McDonald’s for Christmas? Burger Chain Asks Franchisees to Make It Business As Usual

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A Big Mac probably isn’t your idea of Christmas dinner, but McDonald’s is asking its franchisees to stay open on Christmas Day — a day when even Wal-Mart, which caught flack for opening on Thanksgiving evening this year, closes its doors. 

“Our largest holiday opportunity as a system is Christmas Day,” McDonald’s COO Jim Johannesen wrote in one of two memos that was sent to franchisees and obtained by Advertising Age magazine. “Last year, [company-operated] restaurants that opened on Christmas averaged $5,500 in sales,” he wrote.

Johannesen also said one reason behind the improvement in the chain’s November sales figures was that 6,000 more restaurants were open on Thanksgiving Day (the company has around 14,000 in the U.S.), which boosted sales to the tune of an extra $36 million, Ad Age estimates. The article quotes unnamed company insiders who say that franchisees being open on Thanksgiving accounted for nearly 40% of the chain’s November sales growth.

(MORE: Why We Stopped Buying Fast-Food Combo Meals)

Thanksgiving helped reverse a rare drop in McDonald’s sales; in October, the company broke a nine-year streak of improvement and reported a decline of 1.8% in same-store sales.

After the announcement, one analyst told the Wall Street Journal he didn’t have high hopes for a quick turnaround. “My expectation is we’d start to see some improvement by the middle of next year,” he said. The company stumbled because it faced a combination of lukewarm interest in its slimmed-down dollar menu, increased competition from new, high-end products rolled out by Burger King and Wendy’s, and rising food costs.

Being open on the 25th could be a giant Christmas present for the fast-food giant’s investors. But what about the people stuck manning the fryers and the drive-through windows? Spokeswoman Heather Oldani told Ad Age that franchisees could elect to pay more to employees for coming to work on Christmas, but “when our company-owned restaurants are open on the holidays, the staff voluntarily sign up to work. There is no regular overtime pay.”

For its part, McDonald’s says it’s doing this for you. Oldani told Ad Age, “Our restaurants will be open to serve our customers when and how they need over the holidays.” (McDonald’s did not respond to our request for comment.)

(MORE: McRib Fanatics and the Amazing Power of Limited Availability)

The burger chain might need to get its franchisees to open this Christmas to keep Wall Street happy, but it’s doing so at a risky time in big-company labor relations among low-wage workers. Last month, a consortium of community groups in New York City called for a walkout by fast-food workers in protest of minimum and near-minimum wage, sometimes after years of service. A report issued earlier this year by the Food Chain Workers Alliance found that the median wage for fast-food workers is $9.65 an hour, and less than 14% of them makes what the group considers living wages.

Wal-Mart weathered its own share of criticism and protests when it announced plans to kick off Black Friday at 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving evening. A labor-union-backed group marshaled supporters who turned out for dozens of protests around the country, although predictions of a mass walkout didn’t come to fruition.

For Wal-Mart and the various New York City fast-food outlets affected, the events didn’t seem to have a measurable impact on sales; in fact, Wal-Mart sent out a press release saying this year was its best-ever Black Friday, thanks to aggressive pricing and guaranteed availability of hot gift items.

But the collective conversation about low-wage workers toiling away for ten dollars an hour while the rest of us are stuffing our faces with turkey and ham, tearing through gifts, or laying around in elastic-waist pants watching football has moved beyond the activist community and into the mainstream. So far, we still want to have our Big Macs on Thanksgiving and eat them, too. Will Christmas be a holiday too far?