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Hamburger U

It sounded like cheerleading. Like dozens of cheerleaders locked in a conference room booming it out in nice rhythmic cadences, ''You deserve a break today, so get up and get away . . .''

Who doesn't know the rest of that jingle? Its chipper melody is indelibly carved on our national consciousness. Against our wills and better judgment, we find ourselves mentally chiming in '' . . . to McDonald's. We do it all for y-o-o-o-u-u.''

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Not for a minute do we pretend to believe this catchy advertising ditty. But it touches a chord in us as only an anthem of our culture can. Not that visions of French fries dance in our heads. No, we anticipate something more than mere spuds and beef if McDonald's executives are to be believed. What we want is Standards. And standards is what we get.

Or to McLabel it, ''Quality, Service, Cleanliness, and Value.'' It's the motto that transformed a simple hamburger joint into the largest fast-food restaurant chain in the world - one of the most visible success stories in recent American business history.

From the company's humble beginnings in 1952, when its founder, Ray Kroc, began selling a new type of milk-shake machine to an old-fashioned kind of drive-in restaurant, McDonald's has exploded to 6,700 stores around the world which annually ring up some $7 billion worth of burgers, fries, and shakes, not to mention hot apple pies.

And while industry analysts are beginning to voice some caution regarding the fast-food industry as a whole, analysts and employees alike stoutly maintain, ''McDonald's is No. 1.''

One institution that is noticeably silent during that ringing chorus of praise is arch-enemy Burger King, America's No. 2 burgermaker. Having suddenly found its own voice in a new $20 million advertising blitz, Burger King is sinking its teeth into the competition by charging that the US burger-eating public prefers the ''flame-broiled'' Burger King offerings to the ''fried'' McDonald's variety. Not to take this kind of gustatory allegation lightly, McDonald's has responded by taking Burger King to court. The battle of the burgers is indeed serious business.

The American public, however, may be inclined to take these corporate quarrels less seriously. To most beef-eating Americans, fast food means McDonald's. It's a business phenomenon that has revolutionized the eating habits of a nation.

For the millions of customers from Munich to Middle America to Manila who each year stream through the golden arches, McDonald's restaurants reliably produce hamburgers cooked at precisely 340 degrees F., accompanied by exactly five dabs of ketchup, served with nearly uniform-length French fries, and beverages containing only the prescribed amount of ice. Global product uniformity is McDonald's goal.

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Company-prescribed standards of times, temperatures, and procedures must be strictly adhered to. Failure to fulfill this ''bible of operations,'' continuously checked by squadrons of supervisors, can result in license revocation - something no manager takes lightly.

Such a tightly run ship on the sea of American business has not escaped notice. Fortune magazine selected the Illinois-based company as one of the 10 ''business triumphs of the 1970s.'' Dun's Business Monthly called it one of the five best-managed companies in the country. Merrill Lynch fast-food industry analyst William Trainer says, ''the thing that really stands out is McDonald's management. They have a knack for recruiting and managing people in order to foster a real dedication to the company. Not many employees leave McDonald's when they reach an upper echelon.''

And it all starts here, at Hamburger University, where all that cheerleading via videotape is played for 80 of the latest management recruits and franchise owners who must pass through these ivy-less doors on their way up the corporate ladder. It is here, just a few miles down the road from McDonald's corporate headquarters, that the secret to uniform crispness in French fries and uniform skillfulness in management is handed down from one generation of managers to the next. Over 2,000 students each year receive their degrees in ''Hamburgerology.''

''Everyone comes to Hamburger University,'' says HU dean Larry Coon, a company man who sports an enameled HU pin on the lapel of his gray flannel suit, in addition to a diamond-studded golden-arches ring on his right hand. And ''no matter if you're a vice-president,'' he says, ''everyone gets a restaurant experience.'' Translated that means all employees from the president on down know how to flip hamburgers and wait on customers.

''I started out dressing hamburger buns,'' says Dean Coon. Chairman of the board Fred Turner started out doing much the same thing back when senior chairman of the board Ray Kroc was building the first golden arches. One senses it is not so much a requirement for all McDonald execs to have served in the kitchen as a badge of honor to know exactly how much tartar sauce to slap on fish fillet. Such knowledge apparently makes comrades of cooks and company heads alike.

HU, for the record, is hard to find. for one thing there isn't a golden arch in sight. There isn't even the smell of French fries in the air. Just a tasteful sign. "Hamburger University" indicates that this muted-looking office building half hidden from the road under a glade of trees is indeed the place.

Inside, HU is oddly bereft of plastic and primary colors. Only a bronze bust of Ray Kroc stares out beneficently from its corner of the lobby - a lobby done up in a soothing interplay of beiges: beige leather chairs, beige thick-cut carpeting, tan wood reception desk. Another bronze statue, this one a full-size Ronald McDonald, smiles cheerily out from a nearby conference room. There's even a spiral staircase leading up to the videotape library, where a student can brush up on his restaurant skills - be it apple pie frying, receiving deliveries , or time management. In McDonaldland, there is a company-researched and ordained way to do anything and everything.

''We do it all for you . . ,'' bellows the music from a distant classroom. Somewhere a door bangs shut, muffling the jingle, but not quite silencing the upbeat ambiance of this tutorial headquarters. The virtues of the latest McDonald test product - McRib, the ''spare-rib shaped'' pork sandwich - are wafting over the airwaves from the receptionist's radio: ''McRib on a home-style bun, no-bones barbecue comin' through. No bones. No bones. . . .''

Suddenly, 80 future managers burst from a classroom into the lobby. It is noon and they are on their way to lunch; a hungry herd clad in sportswear and McDonald's name tags. ''Wonder what's for lunch today?'' queries one student. ''Oh yeah? Guess again,'' laughs another as they push open the carved wood doors and head out down the street to a ''world-famous restaurant'' at which they have been dining nearly every day during their stay here.

Only one more day until graduation. Today there is simply ''McPac'' (transactional analysis skills) to finish up followed by a quick lecture on the competition (Burger King, Wendy's, and the like). Tomorrow, the 10-day HU degree course winds up with an upbeat talk on Ray Kroc and his milk-shake machines in the ''History of McDonald's.'' Finally, there is the graduation banquet of roast - not ground - beef complete with the announcement of dean's list candidates and the winner of the coveted ''Archie Award.'' ''These are the folks that are fast-tracking it,'' says Dean Coon succinctly.

One of those 80 fast-trackers heading out the door is Debby Leonard of Wakefield, Mass. After sitting through all the HU courses of ''Identifying Effective People,'' ''Marketing,'' and ''Problem Analysis,'' not to mention attending some ''Equipment Electives'' such as ''Grill - Gas or Electric,'' ''Ice Machines,'' and ''Fryer,'' Debby is returning to her store a triumphant 18 th in her class of 80. She is ready to manage. It's 8 a.m. on a crisp autumn day , and the Wakefield McDonald's has been awake for hours. Debby, dressed in company-issue brown slacks and jacket and her own diamond-stud earrings, has already swung her green Land-Rover into the executive parking lot behind the restaurant, cast her careful eye over the stainless-steel kitchen, and begun yet another day as store manager.

To the customers, the day is perhaps just like any other, but to the Wakefield McDonald's staff, the day is one of critical anticipation. It is the first day of school for neighborhood children, but more important, it is also inspection day. Not only will the store soon be swarming with elementary and high school kids stoking up on ''hot cakes and sausage'' before classes, but around 9 the staff will crackle into renewed life when a large Oldsmobile Cutlass pulls into the parking lot bearing a blond-haired McDonald field marshal , better known as a regional inspector. It is this man who will report back to McDonald headquarters Debby's track record. This will be her first inspection since returning from Hamburger U as a full-fledged manager. The spit-and-polish is out in full force.

At 8:30, the Muzak already is pumping out ''Deep in the Heart of Texas,'' although the three-dimensional Indian and Colonial minuteman wall plaques look as stoic as usual. McDonald's likes its stores to have regional decor, although audio effects are more difficult to control. Jim Feeney, the maintenance man, is outside dutifully hosing and squeegeeing the large plate-glass windows, as McDonald's insists, ''Windows will be washed daily.''

Inside, local supervisor Joe Pratt and assistant manager Al Smith are opening and closing huge steel refrigerators, noting their contents and making little check marks on clipboards. Another employee, a girl with long brown hair, sits next to the safe and continuously punches a calculator as she tries to keep pace with the mounting pile of bulging cash register drawers at her feet.

Patty, another junior manager, is overseeing the counter girls. ''Hi, can I take your order?'' issues from the girls' mouths like a continuous Greek chorus. Overhead a plaque reads: ''The customer is the most important person in our business. He is not an interruption, he is the purpose of our work. He does us an honor when he calls. He is not someone to argue with or match wits with.''

Occasionaly during the daily 10 a.m. ''rush,'' when the Lincoln-Mercury repairmen from next door descend for their morning break, Patty has had to jump in and make a sale herself. Even she relies upon the ''Six Successful Steps'' McDonald's has developed for use at the counter: Greet the customer, take his order, suggest a sale, assemble the order, request payment, thank the customer. ''Every once in a while I see somebody trying to take a shortcut,'' Patty says during a slow moment, ''and it never works out in the end. McDonald's really has thought through absolutely every part of this operation and their way really is the best.''

Back behind the open bin, where the foam-encased food comes tumbling down in a regular cascade, Mary and Jean are whisking up more McBreakfasts than usual. Eggs are cracked and either scrambled or poured into what look like open-ended muffin tins to cook up perfectly circular Eggs McMuffin. Sausage patties must cook 8 to 10 seconds each side, while a steady stream of muffins are browned and brushed with melted butter. Pancakes are only cooked to order.

One of the strictest McDonald requirements of all is that ''unused food will be thrown out after 10 minutes.'' A digital clock sits atop the bin and Jean carefully logs the time on the McBreakfast lids. This morning there is no problem with leftover food. In fact, usual production schedules have been switched into high gear. ''Usually, we do four McBreakfasts at a time, but today we're do ing six,'' says pony-tailed Jean, the ''breakfast coordinator,'' who also happens to ''do lunch'' coordinating as well. McDonald's likes its staff trained on a number of stations.

Good thing, for already a number of first-time kindergartners are squealing and racing through the store, trying to wheedle extra game cards out of the counter girls and elude the grasp of their parents. Older students, high school couples, sit at tables and murmur sleepily to each other over steaming plastic plates of food. A quick poll reveals that boys were more likely to order full breakfasts and plenty of pancakes while girls seemed inclined to go the leaner, orange-juice-and-English-muffin route.

Amid this gentle hubbub of early morning breakfast makers and partakers, Debby seems the in-control commanding officer. Thin and whippetlike, she is entirely capable of doing several things at once: throwing quick over-the-shoulder glances at her staff, taking periodic scans of the driveway in case the inspector should arrive early, chatting with a visitor, and biting into her own breakfast.

Debby loves McDonald's. Not yet 27, she is already a full-fledged manager in charge of 60 people and a nearly $1 million-a-year operation. She is quick to enthuse about her job which includes everything from running her own advertising campaign to scrambling eggs. ''Fast-food is a good thing to get into,'' she explains between bites of breakfast and glances around the store. ''And McDonald's is No. 1. I have friends who manage Burger Kings and Carvel ice cream stores, and I know you're better off working for No. 1.''

She likes the franchise owner of her store and admits readily that year-end bonuses can be ''real good.'' When asked about Hamburger U, Debby smiles widely. That too has been ''real good.'' She offers to run and grab her class notebook to point out the most helpful courses.

Suddenly, a large Oldsmobile swings into the parking lot. A blond head is barely visible as the car rounds the corner. But Debby has spotted the inspector and springs out of her chair in response. ''Patty, Jeannie,'' she hisses to her workers, ''he's here. In the Cutlass.'' Dispatching an assistant to greet the inspector at the door, Debby allows herself about 30 more seconds to wrap up her impressions of McDonald's as an employer.

About the only thing Debby isn't quite sure is ''real good'' about McDonald's is the continued climb up the corporate ladder. She might like to have more children; she already has a two-year-old. And besides, her husband is a McDonald regional supervisor and she likes the way their work and schedules dovetail. Even on their annual winter vacation to Acapulco, she and her husband are constantly talking over new marketing strategies and ways to boost their sales. ''We do everything together,'' she says.

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