The Hive

America’s Food Factories

Why making a Chipotle burrito or a McDonald’s Big Mac should be considered manufacturing.

A sign for a McDonald's restaurant sits in front of an American Flag.

Should McDonald’s be considered manufacturing?

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images.

This month, Slate is exploring how to reinvent American manufacturing. We’d like to hear your best ideas. Please submit them here [LINK HIVE INTRO].

To understand what can usefully be done to bolster American manufacturing, it’s helpful to think about what makes manufacturing valuable.

In economic terms, the genius of American manufacturing doesn’t really lie in making stuff. Rather, it’s all about mass production and the division of labor. In a well-run factory, machines and organizational savvy substitute for skill. In its early phases, manufacturing meant a whole bunch of rifles could be produced on an assembly line by a bunch of workers, none of whom had the expertise of a gunsmith. That meant much higher output and lower prices for consumers, raising real incomes across the board. It also brought benefits for workers. Participating in mass production let people capture some of the value of advanced manufacturing without acquiring the skills necessary for artisanal production.

With the further march of progress, manufacturing has become even more impressive. Through organization and collaboration, modern factories produce things that would otherwise be impossible to build. It’s doubtful that anyone knows how to build an entire Boeing 787 from scratch. There are no “planesmiths” in the way there used to be gunsmiths. Both the assembly of a passenger jet and the manufacture of its components are broken down into smaller steps, overseen by workers who are masters of specific, discrete tasks. The whole of the workforce and supply chain is greater than the sum of its parts.

But although these are typical features of manufacturing enterprises, some economic activities have these features yet are not classified as manufacturing. And there is one category in particular where we’re not recognizing manufacturing jobs for what they are: food services, particularly fast-food and chain restaurants.

A large and growing share of mass production is happening at chain restaurants. Indeed, many of the newer chains, such as Chipotle, Chicago-based Roti Mediterranean Grill, and Chop’t, as well as aspiring brands such as Washington, D.C.’s Indian-themed Merzi, explicitly adopt an assembly-line style service. Even where such practices aren’t in place, the restaurant industry—especially in its chain guise—is very much built around a factory-style division of labor.

Food service has essentially become manufacturing, even though the North American Industrial Classification System of bureaucratic labeling doesn’t see it that way. Food manufacturing—slaughtering animals, canning beans, chopping up carrots into baby carrots, putting together Lean Cuisine boxes—is counted as a subcategory of overall manufacturing, accounting for 12 to 13 percent of total manufacturing employment.

A Chipotle burrito is a more sophisticated, higher value product than an Amy’s organic frozen burrito, but the government calls making the frozen burrito manufacturing and the Chipotle burrito service. To classify is necessarily to draw somewhat arbitrary boundaries, but this should be seen as what it is—a question of statistical procedure rather than metaphysical truth or a fact of great economic importance. As a society grows wealthier, we should expect people to spend less time eating meals at home (and especially intensely manufactured, heavily processed instant dinners and canned goods) and more time paying someone else to cook for them. Rising incomes should also continue the trend whereby chains attempt to move upscale.

Many of the same considerations, of course, apply to the more prestigious nonchain restaurant sector. But chains get you more of the features of manufacturing.

McDonald’s, for example, has a sophisticated research and development operation that devises new products before testing them in the marketplace. As in any business, many of the new ideas turn out not to be so hot (onion nuggets, for example). Others, like the McRib, are only viable under unusual economic conditions. But when successful, centralized product development lets front-line workers add value without drastically needing to improve their own skills, that’s essentially manufacturing. Chains also allow for a measure of exporting. You can’t put a restaurant meal in a box and ship it to Germany, but America’s big chains do export their brand value and expertise abroad. You can visit T.G.I. Friday’s in Stockholm or enjoy a Mocha Light Frappuccino Boisson glacée et frappée in Paris.

None of which is to say the government needs to start subsidizing fast-food jobs. But it might be nice for people to stop deriding food service employment as McJobs—particularly in a world where the sector actually stands out for unusually strong career ladders. (McDonald’s CEO joined the company as an electrical engineer, for example, and the president of McDonald’s USA started as a crew member in 1978.) It would also be nice to acknowledge that regulatory curbs on chain restaurants, whether for putative public health reasons or “to preserve the uniqueness and small-town charm” of a municipality are a variant on the old Luddite concept of smashing machines to preserve artisanal jobs. Sometimes there’s a case for prioritizing aesthetic concerns over economic efficiency (it’d be a shame to put a T.G.I. Friday’s in the middle of the Grand Canyon), but it should be seen as what it is. In the manufacturing realm, we now take it for granted that scale, elaborate division of labor, centralized brand management and product development, and national or even global operations are positive developments that boost living standards. But as time goes on, it’s unrealistic to expect the world to have a limitless appetite for traditional durable goods. To take full advantage of manufacturing’s potential, we need to broaden our horizons and recognize its characteristics wherever they emerge, including in the much-derided realm of food services.

This month, Slate is exploring how to reinvent American manufacturing. We’d like to hear your best ideas. Please submit them here [LINK HIVE INTRO].