Stupid Question ™
Oct. 4, 2001
By John Ruch
Q: How many hamburgers has McDonald’s sold? How come they don’t put the number on their sign anymore? And do Big Macs count as two?
A: McDonald’s has probably sold more than 100 billion hamburgers in its 53 years. But an exact number is hard to come by. For one thing, those numbers on the signs were always just educated guesses.
And in 1994, McDonald’s “made a conscious decision to stop counting,” according to spokesperson Walt Riker.
Putting a running tally of hamburger sales on its storefront advertising was a publicity device that dated to the beginning of McDonald’s as we know it. The fast-food company started in 1948 as a California chain. Ray Kroc, the guy who sold the McDonald brothers their milkshake mixers, convinced them to franchise to him.
Kroc, who eventually bought out the brothers and became a corporate kingpin, opened his first McDonald’s franchise in 1955 in Des Plaines, Illinois. The restaurant featured a road sign that proudly announced, “1 Million Served” (1 million hamburgers, that is).
As McDonald’s multiplied and sales skyrocketed, restaurant signs were regularly updated. By 1958, it was 100 million. By 1961, 500 million.
The 1 billion mark, reached in 1963, was a big deal, noted in neon signs in front of every McDonald’s restaurant. The supposed 1 billionth burger was served by Kroc himself on national TV.
For much of the ’60s, the signs just said, “Billions Served,” then went specific again when the 5 billion mark was hit in 1969. It was 10 billion in 1972, 25 billion in 1978, 50 billion in 1984. In the late 1980s, McDonald’s was regularly selling 5 billion hamburgers a year; to avoid frequent updates, the signs were frozen in 1986 to read, “More Than 60 Billion Served.”
Riker said these numbers were projections based on how much beef was shipped to each restaurant. It was counted by hamburger patty—so the Big Mac, which contains two patties, indeed counted as two. (It hit the market in 1968.)
Today, the signs are all frozen in a generic, “Billions and Billions Served” or “More Than 99 Billion Served.” Riker said McDonald’s hasn’t counted since 1994 (at least not for public information) and never will again.
Why not? Riker would only say that the company wanted to “focus on other things.” (He added that constant sign updates were also a pain.)
It’s easy to see why. The signs once highlighted McDonald’s strongest selling point: a comfortably unchallenging, unchanging menu. But today, it may read as quantity over quality, and Americans have become much more interested in food nutrition and variety.
In 1996, the Arch Deluxe “adult” burger flopped. A victorious 1994-1997 libel suit against British activists backfired when the judge blasted the company for marketing to children, underpaying employees and abetting animal cruelty.
While still profitable, the company cut nearly 25 percent of its headquarters staff in 1998, and a 1999 report indicates it now sells only about 1 billion burgers a year.