In 1955, a businessman called Ray Kroc unleashed a restaurant revolution and the beginning of the western world obesity problem when he opened the ninth McDonalds franchise restaurant, in Des Plaines, Illinois, which eventually led to the McDonalds Corporation and world domination by the hamburger giant.
Kroc was a milkshake machine salesman and his work brought him into contact with the two brothers, Maurice and Richard McDonald, at their innovative hamburger restaurant in San Bernardino in California. The brothers were interesting characters who were inspired by the assembly line manufacturing method of Henry Ford and in 1948 they closed their successful but traditional restaurant for several months and applied the principles of mass production to the restaurant industry.
They pared the service back to the bare essentials, offering a simple menu of hamburgers, french fries and milkshakes, which were produced on a continuous basis, rather than made to order, and with no alternatives offered. Food could therefore be served to a formula, nearly instantaneously and always consistently, a new idea that they called “fast food”. There were no waitresses and customers walked to a single window to place and receive their orders. They made the food preparation area visible to the customers, to exhibit its standards of cleanliness, and they eliminated all plates and cutlery, serving only in paper bags.
The two brothers were not particularly ambitious however and only wanted to have their one restaurant but Ray Kroc wanted to have even more new McDonalds and he pressed then to expand the operation. Eventually he lost patience with them and forced the brothers out of business by opening a rival diner that he called McDOnalds (similar but not the same) right on the other side of the street. The small restaurant of the two brothers lost their customers and Ray Kroc bought them out in 1961 for $2.7 million, which was a tidy sum in 1961. McDonalds didn’t reach the United Kingdom until 1974 and now there are over a thousand of them. I don’t remember when I first started using McDonalds, probably at about the time the children started to request it as a dining option, and now I would only use it if I am absolutely desperate!
McDonald’s restaurants are now operating in 119 countries and territories around the world and serve 58 million customers each day. It operates over 31,000 restaurants worldwide, employing more than 1.5 million people.
The battle for France was one of the most difficult. The first outlet was opened in the Paris suburb of Créteil in 1972 and in 1999 a farmer turned environmental activist and anti-globalisation protester Jose Bové gave a whole new meaning to the term ‘drive-thru’ when he vandalised a half built McDonald’s by driving a tractor through it. At the time he was running for President and must have thought this would be popular with the French electorate but he was no match for Le Big Mac. The first round of the presidential election was held on April 22nd, and Bové finished an embarrassing tenth, getting barely 1 percent of the total vote. By then, McDonald’s was expanding rapidly in the land of fine dining and had three hundred more than it had had when Bové began his high profile campaign. The company was pulling in over a million people per day in France, and annual turnover was growing at twice the rate it was in the United States. Against McDonald’s, Bové had lost in a landslide.
Even though the French will maintain that they despise the fast food chain and the concept an awful lot of people do eat there. Across France there are nearly twelve hundred restaurants and in Paris alone there are almost seventy restaurants under golden arches, with even more dotted around the outer suburbs. That’s much the same as London, but with only a third of the people. McDonald’s, or “macdoh” as it is known, is France’s dirty secret. In 2007 the chain’s French revenues increased by 11 per cent to €3 billion. That’s more than it generates in Britain and in terms of profit, France is second only to the United States itself. It is now so firmly a part of French culture that the menu includes McBaguette and Croque McDo and in 2009 McDonald’s reached a deal with the French museum, the Louvre, to open a McDonald’s restaurant and McCafé on its premises by their underground entrance.
A consequence of the French love of fast food is a growing obesity problem in a country that has always always prided itself on being slim and healthy with a belief that there is something in the French lifestyle that protects them against obesity, heart disease and diabetes. This is called the ‘French Paradox’ and is now being exposed as a myth because they are straying from the very dietary habits that made them the envy of the world: eating small portions, eating lots of vegetables, drinking in moderation, and limited snacking. It seems that the French are exercising less, eating more fast food, and are employed in more service jobs where time is spent sitting at a desk rather than driving a tractor or working an assembly line. Overall six and a half million French, that’s 14.5% of the population, are now classified as obese.
A photograph taken on the beach at Berck in Northern France: