Weeks before the dreadfully familiar odour of fries being cooked assailed the olfactory organs of Glebe a wildfire rumour swept the suburb. It was on everyone’s lips; (more’s the pity, but better than our hips!) ‘Were the golden arches really to rise over Glebe?’

It made its insidious way to the Glebe Society committee meeting, which is where I first heard it, but the all-pervasive ignorance it encountered there did nothing to calm anyone’s trepidation. By chance I’d been walking past the empty premises in the Valhalla building a few days earlier and seen a considerable number of people milling about. They were both inside and outside the said shop-front where formerly a Japanese restaurant had traded. I surmised that they were probably sales agents, for the gathering had all the hallmarks of real-estate caravanserai.

That idea sustained my hopes for a short while, for like many others I consider that the sight of empty shop-fronts reduces the vibrancy of the ‘high street’ and can herald the onset of a trading downturn. This is something that nobody wants, especially in an area where the ambience and hence attraction of the area to visitors from other parts of Sydney hinges upon the vibrancy and excitement of a busy buzzing streetscape.

Someone with a more extensive spy-network than mine indicated that it was said to be a ‘Maccas-in-disguise’, and like the outlet adjacent to RPA in Camperdown, wouldn’t display the well-known trademark logo and was likely to serve ‘healthy’ alternative menu items such as wraps and juice. We agreed that the transformation of the Missenden Rd outlet was basically a good thing, given its proximity to the health services, but even this didn’t sooth the rising level of concern. While active businesses, trading locally, were definitely to be and encouraged, doubt still remained. It was decided to keep a ‘watching brief’.

The following week a short flyer from the multi-national itself popped up in my letter box. As I live a mere hop, step and jump from the location I assumed that this was in lieu of a Council DA notification, and intended to calm the rising angst among locals. It did little to reassure however. Admittedly it did indicate that, as rumour also had it, the premises were only to function as a food outlet for three days, but somehow that exacerbated my doubts. After all, it could be just the thin edge of the wedge, (further apologies to you, sensitive reader) and if it was successful, could it lead to a full scale onslaught?

Protester showing leaflet given to potential Macdonalds customers (Source: ‘McDonalds, not on our corner – Glebe’).
Protester showing leaflet given to potential Macdonalds customers (Source: ‘McDonalds, not on our corner – Glebe’).

Next day, before ‘trading’ began, a few slightly manic people gathered on the pavement opposite the premises, where it was evident that preparations for the weekend were far advanced – windows blacked out, machines being installed and people hurrying in and out.

Led by a community activist, the small group – which included school age children bearing signs indicating they ‘love Glebe’ – was joined by several local baristas and a city councillor for a photo opportunity. The image and story was published in the Sydney Morning Herald next day, but still the confrontation loomed.

So the feared Friday arrived. An elderly gentleman almost battered down the door of the Glebe City of Sydney Service Centre at 9am on the day demanding that they close down the outlet immediately, now open for business under the temporary signage ‘Fries with That’. Apparently they weren’t ‘the kind of people that our ‘kind of people’ want in Glebe’.

As the premises carried Council approval as a licensed food outlet there was nothing to be done.

So people passed by and many were persuaded to try the free fries and give their opinions on the several sample sauces on offer. When questioned about any ongoing intentions the multi-national may have for the site, the young PR person, who had clearly had insufficient sleep the night before, as she was beset by continuous yawning during our conversation, couldn’t provide a definitive answer either. Meanwhile, concerned locals handed out flyers identifying the multitude of coffee shops and restaurants – mostly small businesses – which already provided good service and could potentially be disadvantaged by the increased competition a multi-national might provide.

That night after activity had ceased some intemperate and cowardly person chose to express his/her opposition to the temporary development by hurling a brick through its window. This was indeed unfortunate and illegal and caused unnecessary expense and anxiety for the owners of the premises in which the ‘pop-up’ had materialised. However, the responsibility for this vandalism does not rest solely with the misguided perpetrator.

Had McDonalds’ chosen to clearly inform the community of their intentions, that it was to be a market research initiative to test new product, the unfortunate action may never have been taken. The mild hysteria generated could have been averted, and perhaps more respect for a business that is clearly trying to ‘clean up’ its act and respond to widespread community health concerns may well have been enhanced. But on the other hand, I wonder whether the PR industry still believes the legendary marketing guru who was supposed to have opined that ‘any publicity is good publicity’.