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‘Lonely, gray and being actively colonized by corporations’: we tried the McDonald’s spinoff, CosMc’s

McDonald’s fast-food universe expanded a little last week to take in CosMc’s, a drive-thru-only pilot project focused on customizable drinks and snacks. After trying the intergalactically-themed restaurant’s drinks and snacks I can confirm CosMc’s is indeed reminiscent of space – lonely, gray, and being actively colonized by corporations.

According to the fast food giant: “CosMc’s seamlessly blends brand-new, otherworldly beverage creations with a small lineup of food … all designed to boost your mood into the stratosphere, if only for a few moments.”

The first CosMc’s is in the distinctly earthbound Chicago suburb of Bolingbrook and is dominated by a four-lane drive-thru. I arrived in the pre-dawn darkness, joined the line by 6.05am, and got my food after a 30-minute wait. Later in the day, the wait stretched to two hours.

A car rear window in front of other cars and neon sign reading ‘CosMc’s’
Pearse Anderson waits in the drive-thru traffic minutes after the four lanes opened for breakfast service. Photograph: Pearse Anderson/The Guardian

In the interest of journalism, I ordered the Blueberry Ginger Boost, one of CosMc’s’ Signature Galactic Boosters™, a Turmeric Spiced Latte, a Churro Frappe, a Creamy Avocado Tomatillo Sandwich, McPops, and a Blueberry Lemon cookie. It cost me $28.

Before I sat down for my meal (in my car, in a barren lot beside discount clothing outlet Ross Dress for Less), I had never tried a drink that made my mouth drier while drinking it. The Galactic Booster was an asteroid field of freeze-dried blueberries orbiting around a boring sugary water that claimed it was green tea. These pebble-like floaters in my drink stayed bone-dry on the inside. When bitten, they parched my mouth, negating every refreshing sip I was taking.

The Churro Frappé comes with “churro syrup”. A McDonald’s representative says “it is a churro flavor,” but I could not have identified what flavor that was if CosMc’s held a laser gun to my head. Instead of conjuring up the fried dough stick’s flavors of cinnamon sugar or dulce de leche, this frappé was so intensely bitter and strong that I could feel it in my nostrils.

Rows of syrup and drinks at a counter with three people behind it.
Employees at CosMc’s during a secret opening in Bolingbrook, Illinois, on 7 December 2023. Photograph: Eric Cox/Reuters

None of CosMc’s’ foods surpassed middling recollections of other fast foods – the “McPops” doughnuts tasted like a good gas station doughnut (if you can ignore the unnatural-tasting added apple flavoring in one variety) and the Creamy Avocado Tomatillo Sandwich isn’t a far stretch from something Starbucks might offer. CosMc’s is, after all, aiming for Starbucks’s crowd.

Tellingly, that sandwich and its Spicy Queso cousin are named after their sauces. Why such a lack of confidence in their creations? No one calls a meatball sub a mariana sandwich or a Reuben a thousand-island melt. The Creamy Avocado Tomatillo Sandwich also had bacon and cheese, but you couldn’t really taste them. Bacon and cheese used to mean something to McDonald’s – just check the name of their bacon cheeseburger. That’s not the only untethered name: the Blueberry Lemon Cookie had half as much lemon flavoring as a lemon LaCroix.

I tried two items I’d buy again, a delightfully basic cookie butter McPop and the turmeric spiced latte, a well-frothed coffee drink with a mild turmeric syrup, likely their take on golden milk. Everything else was confusing.

CosMc’s performs a surreal magic trick: it makes the McDonald’s next door look good by comparison. There, I saw a young family in a booth, truckers warming up, a playspace available for kids – an insufficient and transaction-based third space, but a third space nonetheless. People could mingle and let their children roll around in the toddler area. They could stand up straight. They could use the bathroom.

The sign for CosMc’s on the side of the road, beside other mall signs.
‘CosMc’s performs a surreal magic trick: it makes the McDonald’s next door look good by comparison.’ Photograph: Pearse Anderson/The Guardian

None of that was possible in the four lanes of traffic waiting for their first CosMc’s experience. The most human interaction was a brief wave with a fellow passenger. Later, I spoke with Helen Fish, the first customer to get her food that morning. Half of her order was incorrect. If she was in the McDonald’s next door, she could approach the register and ask for help. But at CosMc’s? She couldn’t reverse up the one-way drive-thru, she couldn’t go inside, and the drive-thru lanes she could rejoin had bloated to dozens of cars deep.

Some drive-thrus have had trouble managing two active driving lanes, something CosMc’s ignored in their hubris as they squeezed four lanes into a small lot. The lot size and positioning isn’t great, leading to idling cars having to turn left across an active traffic lane to join the slow-moving drive-thru. It’s impressive that McDonald’s was able to create new, concentrated traffic in a wide sea of strip-mall roads and empty parking lots. McDonald’s says they’re working with the village and local stores to manage this.

Yellow signs with numbers ‘2’ and ‘3’ above a drive-thru as a person in a white car grabs a yellow bag.
A customer picking up an order at the window. This is the only opportunity where customers can see another human. Photograph: Pearse Anderson/The Guardian

David, a security guard who had been hired to help manage traffic and had been on site since 5am hadn’t been given food or drink by the CosMc’s staff when we spoke at 7.30am. As he wasn’t in a car, it wasn’t clear if he’d be able to even join the drive-thru lane to order a drink to keep him warm in the dark, chilly morning. Eventually, his coworker walked to the McDonald’s next door to buy coffees for themselves.

These are early days and some issues might be ironed out, others can never be solved. It’s always going to be humiliating to have to search for a public bathroom after paying a restaurant $28. It’s tough to buy into CosMc’s order customization options knowing how overworked food service staff already are, especially surrounding custom drinks. It’s surreal to have no publicly available caffeine information about CosMc’s drinks as more Panera Charged Lemonade news breaks. I understand why CosMc’s exists: the investor day explanations, the car-centric society the US has decayed into, the rush for neon, unique snacking options. But that doesn’t mean we don’t deserve better.

We have the technology for CosMc’s, the cars to fill it, the efficiency mindset to trim off every milligram of fat and bumpiness from the restaurant experience. But just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should. I’m glad CosMc’s only has one location open so far, as it means McDonald’s can easily destroy this pilot program. It wouldn’t be the first time they’ve done something similar in Chicagoland.

Thirty miles north of CosMc’s, the McDonald’s No 1 Store Museum once stood, a replica of the company’s stunning post-war sci fi Googie architecture that CosMc’s’ retro-details barely hold a candle to. It was demolished in 2018 for increased flooding risk, a climate-intensified phenomena that McDonald’s has contributed to. On the morning CosMc’s opened, unseasonably warm December breeze blew across the former museum lot, now a puddle-littered gravel patch. Dying grass and my CosMc’s bag rustled in the air. Across the street, a car-centric McDonald’s had an inside I could enter. But, they said, no public bathroom.

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