What Global Recession? Five Years of McDonald’s by the Numbers

The fast-food chain opened 3,000 new restaurants between 2007 and 2012.

McDonald's Ho Chi Minh City

Lots of international growth means lots of Big Mac sales. (Photo: bee-side(s)/Flickr)

Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

There are two in Surinam, one in Gibraltar, one on the Isle of Man, and a striking count of seven on Réunion, the French resort island off the east coast of Madagascar. In Monaco, there’s one location per each 18,789.5 residents of the city-state. And on American Samoa, where 82.6 percent of its 55,128 residents are overweight or obese, there are just two McDonald’s locations, up from the sole outpost that served the island territory in 2007.

The burger chain will add to its 34,492 outposts with a location in Ho Chi Minh City. Set to open next year, it will be Vietnam’s first McDonald’s. To mark the announcement, The Guardian crunched the McNumbers, looking at the chain’s international growth between 2007 and 2012—the years of the Great Recession and the ongoing recovery.

After opening 3,000 new restaurants in five years—years that have been rather horrendous in terms of the global economy—The Guardian’s Datablog believes it’s time for a reckoning. “A restaurant chain that has become synonymous with fast-food, the focus of anti-capitalist protests and the benchmark of corporate success may now stop and pause to think—we certainly are—where are we now?”

Physically, McDonald’s is now in 116 countries, a list that, along with Vietnam, now includes Armenia, Bosnia and Trinidad. And in established markets, the past five years have been good too; in China, the number of restaurants more than doubled, up to 1705 in 2012 from a count of 872 in 2007.  And despite signs of flagging sales for fast food in the United States, there are 284 new locations stateside, giving the U.S. an even greater lead is a global race no one is hoping to win: We were home to 14,157 McDonald’s as of last year.

Not all is rosy in the land of Ronald McDonald, however. Aside from the labor strikes and the ongoing debate over the nutritional value (or lack thereof) of the food it serves, the McNumbers aren’t all climbing. There were some negligible losses, like the shuttering of the three lone McDonald’s in Iceland and the drop from 230 to 227 locations in Sweden between 2007 and 2012. And then there’s Japan, which had the second most McDonald’s in the world five years ago and still does today—but a whole 467 outposts have closed there too, the most significant drop in any country over the past five years.

The data collected by The Guardian, which is available in a Google Doc, also includes World Health Organization obesity rates. And if you had believed that there was a strong relationship between the availability of a Big Mac and the percentage of overweight or obese, think again: “There is a correlation, but it’s not as strong as we first thought,” the story reads. The accompanying graph, which toggles between the number of people per McDonald’s branch and the WHO obesity rates, shows very little overlap at the top of both lists.

In many ways, McDonald’s’ expansion into Vietnam resembles its entrée into the Russian market back in 1990. Symbolically, serving Big Macs to the proletariat of the USSR is not unlike bringing the Golden Arches to a city named for Vietnam’s one-time Communist leader—a name that was changed, of course, after the fall of Saigon.

Like Russia (and China) before it, Vietnam is opening up its economy, and welcoming the world’s most recognizable, most thoroughly American fast-food chain, is both a symptom and a symbol of that change. In a New York Times story about the Ho Chi Minh McDonald’s, Lien Hoang writes:

For the Communist Party’s leadership, there’s more to McDonald’s arrival than just attracting foreign investment. In the story of Vietnam’s ongoing transition to capitalism, this step is about the Politburo redirecting its policies from vestigial socialism to market pragmatism.

If, like The Guardian suggests, McDonald’s is taking pause to consider its place in the greater system of global capitalism, its ability to sway yet another Politburo—not to mention the growth its experienced—has to make the powers-that-be feel rather confident about the state of affairs.

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