George Will

OAK BROOK, Ill. -- To gauge this pell-mell nation's velocity, visit here with Jim Skinner, CEO of a company on pace to have a net income for 2007 of $3.46 billion, up 12.7 percent, on revenues of almost $23 billion. The evolution of McDonald's mirrors that of the nation in which it serves 27 million customers a day.

Americans commonly say this or that distinction is "as clear as night and day." Americans, ricocheting around the country around the clock, are erasing the distinction between night and day. Breakfast, the meal most apt to be eaten at home, now accounts for more than 25 percent of U.S. business for McDonald's. More than 90 percent of its restaurants have extended hours -- beyond the regular 6 a.m. through 10 p.m. -- and almost 35 percent are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, up from less than 10 percent just five years ago.

America is in the third era since its meals began to mirror its mobility. First came the Steak 'n Shake Era. That restaurant chain began downstate in 1934, in the perfectly named town of Normal, Ill., as Americans were getting used to eating out. They were leery of food that came from a kitchen they could not see, so Steak 'n Shake put its grills behind glass in full view of the dining area and adopted the slogan "In sight it must be right."

In 1955, when Ray Kroc launched the McDonald's Era, Americans were doing what Dinah Shore urged them to do, seeing the USA in their Chevrolets, seeking novel experiences -- but not in food. When they got out of their cars for nourishment, they wanted no surprises. Hence the rise of franchising -- the same food here, there and, eventually, everywhere.

Now we are in the Snack Wrap Era. Last year McDonald's started selling chicken and other stuff wrapped in tortillas. This product was a response to consumer appetites for something to eat between meals and with one hand on the steering wheel. More and more Americans do not want to get out of their cars: Most of America's McDonald's have drive-through windows, and most of these restaurants sell most of their food through those windows.

McDonald's exemplifies the role of small businesses in Americans' upward mobility. The company is largely a confederation of small businesses: 85 percent of its U.S. restaurants -- average annual sales, $2.2 million -- are owned by franchisees. McDonald's has made more millionaires, and especially black and Hispanic millionaires, than any other economic entity ever, anywhere.

George Will

George F. Will is a 1976 Pulitzer Prize winner whose columns are syndicated in more than 400 magazines and newspapers worldwide.
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