, they didn’t have any forks in the entire restaurant. I wouldn’t have thought that possible.

Isn’t Wendy’s based in Ohio? I know McDonald’s within 120 miles of Oakbrook, IL were better than McDonald’s most anywhere on the east coast.

Posted by: Nicole at May 20, 2005 07:48 PM