The fourth of July has just passed, a celebration of American independence… and also a day on which copious amounts of beef patties are consumed in the United States. A lesser known celebration comes on May 28th, a day known as National Hamburger Day. While it may seem slightly over-the-top to some people that Americans would dedicate a day to a sandwich, the U.S.’s love of the hamburger shouldn’t be underestimated. It’s reported that 50 billion burgers are eaten a year in the U.S., which means the average American eats three burgers a week. According to one statistic, the cities of Seattle, Philadelphia and Boston are the domains of the country’s biggest burger devourers, with burgers in the U.S. accounting for 40% of all sandwiches sold. As for which fast food restaurant wins the battle of the burger, today we’ll find out, in this episode of the Infographics Show, McDonald’s vs Burger King.
Let us start by looking at one of capitalism’s most controversial success stories: McDonald’s. The story begins in San Bernardino, California, 1940, when the McDonald brothers Richard and Maurice opened their first restaurant. The brothers were quick to realize there was a niche in the restaurant business for quickly served meals. To achieve this, they created the Speedee Service System, which helped them make burgers at a rapid rate. The fast-food industry was born. It wasn’t until sales-minded Ray Kroc got in on the act in 1955 that McDonald’s expanded across the nation, with Kroc eventually buying the brothers out. He’d sold one million burgers by 1958, each costing around 15 cents. In just ten years, Kroc helped expand the McDonald’s empire to 700 branches throughout the U.S.
Burger King wasn’t far behind. After seeing the success of burgers served as fast food, the Florida business pairing of Keith Kramer and his wife’s uncle, Matthew Burns, got the idea to create an Insta-broiler. The two opened restaurants in the mid-50s called Insta-Burger Kings, and the company was later bought by franchisees James McLamore and David R. Edgerton. The name was changed to Burger King, and there were 250 Burger Kings in the U.S. by the time it was sold to the Pillsbury Company in 1967.
Head-to-head there is no doubt that in terms of quantity, McDonald’s outguns Burger King in every way. We’ll come to quality later. As of January 2017, there were 36,899 McDonald’s restaurants in over 100 countries, serving around 69 million customers daily and employing over 375,000 people. In the U.S. alone, there are over 14,000 McDonald’s restaurants, making it the second biggest chain in the U.S. It’s revenue for 2016 was over 24 billion dollars, ahead of restaurant chain giants Starbucks and Subway. Burger King was in fourth place. Subway, by the way, has the biggest global reach of all fast food giants with a total of 44,717 restaurants worldwide. McDonald’s is in second place, with Starbucks third at 25,085 global outlets, and KFC fourth at 20,604 outlets.
By comparison, Burger King has around 15,000 locations worldwide, located in 98 countries. It serves 11 million people per day globally and employs 34,248 people. Burger King’s revenue for 2016 was just over 4 billion dollars.
If we look at output, McDonald’s is the busier of the two restaurants. In total, McDonald’s has sold over 300 billion burgers, with Americans consuming over a billion pounds of beef in a year at the restaurant. This is equal to about five and half million heads of cattle. While McDonald’s doesn’t release its sales figures for each product, most pundits believe its big Mac to be its most popular burger. It’s been said about 550 million of these double-decker sandwiches are sold every year. Fries are also in demand, with an estimated 9 million pounds of McDonald’s fries sold every day. Feeding millions of people daily means maintaining huge stocks and relying on vast amounts of imports. McDonald’s is currently the biggest buyer of beef, pork, potatoes, lettuce and tomatoes in world, and the second biggest purchaser of chicken after KFC. It also sells over 1 billion cups of coffee each year, with half that amount being sold in the U.S. alone.
Again, there are no numbers released by the restaurant, but it’s thought Burger King’s’ best-selling item over the years has been its iconic Whopper. This could be changing, with reports surfacing in 2016 that the BK hotdog has become its best-selling item since its introduction. In its bid to catch up to McDonald’s, Burger King has introduced a slew of new items over the years, although not all items have gone down too well with customers. One of the latest moves to sway customers happened in New York city when one franchise applied for a liquor license. Burger King is reportedly looking to expand the ‘booze with a burger’ option in more locations. Still, Burger King’s individual restaurants are said to earn only half as much as a McDonald’s outlet. The average McDonald’s restaurant in the U.S. in 2014 grossed around $2.6 million in revenue, compared to $1.2 million in sales on average for a Burger King restaurant. Pundits put this down to more marketing dollars and faster service times, as well as McDonald’s having more choice for kids and breakfast seekers.
McDonald’s gets it right in terms of quantity, but what about quality? Opinions differ regarding who has the best burger. In 2016, Business Insider pitted McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s signature burgers up against each other, with the result favoring the Big Mac over the Whopper and Wendy’s Dave’s Single burger. The same year a Buzzfeed article stated that Burger King had much tastier burgers, calling McDonalds’ sandwiches taste-LESS. It’s horses for courses, as the saying goes, although we probably shouldn’t speak about horses when talking about burgers.
It seems in general Americans prefer burgers from other chains in spite of what sales figures show us. A 2017 Harris poll put Virginia-based burger company Five Guys Burgers and Fries in the top spot for America’s best burger, with the next four places going to In-N-Out Burger, Shake Shack, Wendy’s and Culver’s. Burger King didn’t even get into the top ten list, while McDonald’s came in seventh place.
Given all the negative press surrounding the fast food industry and its impact on health and the environment, one way to get ahead of your competitor would surely be to turn into a more reputable kind of restaurant. When we compare the Big Mac with the Whopper, the latter could be said to be the less healthy choice. The Big Mac has 530 calories and 27 grams of fat compared to 630 calories and 38 grams of fat in the Whopper.
One academic actually wrote a paper on the health differences of the two restaurants, taking into account all similar sandwich items. His conclusion was that there was “no significant difference in the amount of calories in McDonald’s than in Burger King’s sandwiches” and so consumers shouldn’t bother to stress over which restaurant is healthier. If, however, you just don’t give a damn, you might order the 770 calorie McDonald’s double quarter-pounder with cheese, or the triple-Whopper that contains a staggering 1,020 calories. Both these burgers can’t compare with Hardee’s ⅔ lb. Monster Thickburger, which contains 1,290 calories, or about half the calories a man needs each day to maintain a healthy diet. Add to that a 750-plus calorie large shake and a 500 calorie bag of fries, and it’s easy to see why burger-loving Americans are living through an obesity pandemic.
Regarding environmental issues, where should you eat if you are looking for a more ethical burger? The United Nations Environmental Programme has called beef a “climate harmful meat”, a product which basically is the foundation of these two restaurants. In terms of sustainability, a 2016 report from the Harvard Business School said McDonald’s had made “great strides” in making itself a more sustainable enterprise, while the report also said Burger King had “failed egregiously” to do just that. McDonald’s has also made more headway than Burger King in lessening antibiotic use for its meat products, according to reports.
As for who is the better employer, well, it’s thought on average McDonald’s pays a fraction more to its employees than Burger King, but it’s a negligible amount. In response to American workers demanding a 15 dollar an hour minimum wage, former McDonald’s CEO Ed Rensi was less than sympathetic, saying that the solution to such protests was to replace workers with robots. Burger King co-founder David Edgerton told Time magazine it wouldn’t happen, or if it did it would be the end of the small, cheap hamburger. We’re talking about a lot of workers too. According to McDonald’s own statistics, one in every 8 workers in the U.S. has worked in one of its restaurants at some point in time.
On a lighter note Burger King once asked McDonald’s to come together for World Peace Day and create the McWhopper. McDonald’s CEO Steve Easterbrook rebuffed the peace offer, stating, “We love the intention but think our brands could do something bigger to make a difference.”
In conclusion, it seems Burger King will remain playing catch-up, given that other than Santa Claus, Ronald McDonald is THE most recognizable fictional icon to U.S. children. So, which fast food establishment do you prefer? Let us know in the comments!