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McPopular: How Does McDonald's Special Sauce Fare Against European Competitors?

Updated on May 1, 2010

Big Mac

Heidi Klum photo by Fernando Estel

McDonald's in Bremen

A Former Ex-Pat Chews The Fat About Who Wins The Fast Food Game In Germany

My second week in Hamburg, Germany I saw the red H with blue stars for the first time. It was a little different than the golden M that dotted the landscape of my suburban American childhood. The novelty of a foreign fast food franchise excited me. "What's that? Germany's version of McDonald's?” I asked my German fiancé. The opportunity to discover a new hamburger in Hamburg of all places made me a bit giddy.

"Nein. That is Hesburger." My fiancé grimaced while emphasizing the S in Hesburger- like he was on the verge of spitting. (People familiar only with Hans and Franz of SNL fame might think that is how a German usually enunciates his consonants-but having been in the country for two weeks I knew better). We stopped and watched as a man and a woman ate Hesburgers over a creamsicle colored outdoor bar table. The cheesburgers they ate had the same lifeless pallor that Mickey Dees' did. Looked like they had the same crinkly paper and processed cheeze too.

"So why don't you like to eat there?"

"It's not McDonald's," he said as we continued our walk toward the Hamburg Rathaus.


McDonald's has made its culinary and cultural stamp on Europe much like it has the rest of the world. Big, bold, brash and fast; many Europeans would even say that McDonald's typifies American culture.

In Germany there are plenty of examples of McDonald's ubiquitousness. As a young girl in high school I remember the fall of the Berlin wall and news reports of newly freed East Germany's embrace of democracy and the no-relationship-to-Bertolt Brecht Mac. In 2007 Berlin was also the site of an outraged protest against capitalistic McDonald's in the Bohemian Kreuzberg district. Open up a newspaper or magazine and you might see Heidi Klum schilling for the big M with her pert, Teutonic smile. Even though Burger King, Subway, and Kentucky Fried Chicken have also been setting up shop in Germany, McDonalds is still the symbol for all things American. Most Germans I've known are ambivalent about the fast food giants' role in their food culture-similar to how they feel about the US in general.

So With All the Golden Arches Angst, Why Don't Germans Eat at Hesburger instead of McDonald's?

My then- fiancé-now-husband was right: Hesburger was not German but a Finnish import. In fact, Hesburger is one of the most successful burger ventures in Finland and can be found throughout the Baltic States. According to their website the chain's 2007 sales topped at 150 million Euros and they employ over 4,000 people. McDonald's earnings ranged in the billions that same year. Not a bad showing for the considerably smaller fast food franchise.

So why, whenever Hesburger is mentioned, do the Germans I know crinkle their faces in disgust?

My husband says it is a matter of taste. He rates Hesburger in taste and quality far below McDonald's. "They put too much of their awful sauce on the burgers. It's just... (Shudders)."

Writer Justin Henry reviewed Hesburger in the blog A Hamburger Today saying:

"The megahamburger was considerably wider than a Big Mac and included lettuce, mayonnaise, pickles, tomatoes, and cheese. The noticeably high quality of these toppings helped mask the two thin and tasteless beef patties that made up the rest of the sandwich, apparently about all you can expect to get in a €7.3 (about US$9.30) fast-food meal...

Overall, Hesburger felt like one step up in food quality and service from McDonald's, but at a rather steep price. Sure, the Scandinavian-designed interior with wood tables and chairs was nice, but I'm not sure I'm ready to pay almost US$10 for a fast food meal. Finns seem to disagree, as this place was packed even at 3 a.m. on a subsequent visit (there was even a bouncer on hand)."

Another food franchise that was born and breaded in Europe is Nordsee, a kind of German Skippers with a salty, Northern German edge: breaded, deep fried fish is served inside a traditional German bun known as Broetchen. Nordsee is found in both Germany and Britain with possibility of further expansion now that Kamps has acquired the unique fast fish restaurant. Having dined at Nordsee I can say that it is an extraordinarily clean and bright place with a much higher quality product than the fare served in most fast food chains in the USA. But it is also a bit more spendy than a McDonald's dollar menu, especially if you want a full meal.

So without further ado I will now throw down the top 6 reasons I think McDonald's definitely has the special sauce that makes it the fast food leader in Europe:

1. Specialization

McDonald's always tries to cater to the tastes of the countries it serves. In Hamburg, for example, I encountered a McBavarian which was a McDonald’s version of a Wiener schnitzel; sandwiched between two sesame seed buns, of course.

2. Iconic

Love or hate America-McDonald's is still the symbol of globalization and democracy for many countries.

3. Cheap

Need I say more?

4. Taste

Personally I would disagree with 4. I have always found McDonald's cloying and the fries are nothing but salty, hollowed out grease sticks. My husband, on the other hand, likes a mean McRib. After polishing if a large order of grease fries and a Coke he tells me, "There it is again-that good old bad old taste."

5. Unique

Yes. You read that right. McDonald's is a unique experience for many people in European countries. Why do I say this? Let’s take Germany as an example. In Germany either you dine with candles and white tablecloths, or you get a bite to eat at the local Imbiss or Stehcafe. Imbiss' and Stehcafes are noted for their fast service and greasy food-but not so much for their environment. These fast food islands are usually found in busy cities and only have bar tables to stand and eat over-hence the name "stand cafe." McDonald's lets you sit down and provides services that the local Imbiss doesn't have, like a play place for the kiddos and bathrooms.

Perhaps other fast food restaurants originating in Europe have similar amenities, but they are only copycats of the big M.

6. Advertising

McDonald's is still the granddaddy of fast food culture and has the advertising dollars to back it up. Also, the other franchises don't have the soporific likes of Ronald McDonald or the beatific smile of Heidi Klum at their disposal.

Can European Fast Food Franchises Really Compete?

Now that I have laid out the reasons I think McDonald's still beats out their European competitors do I agree that this should be so? No. In my opinion it is a bit of a shame that McDonald's dominates in all cultures and climes. Much like when I went to the shopping district in Hamburg for the first time and realized the shops were playing American music. I was in Germany! Why should I be listening to Brittany Spears in Germany?

If I had my druthers there would only be fast food restaurants that served two all vegan sun burgers, sauce sugar free, organic lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a whole grain, bio-dynamic, sesame seed bun. Actually, I despise fast food culture but I'll leave that to another hub.

In my opinion, if the fast food chains in Europe want to be able to compete with McDonald's they will need to take the fast food game to a whole 'nother level. Perhaps Hesburger could one day breach the shores of the USA if they got a mascot like Ronald McDonald. Maybe a friendly Viking with a sappy grin and a huge belly? Oh, guess that would be copyright infringement since Asterix and Obelix already exist. A big fish then? You say that has already been done too? Hmmm...guess I'll have to think on it.

Hesburger in Finland



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    • profile image


      8 years ago

      I love Hesburger burgers! It's the sauce that makes it better than McDonald's. In fact, I found this page looking to order the Hesburger sauce now that I am back in Toronto.

    • denise.earwen profile image


      9 years ago from Stockholm Sweden

      Well dear, I agree with eating local!!! I SO miss the food in Germany-especially all of the cheap bio-dynamic organic produce. Tegut was my favorite grocery store (I KNOW you know what I'm talkin' about).

    • globalcoffeegrind profile image


      9 years ago

      You've got a great voice here. Nice writing! I really want try a McBavarian now ;), even though I'm not a fan of fast food. I love Bavarian/Austrian wurts anyway, so sampling one from McDonald's wouldn't hurt. Great work.

    • facebookchat profile image


      9 years ago from Shanghai, China

      I used to love McDonald's, but now it makes me feel a bit sick when I think about it. The sauce is good though!

    • profile image

      A.M. Gwynn 

      10 years ago

      This is a gem of a hub. Oh, the special sauce! It hurts thinking about it. The last time I ate there was 11 years ago. I made a vow. ;0

    • K.D. Clement profile imageAUTHOR

      K.D. Clement 

      10 years ago from USA

      I know. Everywhere you look these days it seems there is a golden arch-kind of like a modern plague. ;-)

    • JamaGenee profile image

      Joanna McKenna 

      10 years ago from Central Oklahoma

      How sad for America that Mickey Dee's has planted itself in every nook and cranny in the rest of the world. I'm still ticked that there's a McD's in one of the ancient outer buildings of the Tower of London. Puhleease...

    • K.D. Clement profile imageAUTHOR

      K.D. Clement 

      10 years ago from USA

      Nurenburg Brats are the best!

      We lived in a little wine village near Wuerzburg only two years ago-not too far away in Bamberg (they closed down the Air Force and Army base when we lived there.) My husband was working as a Waldorf teacher in Wuerzburg at the time. Miss the wine country-so pretty in the fall and late spring.

      I agree with eating local!!! I SO miss the food in Germany-especially all of the cheap bio-dynamic organic produce. Tegut was my favorite grocery store (I KNOW you know what I'm talkin' about).

      Thanks so much for the comment.

    • trooper22 profile image


      10 years ago from Chicago

      Great post. I was stationed in Germany for a long time and avoided Micky D's and other "American" fast food joints like the plauge, but I am an exception compared to my comrades. Most of the U.S. Soldiers I was stationed with would only eat at these places.

      My first tour in Germany was in Bamberg which is a profoundly historic city in Bavaria. The food there is excellent and reasonably priced. If I wanted something fast there was always the Brautwurst venders in the square that served the best brats I have ever tasted. These brats were served on fresh buns with gelb sepf, (Yellow mustard).

      If I had time and enough cash, I would hit any of the many resturants in the town. The only time I ate anything "American" was in the Mess Hall on the kaserne, and then only between paydays when I was broke.

      On other tours I ended up in Baumholder in the South West which is in Rheinlandpfaltz near the French, and Belguim border. Again, I ate on the economy and not on post or in anything that resembled "American" food. YUCK!

      Why people go to another country only to seek out the same food that they get at home is beyond my understanding. EAT LOCAL )

      To this day I have yet to find a brat that compares with those sold in Nurenburg, or Bamberg. I am tempted to book a flight just to catch a Red and Black game at the Stadium in Nurenburg just so I can pig out on the brats! )

    • K.D. Clement profile imageAUTHOR

      K.D. Clement 

      10 years ago from USA

      Thanks Kari.

    • k@ri profile image

      Kari Poulsen 

      10 years ago from Ohio

      Very interesting hub! I like the way you compare and contrast European fast food places with McDonald's.

    • K.D. Clement profile imageAUTHOR

      K.D. Clement 

      10 years ago from USA


      Interesting name. You are welcome. I saw your question and began laughing when I thought about Germany and fast food. It was a pleasure to write.

    • roastedpinebark profile image


      10 years ago from Iowa

      Wow, K.D. Clement, I coudn't of asked for a better response to the question. Thanks for all the great information and rating scale!

    • K.D. Clement profile imageAUTHOR

      K.D. Clement 

      10 years ago from USA

      Chris A.- Well if you must you must! :-)) Thanks for stopping by.

      GeneriqueMedia- Thank you for your comments. I never have seen a White Castle but I have heard of them. I think it is a valid worry about the safety of food in fast food restaurants. After working as a waitress in several restaurants when I was young I am leery of most food, fast or otherwise, served to the public. The stories I could tell...(or hub?)

      cindyvine- Thank you. I'm with you on Wendy's. I felt sorry for my poor husband because he only knew McDonald's and Burger King. At least at Wendy's I know I can order a baked potato with chives.

      sunforged--interesting psuedonym. Good point about the meat. Thanks for commenting.

      C.C.--Do you think the fries are different because they use vegetable oil instead of palm? Love your avatar btw. I dig the Romantic period of literature (German and English). William Blake is one of my favorite poets of all time. Nothing like a little Songs of Innocence! ;-)

    • profile image

      C. C. Riter 

      10 years ago

      Ahhh, those golden arches. they will be around for quite a while yet. I enjoy it sometimes, the nostalgia factor comes into play. Me as a youth and hamburgers for 15 cents. My oldest son's birthday took place there and it is there that he took off running, not walking. He had never walked until that day. It's a comfort food I reckon. But the fries are not what they were in former years, they removed the fat. the coffee now is superb. thanks for the great hub and I envy your travels.

    • sunforged profile image


      10 years ago from

      Well written and composed, welcome to hubs.

      Although,I never eat McDonalds and dont wish to praise them, one of the reasons there meat is probably better i sthat they have massive buying power and purchase the best quality (contrary to what we would think)

    • cindyvine profile image

      Cindy Vine 

      10 years ago from Cape Town

      I have to say, I prefer Wendys to big Mac, but regardless, I enjoyed reading the hub, well done!

    • GeneriqueMedia profile image


      10 years ago from Earth

      Totally AWESOME Hub! Lots of rich media and well written text. a historical note, White Castle was the one to legitimize the hamburger. The hamburger is a distinctly american food. Tis why McDonalds does well all over the globe--there's just nothing else like it in other countries.

      People used to associate hamburgers with poor food. With blue collar jobs. They even raised heck about it being "safe" to eat.



    • Cris A profile image

      Cris A 

      10 years ago from Manila, Philippines

      Great hub! I appreciate the research that went into this. I must become a fan! :D

    • K.D. Clement profile imageAUTHOR

      K.D. Clement 

      10 years ago from USA

      Thanks Lonely Hubber. ;-)

    • profile image

      The Lonely Hubber 

      10 years ago

      Hi K.D.

      Indeed this is a very entertaining read. An insight into a culture through a hamburger. Genius! :)

    • K.D. Clement profile imageAUTHOR

      K.D. Clement 

      10 years ago from USA

      Thanks Whikat!

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      Very Interesting, Nice layout. Welcome to Hub pages.

    • K.D. Clement profile imageAUTHOR

      K.D. Clement 

      10 years ago from USA

      Glad that it was entertaining! :-) Thanks for commenting.

    • Dame Scribe profile image

      Dame Scribe 

      10 years ago from Canada

      It is always nice to hear about another culture and country even if it about fast food, lol :) thank you for sharing!


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