Quarter Pounders and Footlongs: The Metrology of Fast Food

By Michael Lombadri, Metrologist - January 2010

There’s a classic pop culture metrology reference in the movie Pulp Fiction when John Travolta ex- plains that a McDonald’s Quarter Pounder with cheese has a different name in France. In France, it’s called a “Royale with cheese.” Why? Because as Travolta’s character puts it, “they have the metric system in France and they wouldn’t know what the &$%*&! a quarter pounder is.” Fast food gets its name because it is served fast, but that scene reminds us that it’s always marketed by size.

If you don’t think that size sells fast food hamburgers, consider that the Quarter Pounder is a food item whose name tells you how much the hamburger patty weighs. Not all hamburger names get that specific, but their names always suggest that they are BIG. For example, McDonalds also serves the iconic Big Mac (two all beef patties
, special sauce, lettuce, cheese ….) and the Double Quarter Pounder. Burger King has The Whopper. Carl’s Junior has The Big Carl. Sonic has the Super- Sonic. Best known for ice cream, Dairy Queen has the Half Pound Flamethrower Grillburger. Good Times has the Big Daddy Bacon Cheeseburger and the Mighty Deluxe. Wendy’s has the Three Quarter Pound Triple. Jack in the Box has the Jumbo Jack. Hardee’s has the Big Hardee and the best name of all, the Two-Thirds Pound Monster Thickburger. Tastee Freeze (hard to find nowadays but immortalized by John Cougar Mellencamp in his song Jack & Diane) has the Big Tee and the Big Country. In- N-Out Burgers has The 4x4, which not surprisingly has four hamburger patties and four slices of cheese. The biggest burger of all might be Fatburger’s XXXL Triple King, with a total weight of a pound and a half. And while IHOP isn’t considered a fast food restaurant, I have to pay my respects to their Monster Cheeseburger. If you get carried away and decide to eat one of those, make sure to stay up for at least six more hours and then keep the Zantac handy just in case.

Size also sells other types of fast food. Subway came up with a bit of marketing brilliance with their Five Dollar Foot Long. What a great name! With four little words they tell you how much it costs and how long it is. I wonder what they call a Five Dollar Foot Long in France?

Big burrito places are the current rage, but Del Taco was a pioneer in that area some years ago. In fact, they used to sell their burritos by weight, and the Macho Burrito still checks in at over a pound. If you pull through the drive up at Del Taco and order four or five Machos, you might have flashbacks of the scene from The Flintstones where the carhop brings a slab of ribs and tips Fred and Wilma’s car on its side.          

How about fountain drinks? In the old days, nobody would drink more soda than a 12 ounce bottle would hold. Nowadays, drinks come in containers that hold enough liquid to support a small school of guppies. Perhaps the most famous big drink is the Big Gulp sold by 7-11, which holds 32 ounces of soda, or 1 liter in areas (like France) where they use the metric system. You’d think that a Big Gulp would satisfy the thirst of just about anybody, but many consumers opt for the Double Big Gulp, which holds 64 ounces or 1.9 liters. Some gas stations and movie theaters carry even bigger fountaindrinks, sometimes 72 or 80 ounces, more liquid than a six-pack of beer! Some of the cups you get at gas stations are great inventions and worth keeping, not really cups but essentially buckets with cup handles. Home Depot could sell millions of them. I once used one to bail water out of a basement window well during a rain storm.

The way that fast food makers use measurement units to describe their products is really interesting. For example, when they want to make something sound big, they talk about pounds, not ounces. Can you imagine John Travolta walking up to the counter and ordering a Four Ouncer with Cheese? That sounds really wimpy. No self respecting fast food junkie would order one of those. Ironically, when Britain adopted the European Union’s metrification laws in January 2000, the legislation seemed to have meant that McDonald’s would need to change the name of the Quarter Pounder to something different, like th
e 113 Grammer. However, a spokesman for McDonalds at that time rejected the suggestion of a new name appearing on the menu. He asserted that Quarter Pounder is a “registered trademark name and not an indication of weight.” Whatever you say, buddy.

It’s even more interesting to note how fast food restaurants switch to the metric system when they talk about fat. When the subject is fat, the unit is grams, which everybody knows are little tiny things that you can’t even see. For example, a Triple Whopper with Cheese at Burger King has 84 grams of fat. That doesn’t sound so bad, but in reality it’s a lot of fat, almost one fifth of a pound. What if Burger King changed the name of the product to the Fifth Pound of Fat Burger? That sounds so yucky that sales would plummet. Hardee’s Two-Thirds Pound Monster Thick- burger in addition to having the best name, also has the most fat (97 grams). Hardee’s could truthfully call it the More than a Fifth of a Pou
nd of Fat Burger. For the record, 97 grams of fat is about equal to the fat found in eleven bean burritos at Taco Bell.

Speaking of fat, you would think that since fast food items can be so large, then the person who regularly eats fast food would get, shall we say, larger. My personal experience seems to support this theory, as does a quick look around the dining room at most fast food joints. In the 2004 documentary Super Size Me, a fellow named Morgan Spurlock ate three meals a day at McDonalds for 30 consecutive days. Spurlock gained 24.5 pounds during the experiment, or more than 13 % of his body weight. His cholesterol went up by about 50 % and he suffered various other ailments. If you are a fast food junkie, one viewing of Super Size Me will probably cure you. It drives home the point that a regular fast food diet is not beneficial to either your health or your waistline.

Healthy fast food would probably sell pretty well, don’t you think? I mentioned earlier that Subway is a brilliant marketing company. Long before the 
Five Dollar Foot Long, they convinced America that you can lose weight by eating fast food. Their main advertising spokesman is a pop culture icon named Jared Fogle, who weighed some 430 pounds while a student at Indiana University. He dropped a staggering total of 240 pounds by going on the “Subway Diet,” which consisted of exercising more and eating both lunch (a 6-inch turkey sub) and dinner (a foot long veggie sub) at Subway.
The story has its doubters, as does the validity of the “Subway Diet,” but it seems to be basically true. If you go easy on the mayo and other condiments, you would have to eat about 27 of Subway’s 6-inch turkey subs to get the same amount of fat pro- vided in a Two-Thirds Pound Monster Thickburger. Of course, in addition to the exercise, the main reason Fogle shed so many pounds was not specifically that he was eating at Subway, but because he reduced his food intake from 10,000 to 2,000 calories per day.

I don’t know about you, but all this talk about fast food is making me hungry, and the drive-up window at Taco Bell is still open. Bring on the night! I’m ready for the fourth meal.