This article was also published in the Financial Times.
Although Steve Easterbrook is responsible for 1,200 restaurants in the UK, plus 600 more in the Republic of Ireland and Scandinavia - and three in Iceland - it proved impossible to fix up a time to meet for breakfast, lunch or dinner. But this did at least provide plenty of time to investigate his business.
Over a breakfast of egg and bacon in a roll, which cost £2.99 including coffee, at King's Cross I shared a sunny first floor room with half a dozen people considerably younger than me and a businessman in his fifties wearing a dark suit, a florid pink tie and carrying a copy of the FT.
Two days later, lunch for two by Victoria station cost £10.56 including drinks and brought me into contact with as broad a cross section of people in the UK as could be seen anywhere. There were babies and mothers, schoolchildren, construction workers, people working away on their laptops, and several tables of the elderly. This meal also provided me with a re-introduction to a quarter-pounder with cheese and fries, a meal that made me feel sick only when I noticed quite how much rubbish I had to tip from my tray into the bin.
The following day at 4pm I was back in the same place to meet Easterbrook, 41, who for the last three years has been Chief Executive Officer of McDonald's UK, whose restaurants employ 71,000 with annual sales of £1.9 billion. He was sitting in a relatively quiet corner of the basement with Nick Hindle, his Vice President of Communications, and seemed genuinely pleased to see me. 'I've been interviewed several times for the business pages but never by a restaurant writer. Thank you for tracking me down', he said before trying to turn the tables by asking me the first question. 'Everyone has an opinion of McDonald's, what's yours?'
I explained politely that I was here to ask the questions for several disparate reasons. The first was to try to understand the current background of a restaurant business that 80% of all families in the UK visit at least once a year. The second was to learn more about the fallout from what came to be known as the McLibel case in the UK and then the criticisms leveled in the book Fast Food Nation followed by the film Super Size Me. And, finally, now that it has just reported one of its most successful trading years ever in the UK, a sales increase of 10% in 2008 without any additional restaurants, what lessons there may be for other British restaurateurs.
An hour and a half later, during which I had been taken on a tour of the kitchen, introduced to the franchisee, Pru Nak, who runs another 23 McDonald's from London to Reading, and numerous members of his staff, and been offered plenty to drink but nothing to eat, I came away with not only a high opinion of Easterbrook but also an insight into just how this once-reviled company could help British restaurateurs work towards a solution of one of their major professional and social challenges.
Easterbrook is a softly-spoken accountant who initially joined the finance department of McDonald's from Price Waterhouse but became intrigued by the franchisees' passion. He decided to do what no one in the company had done hitherto and switch from manager to operator, starting at the bottom. From crewmember he became assistant manager in the Leicester Square branch and then quickly climbed this particular corporate greasy pole, including an 18-month stint in the US, before eventually reaching the top. The whole experience he described as 'quite thrilling', emphasising particularly how much he had enjoyed being part of a team that could derive so much pleasure from rather monotonously cooking a rather limited number of dishes. Easterbrook ended with a quote that would be echoed by many a chef or restaurateur worldwide, 'If you don't care about your customers then there's no point in going into this business.'
He arrived in the CEO's chair with several firm convictions: that McDonald's market share had been nibbled away by new food companies such as Pret a Manger and EAT; that they had been left behind in the 'coffee revolution'; that their customers wanted far more choice; and that they were significantly failing to communicate clearly either to the media or to their customers. He had a clear vision of what McDonald's had to become - 'the modern, progressive burger company' is his mission statement - and how to ensure it stays there, by being 'on trend rather than a trendsetter'.
This process began by distancing the businesses from America, forming much closer ties with British and Irish farmers from whom they buy the majority of their beef, chicken and pork, and responding to cultural sensitivities. 'We serve porridge at breakfast in the UK, where our turnover is now £200 million a year, and we're working on more salmon dishes in Norway and pastries in Denmark. We spent £1 million introducing Wi-Fi into all our restaurants as well as redesigning them so that they are brighter and cleaner, making them appear cooler and safer to a younger audience. And we have introduced a range of new dishes including salads and slightly more expensive burgers which are not yet significant in the sales mix but have been important in ensuring that groups who may have a vegetarian amongst them don't have a reason for not coming in. We only use the meat from chicken breasts, and across the UK our sales are now split equally between chicken and meat, coffee that is certified from the Rainforest Alliance and organic British milk.' On the reverse of the paper mat on each tray is a detailed nutritional breakdown of each dish - albeit in tiny print. The salt content still looks extremely high but Easterbrook assured me that this is now 21% lower than when he took over.
Easterbrook has set two important precedents for the entire restaurant industry. The first is an openness exemplified by the website he established, www.makeyourownmindup.co.uk, which sets out his company philosophy, accepts questions to which it promptly supplies answers, and allows really interested members of the general public, referred to as Quality Scouts, behind the scenes.
The second is to acknowledge, as Easterbrook did immediately by putting his head in his hands, quite how much waste restaurants generate and, with the exception of a few highly committed individuals, how inept the collective response has been to finding a solution to this problem. 'We've got a composting scheme operating in Dorset, an energy recycling scheme around 13 restaurants in Sheffield, and our used cooking oil is cleaned and converted into biodiesel for part of our fleet. But in the UK there is an infrastructure problem because no one will touch anything classed as "food contaminated waste" so it all has to go in the bin.'
If McDonald's, under Easterbrook, could unite the British restaurant industry and collectively solve this major environmental challenge, it would have an even bigger social impact than when it first opened in Woolwich, east London, in 1974.