Seeking the sleek, fast food finds the bleak

By Gary Lloyd

The tallest golden arches this side of St. Louis feel smaller now.

Maybe it’s just that I’m older and the appeal of a cheeseburger and fries inside a red box has waned as my triglyceride levels rise. Maybe it’s that the PlayPlace, if any are left, is just too small for me to squeeze inside, shimmy down a purple tube, and crash into a pit of plastic balls.

But I think it’s more than outgrowing my own childhood experiences at McDonald’s and other fast-food restaurants. It’s this generation of youngsters missing out on the colorful experiences we had as kids. I don’t mean the menu options, which have hardly changed in decades, though the Baja Blast from Taco Bell is heaven in a plastic cup. I’ve ordered the same combo meal at Burger King since I had a head small enough to wear that golden paper crown.

I suppose, now that I am definitely older and debatably wiser, it’s about the design of fast-food restaurants. What’s up with that? Did every burger joint, chicken establishment and taco place hire the same architecture and interior design firms? They’re clones. What happened to the character? What happened to the color?

What happened to those brown tile floors, hamburger-themed stools and Nintendo 64 stations inside McDonald’s restaurants? What happened to that massive cowboy-hat-shaped neon sign outside Arby’s, the one that could light up the dark highway pavement for half a mile?

Where did the stucco exterior of Taco Bell go? What about the green and red paint just beneath a clay roof? Remember when the booths and tables inside resembled The Max in “Saved by the Bell”? Did you ever sit in that solarium section in a Wendy’s, and cook in your seat like ants under a magnifying glass, hotter than that fresh-never-frozen beef patty on your tray?

Remember eating your Hot-N-Ready pizza inside a Little Caesar’s fifteen feet from the checkout lines at K-Mart? And when the Kentucky Fried Chicken sign held up a bucket the size of a hot air balloon basket?

Man, those were the days. So much character, so much color. Now, I see renovations and rebuilds almost all end the same way – bleak. The exteriors are gray rectangles of boringness. Why did I recently confuse a McDonald’s with a Milo’s? These new prototypes bring takeout and delivery to the forefront. There are mobile order parking spots and more drive-thru lanes than I-85 in Atlanta. Dining rooms are shrinking, and I fear that childlike thrill of a fast-food experience is fast shrinking with it.

Goodbye reminiscence, hello repetition.

Maybe there is good reason for this sameness. Times change. So does taste. I mean, remember when all our houses were florally wallpapered from baseboard to ceiling in every room? It took too long for those ugly flowers to wilt under the heat of a Wagner power steamer.

I recently read about these duplicated designs in an online forum, and someone made the point that the generic look of new fast-food restaurants helps to sell the building later if enough burgers or chicken fingers aren’t sold. Maybe if they kept their character and color, like in years past, they wouldn’t have to worry about it.

Gary Lloyd is the author of six books and a contributing writer to the Cahaba Sun.

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