the Shamrock Shake & Uncle O’Grimacey

The McDonalds Shamrock Shake helped pay for the first Ronald McDonald house.

In 1970 McDonalds introduced their lemon/lime flavored green Saint Patrick’s Day Shake. It eventually changed flavors and names to become the mint flavored, and alliteratively titled, Shamrock Shake. Like the autumnal artificial scarcity of pumpkin spice, the Shamrock Shake is only available around Saint Patrick’s Day in the February through March timeframe (except in Philadelphia where it has two seasons).

McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc, Mayor Frank Rizzo, members of the Eagles organization, Fred Hill & his daughter all attended the opening of the first Ronald McDonald House, October 15, 1974.

Philadelphia’s two seasons of Shamrock Shakes goes back to the role it played in creating the first ever Ronald McDonald House. In 1969 Kim Hill, daughter of Philadelphia Eagle Fred Hill, was diagnosed with leukemia. By 1973 the Hills and members of the Eagles organization started the Eagles Fly for Leukemia charity which helped pay for the new oncology wing at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP).

After seeing parents camped out in the hallways and waiting rooms while their children received treatments, the charity went a step further in 1974 and purchased an old seven-bedroom house at 4032 Spruce Street not far from the hospital. The house would be a place for visiting families to stay free of charge while their children received treatment – a “home away from home”. To help pay for this the Eagles partnered with the local McDonalds restaurants asking them to donate money from their next promotional food item, which just happened to be the Shamrock Shake. The Eagles asked them to donate 25 cents per shake but McDonalds executives asked if they could have the naming rights to the house if they donated all of the proceeds. Eagles general manager Jimmy Murray said “… for that money, they could name it the Hamburglar House.” From this, the first ever Ronald McDonald House was established in Philadelphia in 1974. Today there are more than 375 Ronald McDonald House programs around the world which, at what would have been more than 2.5 million overnight stays in hotels, save families around $930 million each year.

Uncle O’Grimacey

As positive as the Shamrock Shake’s impact has been, there have been some missteps. To help promote the Shamrock Shake, McDonalds introduced the new mascot character Uncle O’Grimacey in 1975. The Irish uncle of the purple mascot Grimace, Uncle O’Grimacey (complete in his kelly green hat, shamrock-patterned vest, and shillelagh) would travel from Ireland each year bringing Shamrock Shakes to McDonaldland. Uncle O’Grimacey was quietly phased out of McDonalds marketing after a few years due in part to an alleged incident in Philadelphia in 1978 where the person portraying him made statements in support of the IRA and that British soldiers were better dead than alive.

Casual racism isn’t just relegated to the semi-distant past however. In 2017 McDonalds ran an ad promoting the Shamrock Shake. Unfortunately they had a man wearing a tartan Tam o’ shanter playing the shake like a set of bagpipes (which would be Scottish) while standing in-front of Stonehenge (which is in England). McDonalds stopped the ad and apologized saying they are “… strongly supportive of Ireland and respectful of its culture”. Begosh and Begorrah.

Uncle O’Grimacey bringing Shamrock Shakes to McDonaldland.

The Curb Cut Effect

When a solution intended to help one group helps multiple groups.

Curb cuts go by different names, but around the world they are the small inclined ramps in the sidewalk that provide easy access to the street. Without curb cuts, people in wheelchairs have to either rely on strangers to help lift them up/down between the sidewalk & the street, or they have to wheel along until they find a driveway (which could mean traveling in the street with moving cars). For some, the simple act of crossing the street can be fraught with difficulties.

The first program to install curb cuts was in Kalamazoo, Michigan in the 1940s. Jack Fisher was an entrepreneur, a disabled WWII veteran, and a Harvard educated lawyer who worked to get hundreds of fellow disabled veterans access to medical & financial assistance. It was because of his time with his clients that, in 1945, he worked with the city to get curb cuts and rails installed around the downtown, which gave a wide variety of people easier access to the businesses of Kalamazoo. The intention of the curb cuts was to enable the disabled (veteran or otherwise), but the program had unintended benefits.

The Curb Cut Effect

The curb cut effect is when something intended to help one group ends up helping multiple groups. The curb cuts were designed for the physically disabled in Kalamazoo but turned out to also benefit the elderly, they help delivery people rolling shipments to and from trucks, people pushing babies in strollers, runners, people dragging suitcases, etc.

We can see the curb cut effect again with television closed captioning. What was designed to assist the hearing impaired unintentionally benefited others. Now viewers in loud spaces can read what’s being said on tv, viewers who are new to a language can follow along more easily, shows & movies with strong accents are easier to understand, etc.

The curb cut effect can be found all over. The flexible straw was designed by Joseph Friedman to help his daughter drink from a glass, but now they also help people with mobility restrictions. Gender neutral bathrooms may be for the safety & comfort of trans & non-binary users, but they also shorten the wait time for women while also providing men with more baby changing stations than men’s rooms usually do. Optical character recognition (OCR) was designed to digitize text and help the visually impaired read books, but now the technology also allows everyone’s phones to look at text in other languages and translate it on the fly.

A rising tide lifts all ships

The curb cut effect shows that helping one group can spill over into helping others. If nothing else it is good to help others get fair access to the things most people already have. With the curb cut effect, an investment to help one group can reap a greater return on investment.

Despite this, intentionally spending resources to help just one group is often resisted by society — it can be seen as playing favorites, or creating dependencies on government handouts, and/or that helping just one group is to act at the exclusion of helping others. Most of this opposition comes from political conservatives who tend to have less interest in fairness or helping minorities. American conservatives are more likely to think of financial assistance intended to help the disadvantaged as creating a “welfare state”, despite (paradoxically) that they themselves are the number one recipient of government handouts. What the curb cut effect demonstrates is that, if helping others isn’t reason enough for charity & goodwill, at least you might also be helped in the process.