Five years ago, the New York State Highway Authority surveyed more than 2,600 drivers to measure customer experience in service areas that line one of the nation’s largest toll highways, lining up 570 miles of roads and stretching up to 200km. The edge of the Bronx past Buffalo. Whether the participants were traveling for business or pleasure, they apparently had unmet needs.
More than half of those identified as occasional users of Thruway said they want food halls that offer “local artisan” products. Some passengers wanted Blue Apron dinnerware. The resulting report listed the main takeaways that leisure travelers complained about unattractive interiors and a lack of “Instagrammable moments.”
In a society so haphazardly stratified that major airlines now offer five classes of service and airport security lines can be bypassed for an annual fee, rest stops remain one of the few areas in modern life that can often be relied upon to stabilize us. Whether you’ve arrived in an eighteen-wheeler, a Porsche SUV, or a 16-year-old Toyota beater, whether you’re a staunch consumer of high fats or a restricted eater of lean proteins and whole grains, you’ll park, pass. Comfortably wade through a dull lane of hardscape and order McDonald’s fries either by habit or from self-contained nutritional gaps.
However, this particular indulgence is no longer available on the New York State Highway. As of New Year’s, all McDonald’s outposts were closed, the company’s contracts expired on December 31, 2022. In the words of a government spokesperson, the dismantling of the chain is part of a grand “modernization” plan. It covers the redesign of Thruway’s 27 service areas, which began with more or less cashless transitions, and in line with the desires of the yellow-wood fan and linseed positive traveling public.
Two years ago, following a bidding process, the business of operating the service areas went to an Irish company called Applegreen, a collection of gas stations and convenience stores backed by investment giant Blackstone. Applegreen and its partners will bear the full cost of the redevelopment ($450 million), the public money will be spared, and delivering what the drawings suggest will be the rest stop designed as a WeWork designed as a modern farmhouse-style weekend destination. There may be business areas in some spots and the selfie magic is in front of the floor-to-ceiling windows, “Eat Local. Local Drink.”
Thruway’s service areas were first built in the mid-1950s, bringing the equalizing experience of cafeteria dining into a much more egalitarian world. Howard Johnson arrived in the 1980s. McDonald’s entered the frame a decade later, when the stall was last remodeled. The current reinvention will bring in local farm stalls, food trucks, and some other fast food options, as well as the polarizing choices of Chick-fil-A and the Shake Shack he founded, run by a red state billionaire who contributes to anti-LGBTQ causes. A prominent liberal billionaire restaurateur serving expensive meals around Union Square.
Of course, there are many reasons to consider it great progress to never be tempted again by the golden arches on this section of the road, which reminds us of the scourge of underpaid work, the damage done to the environment, and the aggressive undermining of public health. But on the compensatory side, where we might find some social benefit, McDonald’s provides a business model that doesn’t market the identity. When you order the Double Quarter Pounder With Cheese, you cannot claim to be stylish, wealthy, polite or religious. You don’t believe in a philosophy or a way of life; You are buying 740 calories of distraction from life.
For much of its democratizing effects, social media demanded that bourgeois aesthetic values be imposed on all retail culture, however foreign to those who did not live in the world of plant-based foods and felt-upholstered furniture. who have neither the time nor the inclination to videotape consumer transactions. The newly converted La Guardia Airport plays to the iPhone and the imperative of space diluted with an almost perverted cosmopolitan restaurant scene.
However, on internet chat boards, drivers are already expressing their disappointment with the Thruway changes. Given the deep and longstanding tensions between those in central New York and those living in the countryside, it’s not clear that the people of Utica, for example, would be happy with the Manhattanization of the highway rather than maintaining the functional public space that only allows them to refuel. Grab a sandwich and go, a dozen potentially Instagrammable moments, dammit.