How Cheskin Destroyed Civilization as We Knew It

26 Oct 2005|Steve Diller

One advantage in writing a book about meaningful experiences was the opportunities it provided to plumb the depths of Cheskin’s history. It’s a pretty illustrious history, with engagements that often had impacts far beyond what Louis Cheskin, our founder, might have anticipated. It also has implications for all of us who work to enhance customer experiences.

A particularly interesting example was his work with McDonald’s. The historical documentation indicates that, back when that company was seeking to expand more quickly, its management hit on the idea of altering the legal definition of their establishments, from “hamburger stands” to “restaurants.”

The difference of label apparently was important, because zoning regulations in many places limited the number of “hambuger stands” allowed every square mile. McDonald’s realized that, if they attached restaurant-style seating to their industrialized hamburger stands, they could transcend the zoning limitations, and expand much more effectively.

The problem was, when they built these new establishments, women with kids hesitated to come in. While they wouldn’t think twice of bringing their children to hamburger stands, where the kids could misbehave without social consequences, at a “restaurant,” decorum was socially expected.

Consequently, McDonald’s customer base felt a little uncomfortable walking into a restaurant, kids in tow, when all they wanted was hamburger-stand informality. That clearly didn’t lend itself to rapid expansion, even if you’ve gotten past the zoning issue.

Louis Cheskin’s solution was to essentially design a whole new type of “informal” restaurant, that allowed people to avoid the decorum they knew was expected of them. He also helped in the development of Ronald McDonald, as a welcoming friend who made it more of a party than a restaurant.

In so doing, he didn’t simply help invent the fast food restaurant. He also helped change people’s expectations about where, and when, it’s necessary to dress “correctly” and behave “appropriately.”

Cheskin’s work, in other words, was one of the first nails in the coffin of stuffy, traditional American decorum. In its place evolved a far more relaxed, informal public standard of appearance and behavior that eventually extended to sporting events, stores, downtowns, theaters, and other venues in which people used to wear their finest clothing and behave in a highly constrained manner. In other words, this was the beginning of the end of civilization as our grandparents knew it.

Personally, I think we’re better off for this early example of designing a better experience for customers. Still, it shows the sometimes-unanticipated impact of designing for people’s comfort and enjoyment. I never met Louis Cheskin. From what I hear, he was a gentleman of the old school. If only he had fully appreciated what he was helping bring about… he probably would’ve secretly loved it.

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