Disclaimer: You don’t have to read these posts in order, but it will make way more sense if you start out with “We let sandwich prices get out of control: Part 1 followed by Part 2 and Part 3.
The basic premise is that sandwich prices have gotten out of control and our only hope to avoid the inevitable $20 price tag is for Subway and McDonald’s to fight on our behalf to lower prices. It’s a unique story where fast food restaurants are serving as the hero, not the villain. And, as you’ll see in a few paragraphs, this is definitely a work of fiction. Arguably the first work of the “sandwich fiction” genre. For the last section of this post titled “Six Months Later,” I recommend playing the song “Moonlight Motel” by Bruce Springsteen as background music.
The Reluctant Sandwich Maker
Tomorrow is the big day. At 7 a.m., Bob the Baker is scheduled to stop by with the marble rye. Don Smith and Bob will then head over to Donny’s Sandwich Shop and begin assembling the first ever $20 Reuben. At 11:30, the doors will open and history will be made in Old Town Chicago.
It should’ve been the most exciting night of Don’s life and yet, just around midnight, Don found himself on the verge of tears. He was sitting alone in the den with a stack of Oreos and a tall glass of milk. His brain kept circling through a highlight reel of his childhood memories, all with fast food as the backdrop.
He remembered sitting in the second row of the minivan, his mom pulling up to the drive-thru. Hi, welcome to McDonald’s. That feeling of opening up the Happy Meal, going straight for the toy.
He remembered the Rodeo Burger at Burger King, the first burger he ever tried with onion rings right on top of the patty. A decent burger for sure, but what stood out the most was three-quarters of the way through the burger, a couple of wasps who were hiding under the picnic table snuck out and stung him multiples times on the neck. Don ran to his parents in tears. To make it better, he and his siblings all went out for McFlurrys. And how about the night he was fired from his first job at McDonald’s, he asked his manager if he could have an Oreo McFlurry on the house. His manager nodded. Go ahead and take two.
It seemed like there were endless memories from high school and college. All of the two, three a.m. runs to Taco Bell. The time his buddy took down 20 hardshell tacos as a bet. Or all those times getting the spicy chicken sandwich at Wendy’s. Curly fries and Jamocha shakes at Arby’s. Four or five of them in the car searching for any spare nickel or dime that fell through one of the cracks. Found a quarter! Yes! Could you add another double cheeseburger? Or confidently strutting into Little Caesar’s in a pair of sweatpants and ordering four hot-n-ready pizzas for $20.
That’s where Don’s highlight reel kept ending, these last two memories of the mad hunt for spare change and slapping a $20 bill on the counter at a Little Caesar’s. Twenty dollars. How could he look his customers in the eyes tomorrow and charge them $20 for one sandwich? $26 with drinks and a bag of chips! A family of four needs to bring $100? It’s not right. Might as well turn the deli into a steakhouse.
Don dipped another Oreo in the glass of milk. I can’t do it. I can’t be the one. I’ll call Bob, I’ll call Brooklyn Billy, I’ll tell them to go with somebody else.
As Don was wrestling with his conscience, a taxi cab pulled up in front of the apartment. Brooklyn Billy sat behind the driver’s seat. Pepper Jack sat next to him, Louisville Slugger in hand.
Back at McDonald’s headquarters
It was one o’clock in the morning. A few hours ago, Officer Big Mac made his calm and measured argument for why McDonald’s should put him in the 2 for $5 menu. Officer Big Mac kept saying things like, “It has to be done,” or, “It’s the only way.” McDonald’s, of course, couldn’t disagree more with the strategy. And now, less than 11 hours away from the Reuben rollout, McDonald’s and Subway sat alone on the rooftop terrace, Oreo McFlurrys in hand.
“From day one, I just wanted to provide food that everyone could have access to,” McDonald’s said. “You look at one of my drive-thrus, you got a Mercedes in front of an old rusty pick-up truck; a BMW behind a guy with a bungee cord holding up his back bumper. Everyone’s invited. Everyone’s welcome. I just wanted to make people happy.”
“But here’s what I don’t understand, why not just keep the dollar menu?” Subway asked. “And put the Big Mac in the two for $5. What’s wrong with staying inexpensive?”
“You gotta mind the gap. Because once the gap is too much, once they’re at $20 and we’re serving sandwiches for a dollar, we become like the local gas station. The Big Mac turns into a gas station hot dog or one of those slowly revolving taquitos. And you can hardly give those things away let alone run a profitable business. I won’t do that to the Big Mac.”
McDonald’s wiped his nose with the back of his hand.
“The Big Mac was, and will always be, my masterpiece. The thought of seeing it go—it’s like Michelangelo blowing up the Statue of David. Or Da Vinci throwing the Mona Lisa in a fire. Or Pizza Hut getting rid of pan pizza. I won’t do it.”
“I feel like we’re damned if we do, damned if we don’t,” Subway said. His voice was now as defeated as McDonald’s. “Raise our prices to keep up and we no longer are who we are. We’re no longer food for everyone. But keep our prices low and—”
“We slowly die.”
“But then again, I mean Chick Fil A, you look at the lines at their place. Maybe we could talk to them and—”
“They’re their own thing. Don’t try to figure it out.”
“So, then this is the beginning of the end, huh?”
“We’re in the endgame now. I’ll announce an immediate shutdown tomorrow morning. We’ll retire with our dignity intact.”
“McDonald’s, come on. Alright, let’s just, you know, get some sleep. It’s late, we’ll be able to think more clearly in the morning.”
They heard a sneeze to their right. Both Subway and McDonald’s flinched. They looked over and there was Burger King sitting on the lawn chair right next to Subway.
“Burger King, how long have you been sitting there?” Subway asked.
“So true,” Burger King said. “So true.”
The Morning Of
A line of 20, maybe 30 people stood outside of Donny’s like it was the morning of a new iPhone release. There was excited chatter amongst the largely Millennial crowd.
I heard that the cows used for the corned beef were on a diet of nothing but organic grass.
Did you hear the bread is baked by this like 5-star chef from Latvia?
I heard the sauerkraut has probiotics or Omega-3s or something like that.
Bob the Baker and Pepper Jack were behind the counter putting the first Reuben together. Brooklyn Billy nervously swept the floor, something to keep his mind occupied. Don Smith was tied up to a chair in the pantry.
Across the street, the McDonald’s location was relatively empty. A few people sat inside eating sausage McMuffins and hashbrowns. McDonald’s and Subway sat at the table closest to the window, looking out at all the excitement across the street.
The front door to the McDonald’s location opened.
“Good morning, fellas,” Brooklyn Billy said. He walked over and patted them both on the back with enough force to knock out a baby tooth. “Hey, can one of you check the time for me?”
McDonald’s and Subway both sat in silence, looking down at the table.
“All these years of your mediocre sandwiches and your greasy fries and your corn syrup. In two minutes, all of that is over. America is free from fast food.”
“Not so fast.”
Officer Big Mac confidently walked out of the bathroom.
“Oh wow, I didn’t know you still existed. I’m not trying to be a dick, honestly, I thought you passed the franchise over to the Double Quarter Pounder with cheese.”
“I did, but I’ve got one piece of unfinished business.”
“Yeah? Well, that’s great, good to see you’re alive and well,” Brooklyn Billy said. “But it’s 11:30. I’ve got a deli to run.”
Brooklyn Billy crouched next to McDonald’s, put his arm around his shoulder and started talking right by his ear.
“Look at them, McDonald’s,” Brooklyn Billy said. “Look at all those happy people. And I didn’t even have to put in a free toy. Any second now, that first bite will happen and all of them will start Tweeting and Snapping and Instagramming. My plan will be in motion. Sandwiches will finally be what they were always meant to be: fine dining. You think twenty dollars is expensive? Ha! We’re just getting started. Thirty. Forty. Fifty. We’ve got a guy about to debut a $375 sandwich. This is the golden era of the local deli. I am inevitable.”
“And I am Big Mac. Hit the button!”
“No!” McDonald’s shouted back.
“Now, McDonald’s! Hit the button!”
“I won’t do it!”
Right as the first two $20 Reubens were put on a plate, Burger King crept over and hit the button. Outside, posters rolled down revealing the new two for $5 menu with the Big Mac included. One of those giant dancing things from used car lots sprang to life. The crowd outside of Donny’s looked over.
“Wait, two Big Macs for $5?” one of the guys said. “So I could get eight for $20? Dude, let’s check it out.”
The crowd of people started making their way across the street. A boyfriend and girlfriend who just sat down with their Reuben plates took their first bites.
“So, what do you think?” the girlfriend asked.
“I mean, it’s good, but like, $20 good? And my bread’s kind of stale?” the boyfriend replied. He took a photo of the sandwich, scrolled through for the right filter.
“Same! I figured it was just mine. Hey, what’s going on at McDonald’s?”
The boyfriend posted the photo on Instagram with the accompanying caption: New Reuben at Donny’s #OverRated #MarbleDry
“What have you done!?” Brooklyn Billy shouted. He charged at Officer Big Mac.
“Watch out, brah!”
Taco Bell slid his skateboard across the floor. Brooklyn Billy didn’t see it coming and tripped right over it. Colonel Sanders popped out from behind the counter, dived to the floor, put Brooklyn Billy in a headlock. Officer Big Mac walked over and put Brooklyn Billy in a set of handcuffs.
“Want me to get you a burger… to go?” Officer Big Mac said with a smile.
Across the street, Arby’s kicked down the front door of Donny’s Deli.
“Pepper Jack, put the cheese down!” Arby’s shouted.
Little Caesar trailed behind him. Long John Silver stormed in next, two pistols in the air. He fired one off, putting a big hole in the ceiling.
“Woah, Long John, easy there buddy, easy!” Arby’s called back over his shoulder.
“What is this, some sort of greasy citizen’s arrest?” Pepper Jack replied. “Who are you?”
“You’re looking at THE America’s Roast Beef, Yes Sir!”
“Wait, that’s what Arby’s stands for?” Little Caesar whispered to Long John Silver.
“Right?” Long John Silver said with a shrug. “Who knew?”
By noon there wasn’t a single person in Donny’s Deli. One guy walked in with a $20 bill but he was just asking for change. Hey, can I get four $5 bills? He proceeded to go across the street and order a couple of Big Macs.
Bob the Baker drove Brooklyn Billy and Pepper Jack to the nearest police station. When he retold the story of what happened, the two police officers looked at each other, eyebrows raised. “I’m not sure these two committed any sort of crime. But could you bring in the pirate?”
Back in Old Town, the line kept growing at the revived McDonald’s location. Across the street, Arby’s, Long John Silver, Little Caesar, Taco Bell, the Colonel, McDonald’s, and Subway stood side-by-side on the sidewalk. People who drove by asked each other, “Is this like a Comic-Con thing or something?” Don Smith joined them, limping his way next to McDonald’s.
“Hey, sorry about your store,” McDonald’s said.
“Yeah, and sorry about your roof,” Long John Silver chimed in.
“Sorry? Are you kidding me? You guys arrived just in time.”
“Has anyone seen Officer Big Mac?” Subway asked, looking around.
“His work is done here,” McDonald’s said, quietly.
Six months later
The boyfriend and girlfriend, the only two people to try the infamous $20 Reuben, walked hand in hand outside of what used to be Donny’s Deli. She had an engagement ring on her finger now and he had a little more of a gut from the increased trips to McDonald’s.
“McDonny’s?” the girlfriend asked, looking up at the sign. “He doing like a rebrand or something?”
“Yeah, it’s cool tho. He only makes 10 Big Macs a day. Spends an hour preparing each one. It’s like super old school.”
“Oh wow, what’s he charging?”
“Each one is $5. Cash only.”
“How does he stay in business?”
“I don’t know. Guessing McDonald’s like helps him out or something. But it’s supposed to be the best burger in town.”
A dad and his daughter crossed the street. His daughter was at that early stage of reading where she could recognize words and would call them out as they walked around the city. They’d pass by various traffic signs and delivery trucks with their logos painted on the side.
Stop. Wells Street. Bob the Baker.
“Dad, what’s a Big Mac?” she asked, pointing at the McDonald’s window.
The father looked at the poster with pride. He let out a long sigh filled with nostalgia.
“Ah, there’s nothing better, honey. Two all beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun.”
The daughter looked up at her Dad, then back at the McDonald’s window.
“That sounds gross.”
Whew. We made it. Hope you enjoyed the full sandwich saga. And, if not, hey – it will probably be a while before we dive back into any sandwich fiction. Also, shoutout to Alex Barker for finding news of the $375 sandwich.
Next week I’ll be celebrating the 250th (!) post of Medium Rare. I’ll have a new post up on Monday, July 1 sharing some things I’ve learned over the last 50 posts and then the week after that I’ve got one going up called, “I Wasn’t Ready to Love Toy Story 4.” Thank you for stopping by and see you next week!