Fast-Food Chains Toning Down to Fit In


No Golden Arches towering over all the other boxy, unimaginative buildings. No garish children’s playground with life-size Hamburglars and Mayors McCheese facing the street.

Instead, the McDonald’s along the Jericho Turnpike in this suburban Long Island town sits unobtrusively inside one of the region’s oldest, most majestic structures: the old Denton house--a 19th-century Italianate mansion, painstakingly restored and landscaped.

It took some haggling, but when the world’s best-known fast-food corporation came to New Hyde Park, it did--and has continued to do--its best to fit in with the town’s character in a way many fast-food restaurants haven’t.

“By preserving the building, it upscaled the whole area in a way that a typical square-brick McDonald’s building couldn’t do,” said George Williams, chairman of the North Hempstead Landmark Preservation Commission.

National fast-food chains, faced with more activist preservationists and more petulant responses to their arrival, have begun to tailor architecture and approaches to the communities where they choose to do business.


As fast-food moves steadily into smaller towns and new frontiers--including limited-menu restaurants in airports, schools, military bases and even Wal-Marts--the results are becoming increasingly visible.

In Freeport, Maine, McDonald’s is housed in a colonial house that closely mirrors the original structure. A Sedona, Ariz., McDonald’s is built in Southwestern adobe style. And in The Woodlands, a planned community north of Houston, a McDonald’s with a tree-shaded patio and abundant wood chips went up in 1990. St. Louis even has a McDonald’s riverboat.

This fits with the company’s new ad campaign, “My McDonald’s,” which features homespun commercials that imply the corporate giant is bending happily to meet local needs.

“McDonald’s has learned how to negotiate,” said Richard Francaviglia, a professor at the University of Texas at Arlington who studies communities and their business districts. “It’s a much more conscientious neighbor on Main Street than it once was.”

It is not only McDonald’s. Burger King built a brick building to fit in with its surroundings in Chesterfield Courthouse, Va. A Madison, Ga., Hardee’s features white clapboard siding and a gray roof appropriate to the region. And across the country, contemporary strip malls are sprouting that try to mirror old-style Main Streets.

“The days of one standardized, one-sized McDonald’s are gone,” McDonald’s corporate spokesman Chuck Ebeling said. “If a local restaurant doesn’t meet local needs, we’re not doing what we’re there to do.”

Such approaches benefit not only community relations but business too. A fast-food restaurant integrated with the place around it often does better business and stays open longer, experts say.

“It’s not a question of whether it should be there. It’s a question of how it’s done,” said Carol Truppi, director of programs for Scenic America, a nonprofit organization that studies communities.

“We need to look at how it’s integrated to maintain the stability, the vitality of the community,” she said. “If we don’t maintain the integrity of a place, we become homogeneous. People want McDonald’s. Fine, but put it in context.”

That’s often the problem with traditional fast-food outlets, especially in small communities. They interact differently with Main Street because they are often on outskirts--or at least set back from the road and surrounded by a parking lot. That makes them destinations unto themselves rather than components of a cohesive Main Street whole.

In Coudersport, Pa., the McDonald’s is unusual in a crucial way: It sits within yards of the downtown business district and is connected to it by a sidewalk, suggesting a partially pedestrian clientele.

“There seems to be some real coexistence going on between the automobile-oriented strips and the pedestrian Main Street,” said Francaviglia, who spent two decades studying small-town business districts for his book, “Main Street Revisited.”

In New Hyde Park, the McDonald’s has been so accepted and renovated that newlyweds have shot wedding pictures there and the franchise operator has been elected president of the Chamber of Commerce. The willingness to bend has helped the community accept the company.

“I think a lot of people have really come to accept it when at the time there was really a lot of tension,” said Michael Miller, a spokesman for the town of North Hempstead, where New Hyde Park is located. “It was an old house. Now it’s a local landmark.”

Ultimately, though, even if architecture and approach are both unique, the very nature of national fast food makes one standardization certain.

“It’s so pretty. I could just about live in this room,” one diner, Susan Clukey, told a local newspaper the day the Freeport, Maine, McDonald’s opened in 1984.

“But,” she added, “the Egg McMuffins taste the same.”