Some suggestions for McDonald's to allow Southwesterners to have it our way

McDonald's in Europe--a phenomenon, according to some, nearly as horrific as al-Qaida in Mesopotamia--is undergoing a makeover. Several makeovers, in fact.

Unlike their American cousins, Europeans are discriminating when it comes to food, and McDonald's franchises overseas are dishing up changes to suit regional tastes, according to a New York Times story earlier this year.

In London, for example, one can indulge in a cappuccino at the local McDonald's, or start the day there with a hot bowl of porridge. Soup is on the menu in Portugal, and the burgers in France come with, as expected, French cheeses.

But the changes are not limited to the food. Designer chairs, new colors and free Internet access are all part of the chain's efforts to lure Europeans to a more Euro-friendly Mickey D's. The makeovers are bringing results: Sales increased 15 percent at Europe's restaurants during the first half of this year, according to reports.

So why not here? A groundswell of consumer demand may just encourage McDonald's to be more responsive to local tastes. Offering alternatives to generic, fatty, artery-clogging burgers, chicken and fries would likely result in increased American sales, too, and a designer facelift would make the fast-food chain a more attractive option.

Tucson's franchises could start by substituting Southwestern colors for the grossly inappropriate red-and-yellow color scheme more suitable for a preschool than a restaurant. Turquoise and silver, or a muted shade of rose could do the trick. And forget those arches: How about replacing them with a faux saguaro or two?

As for the interior, all that ugly plastic seating has got to go. Mission-style benches made of a dark wood offer a handsome and more comfortable alternative. Tasteful archways--recalling the old, tacky arches while offering a nod to corporate headquarters--might separate several small, intimate dining areas from the order counter, itself transformed by the installation of brightly patterned Mexican tile.

In keeping with the Southwestern makeover, Ronald McDonald would retire to the old clown's home and be replaced by Reynaldo the Vaquero. Reynaldo, of course, must be bilingual.

Employees would shed their drab, uninspired uniforms and replace them with colorful Western garb such as jeans, bandanas, boots and shirts with those snazzy, silver-tone snaps. Cowboy hats: optional.

With the ambience taken care of, it's time to move on to the food. In order to accommodate die-hard traditionalists, the original McDonald's menu would be available with regional touches added as options.

Besides the ho-hum lettuce, tomato and onion, customers could order their burgers with diced green chilies. And if the French can have their cheese, why not demand Mexican cheese with jalapeños as a spicy alternative to the bland, pale stuff we're used to getting on our cheeseburgers? Tired of ketchup? How about topping that meat with a dollop of salsa picante, or those fries with savory chili?

In a daring menu overhaul, the chain would add a "McDonald's Mexican Meld" section where customers could choose from regional dishes with distinctive fast-food touches. Carne asada, for example, might be repackaged as "McDonald's Savory Chunks" and served on a sesame-seed bun.

Side dishes may include refried beans or Spanish rice, and horchata would both enliven the drink options and provide relief from the usual carbonated swill. For dessert, flan and empanadas would round out the menu.

While all these changes are suitable for the Southwest, franchises in other parts of the country could highlight their distinctiveness by keeping regional characteristics in mind as they embark on makeovers. The Pacific Northwest and New England, for instance, might consider nautical themes. Instead of Reynaldo the Vaquero, they could employ Mickey the Mariner as mascot. As for the Midwest, well, McDonald's won't have to make any alterations whatsoever. The chain is a veritable testament to the flavors and fixtures of mid-America. Which explains why, despite the best-intentioned makeover, there are at least a couple of items we'll never see at any McDonald's.

Brioche and zabaglione are not going to make it onto any McDonald's menu anywhere in the country, no matter how loudly New Yorkers claim entitlement on the basis of genetic sophistication. But since trans-fats and high-fructose corn syrup are so much healthier than butter and eggs (and much easier to pronounce), why should they?

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