The Most Romantic Cheeseburger

June 17, 2022 | Lena Rizkallah, JD, CRPC®

As a child of immigrants, I tried so hard to fit into the “American way,” and in the 80’s, nothing was more American than a maybe not healthy but at least wholesome (?) family dinner at McDonald’s!

Unfortunately, my parents didn’t see McDonalds as wholesome, and didn’t want to spend their hard-earned money feeding their family frozen sodium beef patties. Whenever we kids would beg our parents to take us to McDonald’s, there was a 46% chance we would go 55% of the time. Mostly, my dad would respond with “we have food at home” or “your mother, she makes the best hamburgers.” And we would hang our heads and walk away with slumped shoulders, defeated. Did mom make good burgers? Yes, fine. But she would make them the Palestinian way, with chopped parsley, onions, allspice and a little tomato paste. Definitely not the distinctive secret sauce of the Big Mac.

Usually, when we asked to go to McDonald’s, my dad would respond with “inshallah” which in Arabic means “God willing” but in reality means “no.” However, there were a few times that inshallah meant yes! And then it would be a party because usually we would be joined by more relatives, three or four other families and kids, and it would be night out for everyone!

At some point in the 80’s, some marketing genius at McDonald’s had the bright idea of offering McDonald’s cheeseburgers for 14 cents on Valentine’s Day.

Unfortunately for the soon-to-be-fired marketing executive, he didn’t realize that the fine print is extremely important when you announce such deals. My dad got wind of the 14-cent cheeseburger deal and circled February 14 as a very important day, not because it is a holiday that celebrates love, but because he was a man who appreciated value, even if that value had to do with frozen beef patties.

On Feb 14, my father gathered the family into the den and told us we were taking a trip to McDonalds. We kids were thrilled! We rarely went to McDonalds and if we did, it was usually after church on Sunday. What a treat to go to McDonalds on a Wednesday! Valentine’s Day is awesome, we thought.

But when we got to McDonald’s and started to give our father the orders, he stopped us.

“We’re not eating here. I’m going to order the special to take home,” he informed us.

Our turn to order finally arrived. The cashier greeted us and my father leaned over, pointed to the sign with the 14 cent deal and said, “I’ll take 100 cheeseburgers.” The cashier was surprised, thinking it was a joke at first, but then my father repeated his order.

My father pointed again to the sign above him. “Your ad says if you come to McDonald’s on February 14, you can get a cheeseburger for 14 cents.”

“Well, yes sir that’s true,” said the red-faced cashier.

“So what is the problem?”

The cashier was visibly squirming. “Sir, I think the special applies to a few cheeseburgers. Like if you and your family want to order cheeseburgers for today’s meal.”

My father stepped up to the counter so he was face-to-face with the cashier and glanced at his name tag. “Mr. Brandon, the sign says McDonald’s cheeseburgers are 14 cents on February 14. Today is February 14 and we are here to buy cheeseburgers. The sign doesn’t say only buy two cheeseburgers on Feb 14.”

“Well, yea, I guess that’s true, “ said the cashier.

“It doesn’t say Mr. Customer, you can only buy 3 cheeseburgers.”

“No, but I just don’t think anyone would’ve thought someone would come here to order a hundred burgers.”

“I am here to buy one hundred burgers.”

Finally a manager was called. The manager, a pale, gaunt man who towered above my dad but still seemed to shrink when speaking with him, explained that the wrench in my father’s case was that fulfilling his order would jam up the burger flipper in the back. Dad finally agreed to accept 50 burgers—but would return the next day for the remaining 50—which he damn well did.

This is the epitome of when too much of a good thing is not good–it was actually great! For the next month and a half, we had burgers coming out of our noses. I had never felt more American in my life! McDonald’s burgers, wrapped in the familiar wax paper, would appear in our school lunches, replacing the hummus sandwiches. I would come home from school and grab a burger as my after-school snack and sometimes they were served as a side-dish at dinner to accompany the lamb and rice my mom served. The fruit that used to sit in the fruit basket was moved back to the produce drawer in the fridge to make room for the burgers. Burgers filled the extra freezer in the basement.

One day in March, I arrived home from school and walked into the kitchen to fix an after-school snack. I glanced at the fruit basket hoping to grab a burger and noticed fruit sitting in the basket and not a burger in sight. I suddenly panicked. I opened the fridge and looked around frantically. No sign of the burgers. I ran downstairs to the basement and opened the second fridge. Nothing. I opened the big freezer reciting ‘The Lord’s Prayer,’ hoping that would help. The freezer had the usual suspects—unidentifiable meat, plastic cartons filled with leftovers, a tray of baklava from Christmas. But no McDonald’s cheeseburgers. Devastated, I climbed the stairs slowly, trying to calculate how long it had been since Valentine’s Day and could it be possible that our family of seven had managed to clobber one hundred cheeseburgers in 6 weeks?!

After hysterically interrogating my mom while she was folding laundry, it was confirmed that yes, we were officially out of cheeseburgers. So many emotions washed over me in that moment; sadness, remorse, nostalgia for the good ol’ days of free-flying cheeseburgers. Because I knew that the end of the cheeseburger bonanza meant the beginning of cheeseburger desert. My dad valued-well- value! and we enjoyed the surplus commodity while it lasted. But now that the cheeseburger tap had run dry, we would have to go back to our old ways of begging our parents to take us to McDonalds, and hearing a lot of ‘inshallahs’ in response.

Although I didn’t officially learn about the concept of supply and demand until my Econ 101 class in college, this was a tough lesson to reconcile at my young age. How do you adjust when something you had was so abundant and so cheap is now a scarcity and quite costly. We are learning similar lessons now during this time of higher than normal levels of inflation. Excess demand for goods and services and limited supply (due to supply chain issues, higher material costs, continuing shut-downs) coming out of the pandemic are some of the major causes of the historically high inflation we are experiencing.

When inflation levels started rising last summer, it was thought that this increase was transitory due to pent up demand during the pandemic and as the word reopened, inflation levels would ease. This has proven to not be the case, as the May Consumer Price Index (CPI) report that measures inflation indicated. The CPI measures the basket of goods and services that individuals use/purchase/consume and compares that measurement to the month or year prior. The components of CPI include food, energy, housing, new and used cars, services and other spending. May’s CPI report came in hot at 8.6% year-over-year, the largest increase since 1981.

The average consumer is feeling this increase in our wallets; the cost of food, gas, housing and travel have all increased significantly.

Below are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Inflation won’t go down until it starts to flatten and that is what economists, politicians and CEOs  are waiting for—the inflation numbers to stop going up, so they can eventually start to come down.
  • Energy and food tend to be the most variable in price and in certain years fluctuate wildly which in the past has made headline CPI an unreliable indicator of where inflation is headed.  Core CPI measures the basket of goods and services without including energy and food, and has been thought to be a reliable gauge of how fast inflation is increasing.  In our current situation,  core and headline inflation are both increasing as most inflation components, and not just food and energy prices, have gone up substantially.
  • The Fed has announced it will continue to raise the interest rates that banks use to lend money to each other—a way to help slow demand and stabilize inflation.  This is a way to ‘cool’ the economy but may also slow growth.  For the consumer, this could mean that banks pass on the increase in the form of raising interest rates on debt like mortgages and credit cards, but may also offer higher interest rates on money in the bank.
  • Investing in the market is still a great way for  money to grow.  The longer you can invest your money in a diversified portfolio of stocks and bonds, the more likely you will see positive gains over the long term. 
  • In times of rising interest rates, be sure to pay down high interest debt and keep a little extra cash on hand. 
  • Be strategic about your splurges.
  • In these inflationary times, McDonald’s is still offering value.