Burger bling

I FIRST sampled Kobe beef at a swanky Japanese restaurant in London (when someone else was footing the bill). The melt-in-your-mouth meat is impossibly tender, thanks to the top-secret techniques used to rear the animals in Japan (bovine massage and a diet of beer are rumoured to be involved). Once you've tried it, munching on a slab of Aberdeen Angus is like chewing a carpet tile by comparison.

One of the most expensive meats in the world, Kobe beef is served only in the world's finest restaurants, to connoisseurs who are willing to pay at least 100 for the pleasure of tasting it. Until now, that is.

The last establishment in which you'd expect to dine on this pricey delicacy is one where the menu features such dishes as the 'Double Angry Whopper', the condiments come in plastic sachets and the furniture is fixed to the floor. However, everyone's second-favourite fast-food chain, Burger King, is going a bit upmarket, with news that it's introducing the world's most expensive cheeseburger to its menu in selected stores: an 85 Kobe beefburger topped with foie gras and blue cheese. The news comes within days of the announcement that the British couturier Bruce Oldfield – responsible for dressing some of the world's most glamorous women, including Jemima Khan, Sienna Miller and the late Princess Diana – has designed new uniforms for staff working in Burger King's chief fast-food rival McDonald's, who offer a budget cheeseburger for just 99p.

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"This is an example of what I call 'masstige' – that is, mass-market prestige where consumers are beginning to seek more from basic products like cheap clothing or fast-food," says Martin Raymond, consumer insights director at brand strategy consultants The Future Laboratory. "People now see design as a core value rather than an add-on, and companies like McDonald's are trying to keep up, particularly when faced with the problem that supermarkets now sell cheaper, better-quality food than fast-food chains."

The new McDonald's uniforms include polo shirts, baseball caps and suits in shades of brown and beige, a departure from the palette of dazzling primary colours to which McDonald's employees are used to being subjected.

"In the past, burger bars have taken the brunt of the criticism over unhealthy food, and many have increased the meat content of their burgers, lowered the fat and salt... and tried to incorporate more vegetables and salad into their offerings," says Jan Walsh of market research firm Consumer Analysis Ltd. "They can say all this to their consumers on their labels, but smarter uniforms say it even better." These moves are just the latest in an ongoing revamp that both chains, as well as a number of other fast-food restaurants, have been undergoing in recent years in an attempt to haul their image into the 21st century. From accessible wi-fi in branches to trendy furniture and revamped menus featuring fruit and salads, the chains are making moves to separate themselves from the unhealthy image of fast-food culture with which they've become associated, thanks in part to critical books and documentaries such as Fast Food Nation and Super Size Me. Last year, McDonald's posted global sales growth of 6.8 per cent year-on-year, with group turnover at a record high of 11.5 billion. In Europe, where the company has invested heavily in upgrading its restaurants, sales growth was 7.6 per cent. But is not unapologetic, calorie-laden junk exactly what we want from our fast food restaurants? Certainly, a McDonald's a day is unlikely to keep an expanding waistline at bay, but when the craving for a burger and fries grabs hold of you, fast-food restaurants tend to hit the spot. And if I'm looking to part with 80 for a meal, grab a healthy salad or enjoy an upmarket dining experience, the last place I'd go would be a fast-food chain. Can't they just leave well alone and let us enjoy the occasional helping of guilt-grub in peace?

Well, no actually, not if these fast-food emporia want to stay in business. At the turn of the century, McDonald's reported declining sales and put the brakes on its speedy pattern of expansion, opening 600 restaurants in 2003 compared with 2,000 at its peak in 1996. It became clear we'd fallen out of love with the industry's brand of cheap, tasty, fatty food served at breakneck speed in wipe-clean surroundings. Something had to be done, and so began a global re-branding effort that's still going on. "Chains like McDonald's quickly recognised that there's a growing trend for healthy eating and they re-wrote their menu accordingly, with things like salads on the menu. However, such initiatives haven't proved particularly successful because healthy food simply isn't synonymous with fast-food chains," says Helena Spicer, a leisure analyst for market research group Mintel.

"Instead, they've looked to the growth of the coffee shop market, creating an environment that is more pleasant to actually spend time in. And while I'm sure Burger King aren't expecting to sell thousands of Kobe beef burgers, introducing such luxurious limited edition products gives the impression that other products on the menu are also of a high quality."

While it's unlikely that the sumptuous burgers will fly out of the kitchen, offering a single pricey product – particularly if it boasts the title 'world's most expensive' – is a marketing gimmick that food and drink retailers have been utilising more and more over the past couple of years, from the 30 'Poulet et Champignon' Pot Noodle available in Harrods to the 50 cup of coffee made from beans which have passed through an Indonesian wild cat, served in John Lewis's instore caf at its flagship London store.

"Upgraded food seems to be happening all over the world, whether it's diamond rings served in cocktails, or $1,000 sushi rolls," says Reinier Evers, the founder of Trendwatching.com. "The fast-food chains are just trying to imitate other more upscale restaurants, who have initiated these over the top meals. They cater to a select, yet growing clientele that has loads of money to spend, recession or not. In fact, the new super-rich have so much to spend that they don't know what to spend it on any more, hence the constant upgrading and premiumisation (sic] of even the most mundane products."

With the impending threat of a recession, such a blatant display of wealth and consumption as the Kobe beef burger seems a slightly odd direction for Burger King to choose, particularly with the growing number of people shunning such conspicuous consumption anyway, owing to ethical convictions. So what does such a decision mean in light of the current wobbly financial climate?

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"When you go into a period of recession, there is a tendency for consumers to binge before they buckle down," says Martin Raymond. "People can look to 'spend now, think later' in times of financial crisis, so blowing cash on an 85 burger could be an example of that." Certainly the last thing fast-food chains need is more bad publicity. McDonald's has done its best to disassociate itself from the word 'McJob', which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as "an unstimulating, low-paid job with few prospects, esp. one created by the expansion of the service sector". By kitting out its staff in new designer uniforms, could it be trying to send the message that it treats them as more than burger-flipping cogs in a colossal machine?

"While we are investing largely in the re-imaging of McDonald's restaurants throughout Scotland and the UK, we are keen that our employees get a first-class makeover too," says Thomas Kelly, McDonald's Director of Operations for Scotland and Northern Ireland. "Giving our people this designer uniform is the missing piece in the jigsaw. This uniform, created especially for them by an internationally renowned designer, is a mark of McDonald's recognition and respect for its staff." Paul Freathy, a professor of retail studies at the University of Stirling, agrees that the branding of the staff is just as important as new menus and jazzy interiors. "Ambience and visual appeal are as key to drawing in the new customers that McDonald's are trying to attract as their re-vamped products. Classier uniforms will not only instil a bit more pride in their staff, they'll help the company to move away from the negative 'McJob' image," he says.

Will beige polo shirts be enough to drag a more discerning clientele towards those golden arches? Will Britain's foodies be queuing up at Burger King to get the must-have dish served up on a plastic tray? I'm sceptical. I'm still more likely to head to one of Scotland's fine dining restaurants for my gastronomical kicks, and, frankly, I couldn't care if the staff at McDonald's are wearing kilts. I like my fast food fast, brash, sticky and tacky, with enough change from my fiver for a packet of Skittles and the bus fare home. I'd be sad to see this sticky-floored institution facing extinction in favour of generic wannabe coffee houses.


Bruce Oldfield is just the latest in a long line of fashion designers to have created a staff uniform. Here are our favourite fashion-designer-meets-the-real-world collaborations.


Banks has offered his sartorial services to staff at a number of companies, including Barclays Bank, Woolworths, Britannia and Butlins. In 1990, he designed new uniforms for the Brownies, in the traditional yellow-and-brown colour scheme. Brownies got sweatshirts, T-shirts, shorts, culottes, a baseball cap and a sash was introduced for them to sew their badges on to. A step up from the frumpy brown cotton shirt-dress, yellow tie and woolly beret that preceded them.


Airlines are a popular area for collaboration, thanks no doubt to their glamorous connotations. Ralph Lauren, Christian Lacroix and Calvin Klein have joined the mile-high fashion club; most recently, BA asked glitzy designer Julien Macdonald to create new uniforms, previously designed by Paul Costelloe. Macdonald described Costelloe's efforts as something "that made the cabin crew look like someone's old granny queuing for a bus". He introduced his own brand of sex appeal, with tight-fitting uniforms, inset.


If your mother is the first lady of British fashion, you're going to utilise her talents where possible. When Joe Corre set up upmarket lingerie label Agent Provocateur that's exactly what he did, employing Westwood to design uniforms for his staff. The result – saucy, powder-pink mini-dresses – has become an iconic company symbol. They're not for sale, but many customers are desperate to get their hands on one. New staff often say that donning the uniform is what they looked forward to most about starting their job.


Russia's most famous fashion designer, Yudashkin designed new uniforms for Russian army generals earlier this year. However, the army was concerned that – with 25 per cent of their generals failing a fitness test – they might have difficulty fitting into their new attire. "The new military uniform should match what is inside it," a spokesman said, adding that the army will build gyms, swimming pools and sports halls in order to cut their officers down to size.

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