Old Koreans vs. NY McDonald’s: Taking the ‘third place’ to extremes

As I’ve mentioned before, Starbucks strives to be “A third place between work and home,” a place of community, more than a place that just sells awesome coffee.

In recent years, McDonald’s has tried to get in on some of that “third place” action with its McCafé concept. Which has always seemed a bit odd, to me. McDonald’s is about getting in and getting out, as quickly as possible. Or driving through. It’s a place to fuel up when you don’t have time to stop and have a decent meal. Why would I want McDonald’s to be Starbucks when there’s Starbucks (which, if nothing else, actually serves decent coffee)?

I have at times thought Ronald McDonald was a bit conflicted about this. Just the other day, I noticed a “no loitering” sign at the awkwardly-placed pedestrian entrance to the McDonald’s in the Vista. So… you wanna be like a coffee shop, but you don’t want me hanging around?

At one McDonald’s in Flushing, NY, they’re more than conflicted — they’re positively fed up with being a third place for a group of Korean senior citizens who camp out in the joint all day, every day. The NYT has a fascinating piece about this quiet battle of wills:

Shortly after New Year’s Day, Man Hyung Lee, 77, was nursing a coffee in his usual seat in a narrow booth at a McDonald’s in Flushing, Queens, when two police officers stepped into the fluorescent light of the restaurant.

Mr. Lee said the officers had been called because he and his friends — a revolving group who shuffle into the McDonald’s on the corner of Parsons and Northern Boulevards on walkers, or with canes, in wheelchairs or with infirm steps, as early as 5 a.m. and often linger until well after dark — had, as they seem to do every day, long overstayed their welcome….

Mr. Lee said he obediently left — and walked around the block and came right back. More:

For the past several months, a number of elderly Korean patrons and this McDonald’s they frequent have been battling over the benches inside. The restaurant says the people who colonize the seats on a daily basis are quashing business, taking up tables for hours while splitting a small packet of French fries ($1.39); the group say they are customers and entitled to take their time. A lot of time.

“Do you think you can drink a large coffee within 20 minutes?” David Choi, 77, said. “No, it’s impossible.”…

The cops have been called four times via 911 since November. And officers drop by as often as three times in a day to check on the situation and urge the folks to move along. To no effect.

This is a kind of impasse that seems to have no really good guys or bad guys in it. As sympathetic as a group of old friends might be, you might have some sympathy for the godless corporation when you read this. My attention was drawn to this piece by a writer at Slate who noted that the old folks …

… are definitely being jerks. Lovable jerks, sure, but jerks nonetheless. They refuse to let other customers sit down. They don’t even order food—in fact, they come to the McDonald’s after eating lunch at a local senior center. They take smoke breaks near the restaurant entrance. They’re not meeting for any official purpose—they’re just shooting the breeze. And their choice of McDonald’s isn’t for a lack of other options; there are numerous nearby civic centers, including one that prepared a basement room especially for this group of friends. They still return to the McDonald’s.

Adding to the oddity of the story, none of the old folks could explain to the reporter why it has to be that McDonald’s.

One for the People Are Quirky file.

5 thoughts on “Old Koreans vs. NY McDonald’s: Taking the ‘third place’ to extremes

  1. Kathryn Fenner

    There aren’t Starbucks everywhere, yet, and McDonald’s has very good coffee now. They also have wifi.
    I suspect the Vista signs are to provide cover for kicking out people who appear to be homeless. I bet you or I could hang out indefinitely.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Yeah, they have wifi — that’s part of the cafe concept. And maybe the coffee has been good on days I didn’t try it.

      But the idea of McDonald’s as a place to hang out still seems odd — except to the people in this NYT story…

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