Back in the ’80s in Coralville, Iowa, a Ronald McDonald statue leered at McDonald’s visitors from atop a giant tree stump. Oceans away, in China, a pair of cloaked, faceless figures welcomed Happy Meal–seeking visitors into several World of Warcraft–themed McDonald’s. Most recently, Swedish ingenues constructed the McHive, a tiny McDonald’s for bees. Separated by time, space, and McFlurry availability, each of these architectural wonders have one thing in common: they’re featured on Nonstandard McDonald’s, a viral Twitter account managed by Max Krieger.
The account is a passion project for Krieger, a 28-year-old Pittsburgh-based game developer. “I look at what creates a sense of immersion, what makes something special,” Krieger tells me, explaining that his day job requires a penchant for world-building. That extends to his social media presence. “Overall, my Twitter brand does involve talking about retail design, commercial design, and industrial design—all things we take for granted,” he says.
Krieger launched the account last summer as “the perfect COVID side project” and hit 100,000 followers in six months. Now, he’s nearing 150,000. “This wasn’t my first time experiencing an explosive response on social media regarding commentary on a chain restaurant,” he says: his 2017 Twitter treatise on the majesty of the Cheesecake Factory went mega-viral after Chrissy Teigen retweeted it. “I woke up to a text saying, “Hey, Max, you’re in TIME Magazine,” he says, laughing.
While Krieger has always had an interest in flashy, absurd, bizarre commercial design, at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, he found comfort in the most mundane McDonald’s design details: the golden arches logo on a stained glass window, a burger-shaped chandelier. “The experience of a themed space—anything from a fountain to the world’s largest entertainment McDonald’s—there’s something irreplaceable about that physical space that people didn’t really understand until the pandemic,” he says. “People are really missing it now because, like it or not, something as mundane as a themed restaurant creates a shared memory that combines sight, sound and, in this case, taste.”
Enter Nonstandard McDonald’s. Krieger started the account after driving by one of his favorite so-called nonstandard McDonald’s locations: the Independence, Ohio location that he calls “the Mansion of Mayor McCheese,” complete with a grand staircase and stately columns. “I realized that there are probably tons of [nonstandard McDonald’s locations] around the country, although there’s not a lot of documentation available,” Krieger says. “So I thought, ‘What if I was able to crowdsource something as mundane but unusual as a series of Nonstandard McDonald’s?’ Some of them were torn down 10 or 20 years ago, but so many people still have firsthand experiences and newspaper clippings.”
Now the majority of Krieger’s photos are submitted by his followers, either via email or Twitter DM. He chalks up his large, widespread audience to the chain’s general accessibility and worldwide presence. For example, his most requested location is the Méqui 1000, a location in São Paulo, Brazil, that’s part mansion, part shopping mall, decorated with a gigantic Big Mac chandelier.
Part of the appeal of a nonstandard McDonald’s, Krieger explains, is the accessibility: “You don’t have to pay for an entry ticket, you don’t have to book your visit in advance. You just walk in and there’s a dinosaur statue with a guitar and sunglasses. There’s a Cadillac hanging from the ceiling.” These details, he says, are “overlooked genius”—the little things that make up that powerful shared experience. He cites his favorite McDonald’s—the world’s largest McDonald’s located in Orlando, Florida, otherwise known as the “Epic McD”—as an example. “It was recently rebuilt and brought more in line with modern branding standards, which is a shame because the original was incredible,” he says. “It was absolute chaos. They had strange things hanging from the ceiling, giant neon french fries on the side of the building, alligators, a huge pair of Ronald McDonald hands cradling a globe.” It was, he says, the ultimate representation of roadside America: enormously enchanting and “vaguely scuzzy.”
Unfortunately, as Krieger tells it, more and more of these roadside gems are “standardizing” to fit modern brand guidelines. “Many nonstandard McDonald’s have been given an ultimatum that they have to update their space,” he says. He laments the loss of “unsanctioned, absolutely hogwild” locations that showcase the creativity of individual franchisees.
I reached out McDonald’s representatives to confirm that nonstandard McDonald’s franchisees are, in fact, being forced to update their spaces. I didn’t receive a response, so I can’t confirm Krieger’s claim of franchisee disenfranchisement, so to speak. But take one look at the hyper-modern McDonald’s and Taco Bells of 2021, and it’s easy to see that standardization is nigh.
Of course, standardization as a rule isn’t limited to McDonald’s. Nate Berg addressed the phenomenon in Curbed in 2018:
“It’s become an industry standard to regularly rethink the branding and design of fast-food restaurants. Consultants suggest that stores undergo a refresh every three to five years—new paint, light fixtures, menu boards, floor treatments, and so on. Every 10 years, they recommend a full-on redesign: tearing out seats, updating exterior architectural elements, maybe even scrapping the whole structure and building up from the foundation.”
Obtrusive modern design may seem like an unbeatable foe, but Krieger feels heartened by his massive following. Ultimately, Nonstandard McDonald’s is more than a viral project: for Krieger, it has the potential to celebrate and, in some cases, preserve franchisee ingenuity, forcing corporate overlords to reckon with the public’s desire for heartfelt, often offbeat, nostalgia. “I see McDonald’s in my ‘likes’ from time to time,” Krieger says. “I can tell they’re looking at the account and thinking about the appeal. Who knows, it could change things.”
Krieger is unsure of where Nonstandard McDonald’s will go from here, but he’s got a few other projects in the works. “I can’t say too much right now, because there’s a lot up in the air,” he says, but he hints that he hopes to use his following to “tell a really compelling story that I think a lot of people will enjoy.”
For now, the next phase of the account may start with a Big Mac. Between managing occasional image rights issues, sorting through countless submissions, and complying with pandemic safety guidelines, Krieger hasn’t had the chance to travel to many of the active locations featured on the account. Fortunately, he’s now fully vaccinated and planning multiple pilgrimages. “I have a laundry list of the ones I want to visit,” he says, listing off locations including the Uniontown, Pennsylvania, Big Mac Museum, a restaurant which features a 14-foot polyurethane Big Mac statue. “I haven’t eaten a McDonald’s burger in a very long time, but I’m looking forward to getting my hands on a Big Mac,” he says. “I owe it to them, I think.”