Fast food was a huge part of my upbringing, because my father worked for McDonald's for about 17 years.
My family has this very typical American Dream story. My parents immigrated here from the Philippines and settled in the Bay Area, at first in South San Francisco, where a lot of Filipinos immigrated, and they lived in a tiny apartment. My mom worked for IBM for many years, and my dad worked for McDonald's. He worked at a few locations, but the one I remember most was this McDonald's in San Jose off a main street called Story Road, which was near two major freeways. This was in about 1990, maybe earlier, and he was always trying to garner a lot of drive-thru sales.
Growing up, I could have McDonald's whenever I wanted, which was kind of every kid's dream back then. At that time, there wasn't this stigma that fast food was unhealthy or disgusting. I felt cool because my dad worked there. If he had to drop off something at my school, he would always bring McDonald's for me and my sister; I'd order a hamburger with extra pickles and a Sprite, a strawberry milkshake, and fries in Super Size so I could share them with all my friends at school. There was a huge chest of drawers in our garage that was filled with Happy Meal toys.
But McDonald's was still a treat. We were eating a lot of Filipino food at home, and on the weekends, we went to church every Sunday and then went out to eat. A lot of times that meant going somewhere like a Cantonese restaurant or Taco Bell. My mom worked during the day and my dad worked at night, so being in the same room together was really important to us. These trips to Taco Bell were a luxury, because my parents were buying food for eight of us—themselves and their six children. It was cheap, but it felt glamorous relative to a pot of soup and rice at home. My order was a single soft shell taco, and I loved it.
The period when my dad worked for McDonald's ended when I was in seventh grade, when he suffered a work-related injury, an aneurysm, and had to retire. My relationship with McDonald's is bittersweet as a result. My dad bent over to pick something up off the ground, and someone had left a microwave door open. He stood up, hitting his head on the door, and simultaneously let out a large cough which catalysed a brain aneurysm, a typically fatal injury, that changed my family dynamic forever. While his injury affected his cognitive ability, when he shares any McDonald's stories, he is always glittering, beaming, and remembers fond moments so viscerally and sweetly, with sensory descriptions. He's even keen on using corporate restaurant jargon (i.e, "building his team to address efficiency, consistency, and value for the customer").
When I became a professional chef as an adult, my dad and I got to share a lot of stories. His career at McDonald's became much more interesting to me after a conversation we had six years ago.
He told me a story from 1991, when he was in a sales competition with an LA branch. They would call each other hourly during peak times to check on numbers, and it became a game to beat each other's records. My dad had all of these strategies—he would try putting the golden arches up on high poles so you could see them from the freeway, or having two separate menu boards in the drive-thru line. (These things fascinate me because they're the same kind of stuff you think about when you're running a small restaurant.) His branch ended up winning the competition, and he took all the money he won and used it to bring all his managers to Vegas to see a magic show. He got them hotel rooms, bought them TVs, and took them out to eat. It was a beautiful story of generosity, but he couldn't tell my mom about it because our family could have used the money. But I think that my dad felt at the time that he was making a lot more money than he ever thought he could. He felt successful.
My dad shared this other story—the big story—in fragmented ways. He had been getting in lots of trouble with the higher-ups at McDonald's in the Bay Area because he had asked a Coca-Cola rep who he had a good relationship with for glossy images of Cokes with various McDonald's items and had them printed on lightboards to hang in his restaurant. Before, if someone wanted to order a Coke, fries, and a cheeseburger, they had to order from several different parts of the menu; he made it much easier to order these items in sets. His workers were able to put in people's orders more quickly. He told Coca-Cola that if an image of a Coke was on the board, people would just order a Coke, because it looked like that was the meal you were 'supposed to have.' And he numbered the meals one through six, so customers could order by number instead of piecemeal.
Initially, the VP of McDonalds in the Bay Area was giving him flak, because because the lightboard didn't match the look of other McDonald's. But he retaliated by saying, "Well, just look at my sales reports." He found that for each transaction—and they had hundreds per day—the lightboards would shave off about eight seconds. It added up quickly, and their sales shot up.
The higher-ups threatened to take the sign down, but eventually, a national VP got in touch and actually commended him for his work once he saw how much higher his sales were. He received awards and write-ups, and while he didn't receive any extra monetary compensation for his idea, he felt empowered and full of joy.
Eventually, some room full of McDonalds corporate marketing people decided to make the meal about 15 cents cheaper as a set, and coined it the Extra Value Meal. Now it's emulated everywhere in the fast food world: Taco Bell, In-N-Out, Wendy's. There was incentive for the guest, too, and it was game-changing for the industry.
That was the story. So I finally asked my dad… "Did you invent the Extra Value Meal?"
"Yeah," he said, laughing. "Yeah."
I said, "Well, did you get anything out of it?"
"Of course not," he said. We were talking in my grandma's hand-me-down Civic, so I realised I knew the answer already, but I had to point-blank ask him.
As a first-generation immigrant you become concerned with your own identity growing up. Maybe you're like, Well, I really love punk music, or I'm going to dress this certain way. Eventually you get to have to have these adult conversations with your parents to understand how they relate to you. Now, knowing that that was my dad's hustle when I was growing up, it all makes sense to me.
My dad was just an honest immigrant worker, working hard and giving good ideas. I can imagine that so much of the immigrant talent that went into the fast food industry has made huge contributions. Because of my dad, McDonald's has sold way more fries, way more American cheese, way more pickles (and Cokes). I don't think even he understood the significance of what he did, but he sure is proud in his humble, chuckling way. We're not cooling our feet in the ocean at Turks and Caicos thanks to the Extra Value Meal.
But now, sometimes when I come up with strategies at work or ideas for efficiency at the restaurant, I think, Maybe that came from my dad. The amount of time that I knew my dad as a career-driven manager at McDonald's was only until I was about 11. When he was working at McDonald's, I didn't feel like a poor kid. I felt like I had a fun childhood, but of course it was because my parents worked really hard. American culture was very glamorous for my parents—they experienced American occupation in the Philippines during their lifetime—and they wanted to participate in it. Even though my father was working at McDonald's, he felt he had newfound wealth that he never anticipated.
This story really means something to me because I'm a chef now. I found this out right at the point before I started working for Mission Chinese Food New York. I was training at the original San Francisco location under Danny Bowien, and on my days off I would hang with my family. When my dad shared this with me, I thought Holy fuck. I remember telling Danny that next day, and he just about lost his mind.
That probably was a good sign for him—maybe this person had something in them. After all, I was the daughter of the person who invented the Extra Value Meal.