Angie Stallings is busy, busy, busy. When she is not working at Smith Elementary School in Garner, N.C., the first-grade teacher is driving her 13-year-old daughter, Sarah, to and from cheerleading and basketball practice, or shuttling back and forth for evening meetings at the Capital Church, or simply running errands. Constantly pressed for time, Stallings says, she brings Sarah to McDonald's at least three times a week for a quick meal.
In restaurant parlance, Stallings is a "heavy user." At McDonald's, (MCD ) the average customer comes in once every week, and 95% of the nation stops in over the course of a year, according to surveys by BIGresearch of Worthington, Ohio, and other consumer research outfits. But it is the heavy user—someone who frequents the same fast-food chain twice a week or more—who really accounts for the steady rise in sales and profit for McDonald's.
In general, the heavy fast-food user is a single man in his mid-20s who has a professional job that pays above-average wages. That's true at McDonald's, too. But the chain's heavy-user population also includes an unusually high number of married women with two or more young kids at home, professional jobs, and middle-class household incomes. Moms, in other words.
Stallings, 40, says that when she was growing up in Garner, she didn't often go to McDonald's. There weren't many around. Today, there's one a mile from her job. She became a regular three years ago, when she started teaching and Sarah's schedule filled up, leaving her little time to prepare meals. Usually the pair get food to go from the drive-through lane, but sometimes her husband, Bill, 43, a police officer at the state capitol in Raleigh, joins them inside for a sit-down meal. They eat at another fast-food chain two times a week as well.
For breakfast, they typically have a specialty coffee and maybe a muffin from the restaurant's McCafé section before middle school starts at 7:30 a.m. At lunch or dinner, they mix things up. Often they get double cheeseburgers or McChicken sandwiches from the Dollar Menu, or the $1.29 Snack Wrap. But lately, Stallings says, she has been ordering more salads, a product that McDonald's added in 2003 specifically for mothers. While Sarah drinks sodas, Stallings also has switched to bottled water. "I do try to make healthy choices," she says.
Nonetheless, Stallings says weight is an issue for both her and her husband. Has she thought about cutting back on McDonald's food? Yes, she says, but she's decided against it. She eats vegetables and fruits at home. She also started exercising two months ago, walking at least one mile four times a week. Judging by her friends and family, she says, she doesn't think they eat more fast food than everyone else. Besides, she doesn't have a spare moment to do more cooking. "The convenience factor is the big selling point, with the busy lifestyle we have."
By Michael Arndt