McDonald’s Isn’t Road Food in New York Anymore

McDonald’s Isn’t Road Food in New York Anymore

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If you’ve ever taken a road trip through New York State, you’ve driven on the Thruway, a roughly 500-mile highway system that connects New York City to Buffalo, passing through Albany.

Thruway is efficient and direct. It’s also extremely boring – especially the part connecting Albany and Buffalo. At a distance of about 300 miles, that part takes about four and a half hours to cover and seems to take forever. You can look out your window, sure, but all you’ll see is the ground. Nothing against the earth – it’s beautiful and all – but it can’t hold your attention for four hours. The only thing to look forward to on this journey, apart from its completion, is the collection of service areas one encounters along the way.

Until now, many of those rest stops meant eating at McDonald’s. You can count on the delicious, familiar taste of McDonald’s on your Thruway trip as much as you can count on the trip being boring. That particular part of the journey, however, is now a thing of the past.

As of January 1, there are no McDonald’s along the New York State Thruway.

Why the New York State Thruway lost its McDonald’s

As part of a $450 million redevelopment project, all 27 of the Thruway’s service areas are being rebuilt or otherwise improved. According to a press release from the New York State Thruway Authority, the new service areas will feature “updated restaurant concepts,” as well as “Taste NY food and beverage products, outdoor seating, seasonal food trucks, playgrounds and pet-friendly walking areas among other amenities.” According to the Times Union, a newspaper that covers the Albany area, the new dining options will include Chick-fil-A, Shake Shack, Panda Express and Burger King.

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Notably, most of these fast food options are quite scarce in New York State, leaving out future service areas. Panda Express has 15 locations in New York, with all but one in the upstate. Chick-Fil-A has fewer than 50 locations nationwide, including those in renovated service areas and one at Albany International Airport, which (to the chagrin of some) is beyond security and thus only for ticketed passengers . Shake Shack, although it originated in New York City, is only ubiquitous in the area surrounding the city; even after wild expansion in recent years, it doesn’t have a huge nationwide presence and is therefore still a novelty to most New Yorkers.

Given that most of the restaurants that will be popping up in New York’s new service areas are largely inaccessible outside of those service areas, it appears that New York State is creating a new experience within those service areas. And really, novelty is the opposite of what I want when I’m on the road. Besides the fact that its food is delicious, I go to McDonald’s often because I know it will taste like I expected. Ordering McDonald’s while traveling can be a bit of a security blanket.

New York’s changing relationship with street food

This change to the Thruway comes at the same time that New Yorkers are still adjusting to their new and improved access to New York City via Amtrak, which, instead of dreary Penn Station, is now located in Hall of new Moynihan Train, the result of a $1.6 billion transformation of an old station. However, even before Moynihan’s opened in 2021, Penn Station lost its McDonald’s.

Moynihan’s, like the new Thruway stations, seems to aim for innovation over convenience when it comes to its food options, offering food with a higher slant, more rooted in NY. Restaurants inside the train station include New York City staples like Magnolia Bakery and an upcoming satellite location of Jacob’s Pickles, an Upper West Side restaurant serving Southern-style butter chicken.

It will be interesting to see how, over time, New York’s evolving approach to transit dining — one that creates a more “curated” experience — will unfold. Without its once-ubiquitous presence in transit spaces across the state, McDonald’s relationship with New Yorkers and their daily eating habits seems guaranteed to change, however slightly or subtly.

Of course, McDonald’s relationship with those travelers may still be evolving, given the current pilot of locations that only offer mobile pickup and delivery. While we may never be without the Golden Arches, how and where we interact with them certainly seems to be changing, for better or worse.

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