Floating Fast Food: The Story of the McBarge

Neatorama is proud to bring you a guest post from Ernie Smith, the editor of Tedium, a twice-weekly newsletter that hunts for the end of the long tail. In another life, he ran ShortFormBlog.

(Image credit: Taz)

The tale of the McBarge, the former McDonald’s location created for Expo ’86 in Vancouver. Shockingly, it wasn’t the only fast food joint designed to float.

The other night, I took a bit of a swipe at McDonald’s for its poor track record in the Icelandic market. Ray Kroc and company, I apologize and admit that your sausage biscuits give me modest joy. After I write this piece, I may be forced to apologize again.

That’s because I’m about to bring up a bad memory for the fast-food giant.

In the late ’80s, the World’s Fair was still a fairly Big Deal in North America, and Vancouver played host to one of the most notable World Expo galas, Expo ’86. (If you’re a millennial and don’t remember this, I’ll point out that Death Cab for Cutie wrote a song about it. I hope you’re not too young to remember who they are.)

Like the Olympics, World’s Fairs have a tendency to roll over a city and change its character for a short period of time, but eventually leave lingering signs of decay after the fact.

Occasionally, such large-scale events might force slow, grudging change to an urban area. But that’s not what happened in the case of the Friendship 500, a floating McDonald’s location better known as the McBarge. A multi-million dollar project on the part of the fast-food giant, it was a floating fast food restaurant that stood out like a sore thumb amid all the food at the event that was actually of global origin. But McDonald’s, always on a futile mission to class up its food for people embarrassed by the idea of eating fast food, used the massive project to help draw attention to itself.

(YouTube link)

When it came to this World’s Fair, McDonald’s couldn’t be stopped. It got really into Expo ’86, with its Canadian arm putting on a nationwide contest that handed out free food and money in honor of the event. And the McBarge, along with the numerous McDonald’s locations added to the Expo ’86 grounds, really spoke to this.

But after Expo ’86 ended, the Friendship 500 wasn’t able to sustain itself as a standalone burger joint, so McDonald’s abandoned it, with the unusual abandoned building becoming a common subject for city explorers and showing up as a set in the film Blade: Trinity.

(YouTube link)

On the plus side, it isn’t being left for dead. The massive floating restaurant is currently getting a renovation worth $4.5 million in Canadian dollars, or $3.3 million in American currency.

“It will be restored and refitted,” said Sturgeon’s Developments President Howard Meakin told the Vancouver Sun in 2015. “It could be in Vancouver, but it could be in other places as well. We’re not saying exactly where it’s going to be located, but the plan is that it will undergo extensive renovations.”

The McBarge’s failure highlights the fast food’s chain odd history with floating restaurants. In 2000, the company closed a St. Louis location on a riverboat. (It was a better fate than the floating Taco Bell and Burger King, located nearby, received—the floating restaurants were destroyed during a flood. No, really.)

(Image redit: Flickr user Robot Brainz)

As for McBarge, it’s is still in the midst of renovations according to the most recent report on it, but a final location for the floating building hasn’t been decided yet.

On the plus side, unlike most buildings, it’s not stuck in a single location, really. Because it floats.


A version of this post by Ernie Smith originally appeared in the Tedium newsletter, which tries in vain to make dull topics slightly more interesting. You can follow along on Twitter or Facebook.


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