How McDonald’s has become such a market force

McDonald’s (MCD) is such a steady performer year in and year out that it’s easy to take the company for granted. Yet the fast food giant definitely deserves its bluest of blue chip status. It’s a cash-generating machine that has returned billions to investors over the years via stock buybacks and steady dividends.

McDonald’s stock, up about 9% on the year through June 20, has lagged the broader market and many of its fast food peers this year. But it’s hard to argue with its long-term track record (see below) or future prospects.

MCD Chart

MCD data by YCharts

Even consumers who love fine dining appreciate what McDonald’s has to offer. Chaitali Waychal, a self-described chef and insatiable gourmand, recently responded to the following question on Quora: Why do people eat at McDonald’s?

Here’s his response:

I love McDonald’s. I am a trained chef and a self-confessed food snob. Despite my education in one of the finest cooking schools in Paris and training in classical Michelin starred restaurants, I couldn’t be happier chowing down a Big Mac meal with large fries.

And I’m definitely not alone. The kitchen crew, in one of the restaurants I worked at, would serve beautifully executed gastronomic meals to gourmets shelling out around 1000Euros  ($1350) for a dinner for two. After service, we would all traipse down to the nearest ‘McDo’ and have a late night snack while dissecting the extravagant menu we had just served up.

Here’s why I think why millions of people frequent McDonald’s while being fully aware of it’s well-documented health and environmental hazards.

Comfort: It’s comforting due to the fact that it’s consistent in  quality. A BigMac or an order of chicken nuggets will taste similar in almost every McD in the world. When you just arrive in a new place and haven’t had time to scope out the food scene, the options are usually a seedy local bistro which might try to pass off dishwater for French onion soup, (and charge you 20 bucks for it) or a cheap, tried and tested McDonald’s. It’s a lot more comforting to choose something familiar then try something scary and foreign.

Hours: McDonald’s is open late, sometimes even 24H and generally on weekends. I cannot stress how incredibly convenient it is to have a place that serves hot food when everything else is closed. I found this to be especially in European countries where restaurants/general stores/cafes normally shut down on weekends.

Taste: Golden fried nuggets dunked in delicious BBQ sauce. Crispy fries showered liberally with salt and served piping hot; Deliciously sweet, effervescent Coke poured over ice cubes. Not only do they sound good, but taste good too! McDonald’s very cleverly caters to the basic stimulants of Salt/Fat/Sugar. Once you start eating it, you become addicted to the heady combination.

Service: Say what you will, but McD has pretty good service. It may not always be friendly, but it’s always rapid and efficient. And in some locations, you can simply order a burger off the dollar menu and mooch off the free WiFi for however long you wish.

Regarding the stock, consider the following:

1) Some $4.71 billion worth of the company’s stock is held by ETFs. Why? The company boasts a dividend yield of 3.18%. The burger chain was recently named a Top 25 ”Dividend Giant” by ETF Channel.

2) The $2.87 per share dividend paid out in 2012 is 75% higher than the amount paid in 2008, McDonald’s CFO Peter Bensen noted at a recent Jeffries Global Consumer Conference. (Transcript)

3) During the past five years, McDonald’s has returned more than $27 billion to shareholders in buybacks and dividends.

4) McDonald’s the landlord: While the company’s menu strategy gets most of the attention, the chain generates huge real estate rental fees and royalties from its franchisees. That’s steady cash that doesn’t fluctuate all that much.

5) That cash is being reinvested in a big way. The company is investing $3.2 billion this year—50% of which will underwrite new 1,500 to 1,600 restaurants in the US, Europe and emerging markets.

6) Corporate critics keep prodding McDonald’s to be more daring with its menu options. It tends to be cautious, and for good reason. Its core products—the Hamburger, Cheeseburger, Chicken Nuggets and the Big Mac–are billion dollar brands that generate 28% of all U.S. sales, according to Jeff Stratton, President of McDonald’s USA.