The McDonald's fast food company is the world's largest restaurant chain which prides itself with offering (almost) the same standardized menu all around the globe...

...this globe.

When humanity colonizes Mars, how large would the population of the colony need to be in order to provide all the infrastructure and industry required to allow McDonald's to open an economically viable restaurant which offers the complete menu without having to rely on off-world exports?

  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Commented Oct 30, 2018 at 16:30
  • $\begingroup$ smbc-comics.com/comic/culture ? (could link to it in the question :P) $\endgroup$
    – Nick T
    Commented Nov 1, 2018 at 3:20
  • $\begingroup$ Economic viability will not singularly refer to the restaurant on Mars, but to the company as a whole. Providing infrastructure on another planet will have massive impact on brand value, as long as they are one of the first to do so. $\endgroup$
    – syck
    Commented Nov 6, 2018 at 15:28

11 Answers 11


A (local) population of about ten thousand people should be enough. In my opinion there are three factors here.

  1. Is there enough need for a restaurant? There seem to be around 14.000 McDonalds restaurants in the US, which is roughly one per 23.000 inhabitants. Assuming that the first one on Mars will be on the smaller size and have less competition, 10.000 potential customers should be fine.

  2. Can you produce the menu items? I think this is the easiest point. Most of the ingredients derived from plants will be fine, something like lettuce, grains and tomatoes will be among the first things grown on Mars anyway. Meat will be harder since raising cattle would cost more of the limited available labour and greenhouse-space than it would to directly grow crops, but lab-grown meat is definitely no further in the future than large self-sufficient martian colonies. And since the colony needs to eat, the food will have to be there anyway. Interestingly, the only problem I see is the packaging. Large amounts of trash are most likely a no-go on a small colony and neither the wood for paper nor the oil for most common plastics will be easily accessible on Mars.

  3. Are you allowed to do this? Actually I think this is the critical point. Depending on your vision of the future, martian colonies will either be state funded military/science/vanity missions, or research/mining/vanity operations bankrolled by large companies and conglomerates. This means that initially all colonists in a location will be permanently bound to an employer and critical resources like food, water and energy will be centrally controlled. You'll have to wait quite a while and most likely a few generations for "free martian citizens" and an internal free market to develop. The more likely option is outside involvement. Just think of the publicity of being the first interplanetary fast-food chain. So the most likely thing is that some company executives on earth will just cut a deal and some company/state-run cafeteria on Mars will be rebranded into the first McDonalds in space.

Edit: Another point mentioned in the comments is the economy of scale. It is true that they will not be able to keep their cheap earth prices for food, but neither can anybody else. Most likely the colony's food production will be centralized at this stage anyway and the martians food will either payed for by the colony's owner or the colonists will just expect that food is a lot more expensive.

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    $\begingroup$ It's worth noting that every ingredient used in a regular McDonalds restaurant is mass produced by the McDonalds company itself. Most of the profit comes from being able to make an entire cheeseburger for 20cents + labour. With only a single restaurant, all the economies of scale are lost - which is a major part of the McDonalds business model - and I feel that could do with being addressed. $\endgroup$
    – Bilkokuya
    Commented Oct 29, 2018 at 12:02
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    $\begingroup$ @Bilkokuya: Breaking new ground is a massive reason to run the Mars McDonald's at a loss in the beginning. It will tap into a market (the Mars colony) that will expand in the future, thus also enabling McDonald's' Mars division. $\endgroup$
    – Flater
    Commented Oct 29, 2018 at 12:03
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    $\begingroup$ @Flater That's absolutely fair (Pizza Hut for example delivered to the ISS at a loss of $1million, just for publicity) - but it should be addressed in the answer. $\endgroup$
    – Bilkokuya
    Commented Oct 29, 2018 at 12:04
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    $\begingroup$ If the US military will allow for Pizza Hut and Burger King (among others) at military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, getting permission for a fast food place on Mars doesn't seem insurmountable. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 29, 2018 at 14:28
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    $\begingroup$ (copied my own comment to another answer): McDonalds sells different burgers in different parts of the world. What's to say on Mars they won't sell burgers adapted to the people and raw material available there? They can as well sell lab-grown-meet burgers or insect-meat burgers $\endgroup$
    – Dhara
    Commented Oct 29, 2018 at 15:21

The Law of Averages

This is actually easier to figure out then you might expect, however the mars aspect does change things slightly. I'm going to use the UK figures for this as i'm from the UK. and therefore its easier. but please remember that it depends of the type of people you send, Americans are much much bigger fans of Fast Food then the rest of the world, places like the Netherlands use it huge amounts less, i used the UK as my example as they seem to be much more in the middle of the two extremes

According to MacDonalds themselves: they have over 200 restaurants in London UK, London has a population of 8.136 Million. https://www.mcdonalds.com/gb/en-gb/help/faq/18647-how-many-restaurants-are-there-in-london.html

Lets keep maths easy and say 200 to 8 million, that means that those 200 restaurants can survive trade on 8 million population plus tourists. which according to google is about 19 million tourists each year. so 19 plus 8 is 27, divided by 200 stores equals 135,000 potential customers per restaurant to keep them afloat.


This page suggests something very different, however its worth noting that service station due to require a local population, their business is entirely dependant on traffice through an area rather than the area itself. i struggled to find the amount of service stations with a MacDonalds to remove these from the totals to get an accurate Restaurant to Population Ratio

However mars will not be a big city at least at first, it will be colony, the closest example we have of that is an island. so...

Channel Island of Jersey, Population of ~100,000, has 1 MacDonalds,

Isle of Wight, population of ~139,000, has 2 MacDonalds

Isle of Man, Population of 84,000, has 1 MacDonalds

Channel Island of Guernsey, Population of ~63,000 has none.

So going with these averages... it suggests around 1 MacDonalds to every 70,000 to 80,000 population.

You can use the same type of averaging to find out how many of any store are needed to support a given population, from Car Sales to Computer Stores. although obviously the factor of not having locally available products with which to key that food would be a key factor in this.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ There is one McDonald in Skierniewice and another in Zyrardow. Both are cities in Poland each with population around 50,000 and hardly any transit or tourists. The trouble is it is different thing to have a restaurant in a town within a country inhabited by millions of people (and with number of other restaurants spread across the country, all logistics and production scaled for the whole population or at least large part of it). So despite my counterargument your numbers should probably be higher. On the other hand there are also other factors to consider, including PR and potential monopoly. $\endgroup$
    – Ister
    Commented Oct 29, 2018 at 14:50
  • $\begingroup$ @Ister, i agree to a point, that is why i looked at islands rather than countries. the interesting factor was that all listed islands had Burger King, KFC and MacDonalds except Guernsey which has none of them, so it seems the practical population requirement might be just above the population of Guernsey, If you look at countires as a whole then en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… this shows a very different figure $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 29, 2018 at 15:14
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    $\begingroup$ I wouldn't add tourists to residents for your numbers. A resident might eat fast food every week (or whatever amount a local survey shows) but a tourist is only there for a day or a week total. The better number would be the average number of people in the city on any given day, though that is a lot harder to find. $\endgroup$
    – Cyn
    Commented Oct 29, 2018 at 16:37
  • $\begingroup$ @Cyn, I agree with your point. As for average number of tourists, we can divide the 19 million by 365 to get the average number of tourist per day. This average/day is the best figure to use, because it shows the actual sustained increase in population. Although the number is negligible. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 29, 2018 at 20:30
  • $\begingroup$ @cyn you could account for that by assuming that all residents are likely to be there every day of the year, and if each tourist will present on average of one day out of that year, you can divide the number of tourist by the number of days in the year (~52055), add that number to the number of residents, and you have the average number of people there on any given day (~8.052 million). So McDonalds would need there to be ~40,260 in the area per day on average for it to be viable. $\endgroup$
    – Tiny Giant
    Commented Oct 29, 2018 at 20:30

Do you allow for gov't subsidies? Once a corporation wins the bid to feed the Martian colony, what they charge the customers is insignificant relative to the subsidy.

Alternatively, MacD's corporate marketing dept may decide that the publicity back on Earth will increase Terran sales enough to offset the "loss-leader" restaurant on mars.


The big M sells 1 hamburger for 1 $. No small restaurant can offer the same price, because they don't have the scale economies behind their product. To have a Mars Donald you would need a completely terraformed Mars, to be able to have livestock and feed them with food grown on the planet. Growing livestock and their food requires a lot of water.

You would then need something similar to the society of the '60s, to be able to replicate the same scale economies, logistics and technology. The crops and other things used to feed the cows are not grown together with the cows. They are made in a place and transported to another.

You also need a massive organization behind it, to carefully control and manage the production chain. And you need an environment and a society to support the people working in that organization.

I assume that, in order to have such an advanced level, you would need to have at least a couple billion people living on Mars (in 1960 there were about 3 billion people on Earth).

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    $\begingroup$ Why do you need terraforming? You can grow food and cattle in indoor grow houses. You need to do that anyway to have a self-sufficient Mars colony. Also, I doubt that your 3 billion figure is realistic. That might be enough to support the whole McDonald's corporation in the size it has on Earth, but we are talking about one restaurant here. $\endgroup$
    – Philipp
    Commented Oct 29, 2018 at 9:29
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    $\begingroup$ @Philipp, a single restaurant will never be able to sell an hamburger for 1 $. For that you need scale economies. And since you are asking for Mc Donald and not for a generic hamburger shop, I assume you are implying the same or similar scale. $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Commented Oct 29, 2018 at 10:13
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    $\begingroup$ I do not believe you need the whole of Mars terraformed to accommodate the function of one McDonald's restaurant. Perhaps it would be better to think of the setting not as on Mars, but "away from the infrastructure of Earth." Consider the same question, but for another body like the dwarf planet Ceres or some remote asteroid colony. $\endgroup$
    – user44399
    Commented Oct 29, 2018 at 10:17
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    $\begingroup$ @Battle We are talking about a colony, not an independently evolved civilization. We can assume they already possess all the scientific knowledge of humanity when they arrive on Mars (and if it turns out they forgot something, they can request some eBooks via radia transmission). $\endgroup$
    – Philipp
    Commented Oct 29, 2018 at 10:29
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    $\begingroup$ McDonalds sells different burgers in different parts of the world. What's to say on Mars they won't sell burgers adapted to the people and raw material available there? They can as well sell lab-grown-meet burgers or insect-meat burgers $\endgroup$
    – Dhara
    Commented Oct 29, 2018 at 15:20

100,000 +

This answer goes a different route. While other answers look at the product sold and the customer numbers, I am looking at the workforce.

McDonalds employs largely minimum-wage employees in a franchise scheme. That means you need a society large enough that there are people living on Mars who are not highly qualified scientists, engineers, etc. but low-wage service personel. And you need enough of them that competition has pressed wages low enough for the McDonalds business model to work. You also need someone to run the business, i.e. a franchise owner. Which means your society is large and developed enough that you have entrepeneurs and freelancers. As long as your Mars colony is a government entity or a whole owned subsidary of Mars Exploration Inc. this doesn't happen.

When looking at the real world, you can see that societies in the thousand or ten-thousand numbers can easily function in a closed model. Many international corporations are this size. Many government agencies are this size. In fact, according to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_largest_employers there are a couple organisations in the 1-2 million range.

Which is why I am putting my number on 100,000 at the very least, possibly higher, before you have the social and economical environment where a franchise business employing minimum-wage workers can even exist.

or around 1,000

The above assumes a proper McDonalds restaurant more or less identical in operation to one on Earth.

Of course, for simple reasons of branding, it is highly likely that McDonalds would make a branding cooperation with the local cafeteria the way it already does with schools and hospitals.

My guess at around 1000 is based on the fact that the McMurdo research station is around that size (1,258) and its cafeteria begins to look more like a school or corporate cafeteria than a military mess hall. Branding is definitely not far off, and if it were more high-profile (like it would on Mars), certainly someone would already have thought about it.



That's just an arbitrary number isn't it?

Not entirely, it seems that someone on Quora asked "How many customers are there per McDonalds store", to which the lowest value was:

At my current store we may serve 500 (max)people each day but most of that is during the breakfast and lunch hours.

(responses mostly from McDonalds staff) and McDonalds own 2009 report (PDF) said:

Last year, 1 in 8 meals were eaten out of the home.This year, it will be 1 in 9

So assuming everyone eats out one meal every three days and McDonalds is the only show in town, you need 1500 people to support a McDonalds.

In practice far more

Running a McDonalds requires a specific culture. It depends on a society that can afford to be wasteful, afford to have minimum wage workers (a percentage unemployed), afford to have people who aren't dedicated simply to keeping the facility running. You'll also need a significant population of the type who would eat at a McDonalds*, as part of a self sustaining independent colony.

So at least 10-15,000, possibly upwards of 500,000.

The chances are McDonalds or KFC are highly likely to be the first branded fast food joint in town, but not likely to be the first place to eat. There will be a race between the big names to get the first outlet opened, whether that will be maintained once that first outlet opens is a matter of whether it's economical in the long run. The first may well be a temporary store just to say they'd done it.

*Who are these people? The food is filth!

  • $\begingroup$ For a new store in an entirely new town in a country where McDonalds is already established? Sure. It already benefits from the supply chain. On an entirely different planet with an entirely different supply chain and doing it economically? Not convinced. $\endgroup$
    – James T
    Commented Oct 29, 2018 at 13:25
  • $\begingroup$ @JamesTrotter, I'm not convinced either, but this is also a flagship outlet that the big names will be racing to get. Whether it's entirely economical may be secondary. $\endgroup$
    – Separatrix
    Commented Oct 29, 2018 at 13:30

What do you mean by "economically viable"? Because:

The first McDonald's on Mars will almost certainly operate at a loss.

McDonald's will deliberately choose to open a restaurant before that restaurant can make money individually, for two reasons:

First is the PR benefit back home. This has already happened. Pizza Hut famously delivered to the ISS. It was a huge loss, if you only consider that delivery, but here we are still talking about it 17 years later. Similarly, a McDonald's opening on Mars could be huge news, and they could continue to make news over time as they slowly expand offerings.

But that's just the icing. The other reason is McDonald's doesn't want to end up as the Mars equivalent of Arby's. McDonald's leads the fast food market on Earth, and they'll want to lead the fast food market on Mars... and that means getting started early learning how to the handle the distribution, labor, payment, construction, regulatory, and many other issues that are sure to come up in the extreme environment. They want a foot in the door, and they want to be first, so as the Mars colony grows they're best positioned to open their second restaurant... and the third, and so on. So 150 years later, the Martian family goes to out to McDonald's rather than Burger King.

McDonald's, especially, has a history of multi-generational marketing in this way. It's why their mascot is a clown, and why the Happy Meal is such an iconic brand.

With those things in mind, I think it's reasonable they would consider a population similar to an aircraft carrier, which has some of the same supply concerns, even if at a smaller scale, but still manages accommodate at least one major brand.


Just One.

McDonalds is actually quite a proactive and progressive company. It experiments regularly with different ways to market, create, and distribute its products. Research and development is a strong focus of the company in all these areas.

It even explored a NASA mission to 449 Hamburga as an advertising opportunity, which is indicative of how novel the company can be.

Earlier last year, McDonalds produced a McDonalds Vending Machine. The purpose was to trial and test a new Point Of Sale system and create a bit of novelty. McDonalds Australia and many in the U.S. have now ramped out this system such that many stores now have new P.O.S. systems for customers without the need for staff interaction.

With available 3D Printing techniques, it may be possible to combine these technologies to create the first no-staff store. McDonalds already makes headway into 3D printing straws and also toys, and there are calls for 3D printing its burgers. There is research underway for cultured patties and aeroponics systems for long voyages and remote areas.

It is easy to see the benefits for McDonalds to have a sustainable, reusable, 3D printing McDonalds Vending Machine, the first such one, on Mars:

  1. Viability: McDonalds is an all-encompassing company, with 37,241 stores in 120 countries, and an annual revenue of $10 billion USD. The marketing budget alone is a major cost, with sponsorship, advertising, and community programs forming a major part of its operation which contributes to its positive image and presence in the public eye. Economic sustainability of its stores is supported by such a large organisational effort franchisees are generally well-assured of commercial success regardless of circumstance, however loss-making stores are well supported too, and closures of McDonalds are almost unheard of due to this support. However the opportunities for Mars would be more in Marketing and Image.

  2. Marketing: McDonalds has the resources to spend and produce the above, simply for the purposes of putting McDonalds 'on the map'. Such a claim to be the first restaurant on Mars would be a great boon to the image of the company. With relatively little investment, such an endeavour can yield years (or even decades) of 'free' ongoing marketing opportunities for McDonalds. It is the ultimate in product-placement, and compared to their numerous Sponsorship deals, enormous marketing budget such an investment is small.

  3. Image: McDonalds is also very keen to reform its image. Being renown for fatty, unhealthy foods in the 80's has made it actively correct for this since, with strong community focussed programs and advertising to alter this. Sustainable farming, childrens health, salads, locally sourced beef and vegetables, even the new 'brick and wood' fitouts, all are orchestrated towards this image. A Mars mission could yield benefits to this image in terms of technological progression and research, food re-use and sustainability, and health.

  4. Menu: McDonalds regularly changes its menu to suit local factors. Obviously the Big Mac is a staple, however all other products are adjusted to suit the local market (although the patties are carefully altered also to suit cultural requirements in different parts of the world). The technology above could yield its own 'space menu', enjoyed by just one voyager (the mission Commander perhaps) not just for its variety from freeze-dried food but also a way to eat lettuce, tomato and other foods, in a way to 'remind' the Commander of home.

All you need is one person to enjoy the above benefits - although the real benefits would be of course mainly to McDonalds regardless.


Now this is only my opinion and speculation.

But I think that

When humanity colonizes Mars

will be at a time that humanity has reached a post scarcity civilization. Money will maybe not even exist anymore. Everything will be free and McDonald's restaurants will be fully run by robots. So maybe the Mars population could actually be 0. It might well be that people send robots to setup and create a restaurant even before the first humans even decide to migrate to Mars.

  • $\begingroup$ .. and Pizza Hut will be the only survivor of the Franchise Wars $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 1, 2018 at 6:34


McDonald's is a real estate business that not only depends directly on people buying burgers, but on the indirect value of traffic to their location.

Long Version

From If McDonald’s Is A Real Estate Business, What Business Are You In?:

In 1954, aged 52, Ray Kroc joined McDonalds as a franchise manager. 10 years later he bought the entire business for $2.7m.

He was an incredibly successful businessman, building McDonalds from a small chain into the most successful fast food operation in the world.

A story is told about some advice he once gave to a class of Harvard MBA students. He asked them all, “what business is McDonalds in?”

“Restaurants!” “Hospitality!” “Supply Chain!” “Franchising!” “Entertainment!”

“No!” Ray laughed and replied to each student.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I’m not in the hamburger business. My business is real estate.”

And from Business Lessons From Ray Kroc "The Founder" -- McDonald's Story

Despite a handful of successful franchises up and running, Kroc is nearly out of cash. His slice of the business is tiny, and the bank is threatening to foreclose on his house mortgage.

A fortuitous intervention by Harry Sonneborn, another fast food executive, steers Kroc in the more lucrative direction. “You’re not in the hamburger business, you’re in the real estate business,” Kroc is told. Keaton’s monumentally expressive face registers the logic, and he pivots into buying up the real estate which he leases back to the franchise.

The real estate corporation McDonald's should find such a franchise economically viable if the property provides value to them. Part of that value comes from the lease, and part from the increasing value of the property. It needs to be worthwhile to the operator in order to afford the property lease. It needs to be worthwhile to McDonald's if the value of the lease and the value of the property combine for more income than their expenses (cost of the property, taxes, insurance, etc.)

The value of the lease depends on the volume of business that you asked about. The value of the property depends in part on that, but also the value of the land itself. That is, it would depend on other businesses building nearby, so the desirability of the land increases as more and more businesses want to build close to McDonald's. Why do those businesses want to build nearby? Well, to get the overflow from McDonald's, for one. For another, traffic. (Hey look, a battery shop! I should get some AA batteries since I'm going by there anyway...)

Overall, yes, there's some critical mass at which the number of people make the restaurant profitable to the operator. But it's more complicated than that for McDonald's as a corporation. I think that any projections at this point in time will prove to be wildly inaccurate when the idea becomes reality, even with substantial consideration of the issues involved. Nevertheless, that's not a deal-breaker for your world, perhaps, if you can leave plenty of wiggle-room in your expression of it.


And as others have mentioned - PR! A McDonald's will be talked about by a myriad of outlets. The value of that depends not on the population of Mars, but of our Solar System as a whole, or at least, the population of all worlds with a McDonald's.


At least one million

Source(s): Just trust me on this.

Now for reality. The real number is hard to guess, because:

  • For story purposes, the first ever McDonalds may be offering localized menu. But lets assume we want to deliver the iconic Big Mac on Mars
  • It is also worth noting, that the Big Mac might be made from completely different items, because cows cause global warming (Skeptics confirmed). But lets assume that one of reasons to leave Earth is global ban on beef meat and also that greenhouse gasses are needed for Mars terraformation.

In my opinion, if Mars has around million people of population, it may be economically profitable to open a venue there.

enjoy your mcDonalds! Enjoy your food!

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    $\begingroup$ I'm sorry, but "Just trust me on this" isn't the deep insight I was expecting from a good answer. I am also not sure what value that picture is supposed to add to the answer. $\endgroup$
    – Philipp
    Commented Oct 29, 2018 at 11:44

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