How long does it take to eat a Big Mac? Most go for the scoff-it-in-three-minutes, regret-it-for-three-days approach. What, though, if you want to really savour that sesame bun and beef patty, take your time over your special sauce and pickles? One McDonald’s in New York has now set an upper time limit for diners (diners?) of 20 minutes.
The branch in question, in Flushing, Queens, has a problem with slow fast-food eaters. A gang of pensioners from the local Korean community has taken to spending all day at its tables, sipping coffees and splitting the odd bag of fries. Its manager, who would like to flip tables as quickly as burgers, is not happy. “It’s a McDonald’s,” she told The New York Times, “not a senior centre.” She has called 911 on the renegade OAPs four times since November. Which I suppose could be read as a sign that really enjoying a McDonald’s is kind of a crime. Each time, the police come and move the pensioners on. And each time, the wily old bunch returns. “They ordered us out,” Man Hyung Lee, 77, said. “So I left. Then I walked around the block and came right back again.”
Good on him. The customer is always right, even at McDonald’s. As soon as a patron hands cash over the counter, he or she is entitled to some kind of service and a seat at the very least. Who is McDonald’s to decree the time it takes to slurp a milkshake? “Do you think you can drink a large coffee within 20 minutes?” said David Choi, 77. “No. It’s impossible.”
For fans of David vs Goliath disputes, this is a delicious tale. The little guys with their $1 bag of chips showing up the heartless multinational giant. It also points to how cafés are more than places to refuel: they have become second homes. As book and record stores, clothes and food shops are felled by out-of-town malls and online behemoths, the high street has been colonised by Neros and Costas, interspersed with the chalkboards and brown aprons of more artisanal coffee roasters. The Queens pensioners are just a low-rent version of the “coffice” workers who set up shop with latte and laptop, measuring out their life with coffee spoons and fretting over how many almond biscotti might equate to a day’s free Wi-Fi.
In London, the next phase has already begun. The first pay-per-minute café opened in Shoreditch last week. At Ziferblat, everything is free but the time you spend there, which costs 3p a minute. Patrons can bring in food and non-alcoholic drink, or make their own teas and coffees using the machines, so long as they wash up afterwards. A few cappuccinos and a slice of toast over three hours works out far cheaper than the equivalent at a chain coffee shop.
The other option, of course, is simply to stay at home, where it doesn’t cost a penny to sit on a chair, where you know how to work the coffee machine, where you can leave your washing up until you feel like doing it and where there are no annoying people tapping on laptops. But people go to Ziferblat for the same reason that Mr Lee and pals gather at McDonald’s – for human contact. No one is really there for the food and drink (the Queens gang apparently fuels up on a free lunch at a nearby community centre before bunkering in for the afternoon), but for the price of a few McNuggets or an americano, they get to sit where they choose for a while.
Rather than vilifying them, McDonald’s and its like should embrace these loyal customers. The solution in Queens seems simple: reserve a couple of tables for the lingerers and the rest for scoffers. Treated with courtesy, the pensioners might feel more inclined to splash out on a second coffee, even a Filet-o-Fish.
In this age of super-skinny-soy sippers, fast foodies are a dying breed. If I were in charge of marketing at McDonald’s, I’d stick those Flushing loiterers on a billboard without delay.