McDonald's (麦当劳 Maidanglao), has been attracting Chinese middle-class members and young adults who enjoy the scent of American culture. New designs in some of China's McDonald's branches are making the chain a stylish adult location, a step which reinforces the differences in the way this fast-food chain is treated in China and in the west.

Hard plastic chairs which were made to urge the customers to eat fast, or even better, take-away; a simple internal design that might attract only kids and bored teens; promoting greasy American fast-food as the flagship menu choices. These are the characteristics of most McDonald branches in the West, and perhaps on the globe, but in China the McDonald's experience is taking a big turn.

It is true, McDonald's has shown an impressive adapting capability in many locations worldwide, not only China, where the menu is expanded and changed to suit the specific popular culinary needs of different crowds, in different locations and different times, including the relatively new McCafe which exists in Europe already. Though the question is to what extent the network is willing to change its costume and whether design makeover is included in such adaptation process.

In China, until recently, it seemed there was no need for McDonald's to make a big facelift. Unlike the West, where McDonald's is regarded as a cheap meal, in China, as there are much cheaper dining options, McDonald's has attracted mostly middle-class customers (the same is true for the status of the chain in other not-so-developed countries, in places such as South America, mid-Asia, etc). Moreover, as a symbol of American culture, in food, design and dining style, many Chinese enjoy sensing this Western-American-'modern' ambiance and choose a McDonalds' meal. This could be said about other fast-food chains as well (see here another article about Pizza Hut in China).

The brains behind McDonald's China have obviously figured this advantage earlier on and made some adaptations, for example promoting comfortable dining areas while not spreading the Mc-Drive takeaway service, since in China people enjoy the sitting experience as a part of expressing their 'Western aspirations'. Still, no major change or new investments were needed, as the simple US American fast food system was enough to attract numerous mid-class Chinese.

Nowadays, as big portions of the Chinese society are becoming wealthier, managers of McDonald's China face two options: Keeping the branches as they are, which will probably lead to the result that members of the middle and higher classes would prefer 'classier' options; or, expanding the chain's menu and upgrading its appearance to attract also Chinese with a more 'sophisticated' taste.

No revolutions in the McDonald's system are taking place, but some experiments are initiated, renovating some of the urban branches of the chain, transforming them to stylish cafés. Big-Mac fans can find their familiar options for the same price as elsewhere, though more options are provided.

Taking a look at this renovation, it can be seen that more dark colors are used, more comfortable seats are provided, chill-out music is played constantly, and extensive café options are offered, perhaps intending to scratch some customers off Starbucks, which is also doing quite good in China.

Now it is time to wait and see what the results of this experiment are. Will the café style make such branches less attractive to family and kids and more adult-oriented? Will the comfortable dining area attract 'parasites' who order a small snack and then remain seated throughout the day? Or will such branches be packed by both burgers and café lovers leading to higher profits? Another option is that the variety in McDonalds' styles within a certain district could lead to an overall improvement in the income and status of the chain.

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 gedc2728_544  A new McDonald's style in Shandong province.
photos by gil hizi

This article is by no means an advertisement to a fast-food chain and rather a reflection of some elements in the contemporary Chinese society, shown through the actions taken by the McDonald's enterprise. The author is actually a vegetarian and would prefer to spend his dining money elsewhere.