At McDonald’s, a text threatens to undo efforts to improve its image

The burger giant, which has been defending itself from repeated charges of discrimination, ignites a furor over a text from CEO Chris Kempczinski to Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot.
McDonald's racist text controversy
Photo courtesy of McDonald's

Earlier this week, critics of McDonald’s made public a text between the chain’s CEO, Chris Kempczinski, and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

In the text, Kempczinski calls “tragic” the shootings of Adam Toledo and Jaslyn Adams. Toledo was a 13-year-old Latino boy shot in March by Chicago police. The 7-year-old Adams was allegedly shot by three suspects at a McDonald’s location in April.

Kempczinski then says this: “Both the parents failed those kids, which is something you can’t say. Even harder to fix.”

The texts were made public by labor activists that have been pushing for higher pay and unionization at the burger giant for years. Critics blasted the text as racist. A Chicago Tribune columnist called it an “ignorant and compassionless claim, rooted in a derogatory and often racist view of Chicagoans who happen to live in neighborhoods plagued by violence.”

Kempczinski told company employees after the text was made public that he should have thought it through more.

“I was thinking through my lens as a parent and reacted viscerally,” he said in a message to U.S. employees seen by Restaurant Business. “Not taking the time to think about this from their viewpoint was wrong and lacked the empathy and compassion I feel for these families. This is a lesson I will carry with me.”

Yet the text had already ignited a furor, pouring gasoline on a fire the company has been working furiously to put out.

McDonald’s has been sued several times over discrimination in its restaurants, among franchisees, in its corporate offices and among vendors. That includes Byron Allen, the owner of The Weather Channel who charged in a lawsuit that the company discriminates against Black-owned media.

On Thursday, the company was subject to an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint by a worker who says she was terminated after complaining about a racist comment a manager of another corporate-owned McDonald’s made to her while she was a customer there.

The text was not lost on the attorneys fighting some of these actions, not to mention their clients.

“Kempczinski’s text and comments to Mayor Lightfoot were not a one-off mistake,” Domineca Neal, one of two former executives suing the company for discrimination, along with Victoria Guster-Hines, said in a statement sent Thursday.

“He wasn’t having a bad day when he texted the mayor. That was the real Christopher Kempczinski. He made blatantly racist statements in his official capacity as president of McDonald’s USA because he believes he can say whatever he wants to and about African Americans, no matter what people think.”

McDonald’s has been fighting these complaints on two fronts. It has defended itself vigorously from the lawsuits, hiring former U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch to help with the defense. But it has also made public statements vowing to improve on its record of diversity in its spending and hiring.

It has vowed to improve spending with more diverse-owned suppliers, for instance, and announced a promise to improve spending with diverse-owned media companies the day before Allen filed his lawsuit. It is also tying executive bonuses to diversity goals and promised to report them regularly.

Behind the scenes, operators told RB privately, there appears to be an effort to get more franchise restaurants into the hands of Black franchisees.

For the most part, consumers have not punished McDonald’s for the issues. It is among the strongest performing of the country’s fast-food chains, with same-store sales about 15% above 2019 levels.

Yet the text, and the reaction, promises to keep the controversy at the forefront for the foreseeable future.

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