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Field Notes #073: My love letter to McDonald’s and effective content operations

Field Notes #073 My love letter to McDonald's and effective content operations

Anyone can cook a single meal. But to cook and deliver hundreds (or more) meals a day at rigid quality standards and with innovative recipes? That’s impressive. 

Same goes with content & SEO. 

To spell out the analogy, very few successful programs have been built on the back of a few high quality posts. 

Usually, extraordinary success in organic requires production at scale, R&D and experimentation, training, and process optimization. 

Or to put it succinctly:

If you can’t create one good post, you can’t create 100. But if you can’t create 100+, you probably won’t win in organic. 

The Impressive Scale of McDonald’s Operations

McDonald’s has served trillions of burgers. They used to count how many customers they served. They stopped at 99 billion in 1994. 

According to some sources, McDonald’s sells about 2.5 billion burgers per year. In 2022, they operated some 40,275 franchises across the world.

People use McDonald’s as an analogy for robotic, process-oriented, low quality, high scale production. But think about that scale for a minute, and realize that they did it before anyone else did it. 

Almost all innovations in fast food – kitchen efficiency, assembly line style preparation, mise en place, customer service training programs – stemmed from McDonald’s. 

And no, it’s not a Michelin-rated restaurant, but backed merely by the amount of customers served, they are clearly satisfying a massive amount of people. 

After reading Grinding it Out (Ray Kroc’s autobiography), I wanted to make a few counter-cases that we in organic growth can learn from when it comes to scaling outputs::

  • McDonald’s is high quality, actually
  • Process is necessary for quality and scale
  • The dollars are in the details
  • R&D is the secret sauce
  • Operations is an art form

McDonald’s is high quality, actually

Don’t lie: you’ve eaten (and enjoyed) McDonald’s. 

Everyone has. 

I talked to a friend with a family. His kids love McDonald’s, as I did when I was a kid. I still have fond memories of happy meals and Monopoly games. 

That same friend confided that he recently took an edible (legal in his state). He was walking home and happened to pass a McDonald’s. He stopped in, got a Big Mac, french fries, and a McFlurry. He was in heaven.

Fitness buffs love McDonald’s. They talk about getting cheap protein from the patties. 

It’s not even unhealthy, at least to the degree most people think it is. Spurlock’s documentary was mostly debunked – no one can replicate the results,, he was a heavy alcohol consumer (which he didn’t mention at first) which is a confounding variable, and the premise was flawed (no one eats three supersized meals per day). 

And you know what? It tastes pretty good. Not “blow your mind, write to your friends” good, but like “wow – that’s not a bad burger” good. 

But back to quality – this conversation devolves into talking past one another, comparing apples to oranges, and we’re forgetting that quality depends on the specifications and desired outcomes. 

What you wear to your wedding is higher “quality” in some sense than the Levis jeans you wear to a cookout. Or rather, it’s more special. But if you can’t wear your wedding suit regularly, how much utility does it have? You can wear Levis jeans every day, in many different circumstances. 

So what’s my take? BOTH are high quality, but in different circumstances. 

If your aim is to rank for a piece of content in search, drive conversions, and match user intent, and you write a glorious 10,000 word essay of contrarian thought leadership, most people would think your piece was higher quality. But it didn’t hit specs. It didn’t solve for user intent, and it didn’t answer the question implicit in the query. So to me, in that circumstance, it actually wasn’t high quality. 

Opposite is true, too: you want to change hearts and minds but write a templated glossary SEO piece aimed at 101-level beginners? Not high quality. 

I’d say HubSpot takes a McDonald’s approach to content, and it’s certainly not what I consume daily. But I also understand that, every month, there are millions of marketers who use the site and its resources to introduce themselves to topics like inbound marketing. 

And having worked in the kitchen there, I’m deeply impressed with their operations and admire the machine they’ve built. 

Quality is not universal. However, it is subjective, in the sense that every consumer has different tastes. 

But as a creator, producer, supplier, one must define quality standards to be as objective as possible. 

Quality, as I previously wrote, is a word that often conflates production standards with consumer judgements. 

As a producer, you need to set objective quality standards that are predictive of consumer satisfaction and positive business outcomes. It’s clear to me that McDonald’s nails this. 

Process is necessary for quality and scale

“I put the hamburger on the assembly line,” said Kroc, 56, president of a chain that now sells 100 million 15-cent hamburgers a year.”

This sentence from Grinding it Out describes it all (and I love how crisp and clean “100 million 15-cent hamburgers a year” sounds). 

Everyone knows McDonald’s for their french fries, and the item was a unique selling proposition even in the early days. Kroc once tried to replicate the process of blanching french fries and failed. They came out soggy and mushy, like competitors’ fries.

So they reverse-engineered the winning formula and turned it into a process to ensure homogenous outcomes: 

“We worked it out so the blanching was done on a regular production-line basis. We’d take two baskets at a time and blanch them for three minutes. They would be a rather unappealing gray color when they came out at that point, but the cooling and draining would allow some oil to penetrate into the body of the potato. The chemistry of this tinge of oil in the starch of the morsel when it was dumped back to fry for another full minute created a marvelous taste. They’d emerge for the second time golden, glowing, and appealing.”

Eventually, they used technology to fine tune this. 

Marketer, ask yourself – can I describe or visualize our content production system? How does a piece of content go from idea to draft to published and promoted? 

As Peep Laja once said, “If you can’t describe what you’re doing as a process, you don’t know what you’re doing.”

The dollars are in the details

It’s abundantly clear to me after reading Kroc’s book that McDonald’s cares about the details more than most.

Take, for example, this paragraph describing a french fry:

“Now, to most people, a french-fried potato is a pretty uninspiring object. It’s fodder, something to kill time chewing between bites of hamburger and swallows of milk shake. That’s your ordinary french fry. The McDonald’s french fry was in an entirely different league. They lavished attention on it. I didn’t know it then, but one day I would, too. The french fry would become almost sacrosanct for me, its preparation a ritual to be followed religiously. “

Or this one describing a hamburger bun:

“Yet, is it any more unusual to find grace in the texture and softly curved silhouette of a bun than to reflect lovingly on the hackles of a favorite fishing fly? Or the arrangement of textures and colors in a butterfly’s wing? Not if you are a McDonald’s man. Not if you view the bun as an essential material in the art of serving a great many meals fast.”

This guy LOVED the details. Geeked out over them. Obsessed over the most minute, seemingly unimportant aspects of every ingredient. 

Just because you’re process-oriented doesn’t mean you gloss over the details, because the details, on the margin, often make the difference when scale is applied. 

R&D is the secret sauce

Process, left unquestioned and without investment in R&D, is insufficient and likely to result in mediocrity. R&D, then, is the secret sauce. 

McDonald’s deeply invested in R&D, both to improve their efficiency and scale, but also to innovate on menu items, regional marketing, the quality of their food, and pretty much everything else. 

Here, Kroc describes two key ingredients to scaling processes – continuing education and development, and research and development:

“Our aim, of course, was to ensure repeat business based on the system’s reputation rather than on the quality of a single store or operator. This would require a continuing program of educating and assisting operators and a constant review of their performance. It would also require a full-time program of research and development. I knew in my bones that the key to uniformity would be in our ability to provide techniques of preparation that operators would accept because they were superior”

It’s important to note that process, itself, is never finished and is subject to examination and experimentation. 

And of course, McDonald’s kept test kitchens, experimental labs, and creative facilities to drive novel menu items, recipes, marketing campaigns, and technology: 

“I keep a number of experimental menu additions in the works all the time. Some of them now being tested in selected stores may find their way into general use. We have a complete test kitchen and experimental lab on my ranch, where all of our products are tested; this is in addition to the creative facility in Oak Brook.”

Operations is an art form

Operations, an upper layer that also includes processes, is an art form. 

It requires systems thinking, experimentation, measurement, and constant refinement. To do operations effectively, you have to look for the bottlenecks in a system, or leverage points, and alter other parts of the system to ease those bottlenecks. 

Read this paragraph describing augmentations to the paper McDonald’s used and how they stacked burgers:

“There was a kind of paper that was exactly right, he felt, and he tested and tested until he found out what it was. It had to have enough wax on it so that the patty would pop off without sticking when you slapped it onto the griddle. But it couldn’t be too stiff or the patties would slide and refuse to stack up. There also was a science in stacking patties. If you made the stack too high, the ones on the bottom would be misshapen and dried out. So we arrived at the optimum stack, and that determined the height of our meat suppliers’ packages. The purpose of all these refinements, and we never lost sight of it, was to make our griddle man’s job easier to do quickly and well. All the other considerations of cost cutting, inventory control, and so forth were important to be sure, but they were secondary to the critical detail of what happened there at that smoking griddle. This was the vital passage in our assembly line, and the product had to flow through it smoothly or the whole plant would falter.

It wasn’t just in the vein of “make costs lower.” Rather, these tweaks had a purpose: to make the boat go faster. To ease the job of the “griddle man.”

Working on high scale organic programs, I can tell you that this is the type of thinking I’ve come to admire, because it’s rare and is truly effective in driving results. 


The point is, the scale at which McDonald’s produces food THAT PEOPLE WANT at perfect quality standardization is miraculous. I can’t even fathom what it takes to build operations like that. Anyone who runs a business can tell you how difficult it is, let alone running some 40,000 distinct franchises in the world. 

There’s room in the world for local hole-in-the-wall spots, Michelin star restaurants, franchises, and fast food. 

And innovation isn’t only for the artisans. Innovation can be applied to operations, processes, business models, and more, and sometimes the result is a beautiful piece of storytelling. And sometimes it’s a Shamrock Shake

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Alex Birkett

Alex is a co-founder of Omniscient Digital. He loves experimentation, building things, and adventurous sports (scuba diving, skiing, and jiu jitsu primarily). He lives in Austin, Texas with his dog Biscuit.