This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES France.
"Obese," "no-life," "virgin" …These are just some of the names Internet commenters have leveled upon Serge Zaka because of his all-consuming passion for McDonald's burger packaging.
And yet, the guy who meets with us in Jacou, a suburb of Montpellier in the south of France—at the McDonald's across from his work—is a far cry from the "fat nerd" stereotype. He's twenty-eight, with three-day stubble, a cowboy hat, half-unbuttoned checkered shirt, and suspenders: A pleasing mix of Bavarian-style gentleman farmer and hipster. While we talk, he kneads a wad of Patafix adhesive putty—to focus his energy.
"I'm not your typical guy; just the way I look makes people come up to me. And then when people ask me what I do—storm-chaser and collector of McDonald's sandwich boxes—that's the jackpot." In short, you are who you are.
Zaka orders while telling us all about the new service system McDonald's has adopted. In his hand he holds a geolocation card, which will tell the employees exactly where we're seated. We settle down in the sunlight for his McDonald's go-to snack—Coke and a cigarette. That's all he likes.
His hobby was born—where else?—in America. Seven years ago, in the US for an internship, Zaka just couldn't see himself just bringing back a magnet or snow globe as a souvenir.
"I said to myself, Serge, what does America make you think of? Easy: Cowboys and burgers. So, go buy yourself a Wild West hat and keep the box from a Big Mac." The Wild West look met with the approval of his pals; the McDonald's box is now attached to his wall, postcard-style.
The fun might easily end there. But this guy's true passion is the cherry on top; or, should we say, the pickle on top of the burger: Zaka is a storm-chaser. Fascinated by lightning, he joined InfoClimat—the leading meteorology association—at age 13. He then became a brilliant student of agroclimatology, having most recently crowned his studies with a completed thesis.
Today, Zaka is a researcher for a startup that invents agricultural tools; he devises ways to make plants speak and time-based means of knowing their needs. But mostly, he backpacks around the world in search of lightning. And as it so happens—what better pretext for collecting burger boxes?
Zaka takes us back to his place, where at last he brings out his collection of packaging: 495 different burger boxes, originating from 44 different countries. "I have a database where I note everything: Country of origin, limited edition, and so on." Friends on travels around the world bring him new boxes, and people now contact him from all corners of the world to send him even more.
"To my knowledge, [there's no one like me] in the world," Zaka says with a smile. He unwraps a few of his best pieces, mostly "collectors' items": a McNutella, snagged in Italy; the McChoucroute—three sausages, a steak, and sauerkraut—from Germany; the French-Swiss McRaclette; the McArabia from Lebanon.
"McDonald's has so much imagination. They can adapt to the specifics of anyplace: Soups in Portugal, the Chicken Maharaja Mac in India—that one's a remake of the classic Big Mac, but made with chicken, of course. Then you have Quebec, where Anglicisms are prohibited, so Happy Meal becomes 'Joyeux Festin.'"
The McChoucroute (Hüttengaudi)
"The German burger is definitely one of the most surprising tastes. It's made up of three sausages and sauerkraut. Just FYI, I didn't dare taste it. Certainly too original for once! I snagged it at the Christmas market in Strasbourg. I couldn't resist crossing the Rhine to get this box, it's just so German!"
The McRoyal Fan
"One of my storm chases took me to Portugal during the last World Cup. Over there I found the McRoyal Fan, a burger for soccer fans, with a bun shaped like a ball. I've never found anything else like it. It gives me really fond memories of my visit to Porto."
The Kiwi Angus Burger
"The Kiwi Angus Burger box is definitely my favorite. In its design, you find all the most famous characteristics of New Zealand: The Kiwi, a native land bird; the famous rugby team the All Blacks, the Maori Haka dance, and their cricket team."
As Zaka observes with fascination, the burger giant offers regional products tailored to the tastes, religions and politics of each culture. His crazy collection is therefore something of a sociological study. "What interests me is all the difference within the uniformity. And honestly, that's what McDonalds—which is in 117 countries—does best. It's a capitalist enterprise, a symbol of globalization—yet it's seasoned differently for each country."
Paradoxically, Zaka is anti-junk food. He cooks a lot and "even makes jam at home." He doesn't go to his favorite fast-food joint more than four times per month. With him, everything is a matter of balance: "I often get a salad instead of fries."
While aware of the "garbage" that the manufacturers put in the recipes, Zaka thinks McDonald's gets an unfairly bad rap. After all, despite all the flak, the company "manages its production line from A to Z, which is really remarkable when you're dealing with such a big distribution. And they make a big effort to reduce their carbon footprint and buy from local producers." And above all, they offer packaging that makes Zaka's heart go pitter-pat.
The man in the cowboy hat would love to arrange an exhibition of his collection, open to the public. Though he doesn't yet have the time to organize one, he believes that beyond showcasing cultural differences, it would be enriching as an illustration of how society transforms.
"McDonald's changes their designs every 10 years. In the 90s, a super fast-food decade, you had the polystyrene boxes with lots of yellow M's. Then when people started to say it was crappy food, McDonald's came up with cardboard boxes—more eco-friendly and desirable. The new style is total 'ecological' purification for them—these days it's the only style."
Why go chasing storms—and McDonald's boxes? One reason, and one reason only: Because Serge Zaka is lovin' it.