mcdglobe.jpgWhat could be more American than going to McDonald's? Driving to McDonald's and not getting out of your vehicle, that's what.

The US fast food giant plans to dramatically increase its number of drive-thrus in China through a deal with Sinopec, the state-owned oil company.

In recognition of China's soaring car ownership, the majority of new restaurants that McDonald's plans to open in China in the future will have a drive-thru counter — today there are just three.

Contrary to what you might expect, China is not yet a major market for McDonald's. Its 760 stores in China account for only 2.5% of its world total. Rival Yum Foods, owner of KFC and Pizza Hut brands, has double that number of outlets in China.

However, McDonald's hopes to have more than 1,000 restaurants by the 2008 Olympic games and keep growing at a rate of 100 new outlets each year thereafter.

Sinopec already has a huge presence in China — 30,000 petrol stations — and its adding 500 new ones each year . So the deal makes a lot of sense as it gives McDonald's an opportunity to catch up with Yum Foods.

But the big risk with McDonald's octane-fueled growth strategy is assuming that China will take as readily to the drive-thru lifestyle as the US. Reports from the front-line suggest that it will.

McDonald's opened its first drive-thru in Dongguan last year. The choice of location was no accident, says the Christian Science Monitor, because Dongguan, as well as being China's footwear capital, also has one of the highest rates of car ownership.

The CSM's man in Dongguan finds that eating on the go has definitely caught on with the city's car-crazy inhabitants and around 400 cars a day use the drive-thru counter.

Meanwhile, KFC has just opened its first drive-thru in Nanjing and it too has proved a huge hit, according to the Nanjing-based Sunny Side Up! blog.

Nevertheless, I have to agree with both authors in lamenting China's apparent eagerness to forgo sit-down meals and social rituals in favour of that most potent symbol of US car culture: the drive-thru counter.

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