U.S. Consular Services with a Side of Fries, Please

The U.S. Embassy in Austria has partnered up with McDonald‘s to help “citizens in distress”. We sent an American to try it out.

Additional reporting by Veronika Hribernik

On a sunny Friday afternoon in mid-May, a motley crew of the curious gathered at the McDonald’s by the U6 station Alserstraße. An architect, a priest, a student, a married couple, a businessman and Metropole, all here to see the fast food chain’s managing director, Isabelle Kuster and U.S. Ambassador Trevor Traina launch an unusual cooperation: Project “McSafe”. This is a program for “U.S. citizens in distress,” according to an Embassy announcement,  in which they “can enter any McDonald’s in Austria and be provided with contact information for the U.S. Embassy for consular services.” Lost passports, travel assistance, that sort of thing.

This is well and good in theory. We decided to investigate how it would work in practice. We didn’t feign distress, but did show up unannounced to find out what they would do if such a circumstance. Her findings are below.

MCDONALD’S LOGS, ATTEMPT 1

McDonald’s, 6., Mariahilfer Strasse 22-4, May 29, 2019

It’s lunchtime on one of Vienna’s busiest streets; this McDonald’s is humming like a beehive. The lines are shorter at the McCafé counter (in Austria, larger McDonald’s often have a separate café section), so I head for a kind-looking woman zippily serving coffee. “Do you speak English?” I ask. Some, she said. I’m a journalist, I explain, and want to find out what would happen if an American came in and asked for help reaching the embassy. Could she help?

A slightly frozen smile. I sensed language was an issue. “I’ll get my boss,” she offered. The manager on duty also didn’t speak English, but gestured that a third co-worker, currently working the counter, would be able to help. Not wishing my ruse to keep customers from their burgers and coffee, I admitted that I spoke German and explained again.

“You work for a magazine?” asked the manager. In that case, she said professionally, I should please contact headquarters with any questions. But, but, but… What if a normal citizen needed help?

“Journalists should contact our headquarters.”

“No, but if I wasn’t a journalist.”

Ah! We are playing pretend. Everything clicks into place. “Then of course I would help you,” she smiles. “I can give you the embassy’s phone number, or we could call for you.” I ask how that works – is there a physical phone, or….? I can call headquarters for details, she says kindly.

I resolve to try a second McDonald’s.

 

MCDONALD’S LOGS, ATTEMPT 2

McDonald’s, 1., Universitätsring 2, June 4, 2019

This time I go at 10 am, when the place is emptier, and march directly up to the main counter, which is manned by a lady with bright red hair. Does she speak English? Nope. She grabs a passing co-worker, a young man who can’t be over 20 years old. Does he speak English? A little. I start giving him the spiel about testing the new embassy partnership…he stops me. “I should get my boss?” he says. Yes, please.

A minute passes. The young guy returns: His boss is on the way. I decide to admit to him that I speak German, and ask him what he would do if a customer needed help reaching the U.S. embassy. He lets out a little puff of air. “I have no idea what is supposed to happen,” he says. “I read about it in the newspaper, but…”

The manager arrives, businesslike and helpful. I tell her everything. She says she hasn’t gotten any official instructions about the partnership, but very sweetly offers to look up the number for the consulate if I’d like, and says I can even use her phone. Not because I’m American, she clarifies. She would do this for anyone – but she would need to look the number up online, just like anyone else.

I had planned on actually using their phone to try and reach the embassy, but at this point, that seems almost mean. I leave.


MCDONALD’S LOGS, POSTSCRIPT

It seems not everyone who works at McDonald’s has been informed about the McSafe program. A U.S. State Department official in Washington, D.C., speaking anonymously, said partnerships of this kind were not unique, coordinating with private-sector entities as part of a commitment to assisting U.S. citizens in need. However, they recommend citizens go directly to the embassy if possible. For questions on staff training, ask the restaurant.

“All restaurant managers were informed via newsletter at the start of the cooperation,” a McDonald’s representative said by email, apologizing that staff we met seemed uninformed. They noted that at least one American citizen has asked for – and received – passport help via the McDonald’s on Schwedenplatz, citing a report on National Public Radio in the United States. Best regards.

The McDonald’s staff come out on top in this story: They were all infinitely patient and professional, and very much willing to help.  The management, perhaps less so. In fact, the McSafe program seems less a sincere effort than a press stunt. Oh well.

Naomi Hunt
Naomi Hunt is a managing editor at Metropole, with roots in the U.S. and Malaysia that have long been buried under Austrian soil. She previously served as a program manager at the International Dialogue Centre (KAICIID) and was a Senior Press Freedom Adviser at the International Press Institute (IPI).

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