Age of Innocence – 1955, The Unstoppable Force of McDonalds

DesPlaines McDonalds

Some World changing developments were happening around about the time of my first year, most of them in the United States where North America was emerging as the wealthiest and most progressive country in the World.

None more so than the hamburger.  The  original McDonald’s restaurant opened in San Bernardino, California in 1940, with a diner owned by two brothers, Richard and Maurice McDonald.  The present McDonald’s Corporation however dates its founding to the opening of a franchised restaurant by Ray Kroc, in Des Plaines, Illinois in April 1955.

mcdonald brothers

The McDonald brothers were interesting, some would say rather eccentric, characters who were inspired by the assembly line manufacturing method of Henry Ford in his car factories and in 1948 without warning they suddenly closed their traditional and popular establishment for several months and set about applying the principles of mass production to the restaurant industry.

They pared the service back to only the 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 on offer.  Basically just ‘take it or leave it’.  This was whole new idea that they called ‘fast food’ that went against all service conventions, which could be served to a formula, almost instantaneously and always with consistency.

They also removed any distractions like jukeboxes and payphones, so it wouldn’t become a hangout spot for young people and that there would be a continuous turnover of customers.

The brothers reduced labour costs because there were no waitresses and customers presented themselves at 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 with plastic knives and forks. Their introduction of the ‘Speedee Service System’ established the principles of the modern fast-food restaurant. The original mascot of McDonald’s was a man with a chef’s hat on top of a hamburger shaped head whose name was ‘Speedee.’

Speedee McDonald's

Ray Kroc was a middle-aged multi-mixer milkshake machine salesman and he was intrigued by an order from the McDonald brothers who had purchased eight of his Multi-Mixers, which to him seemed rather a lot for a small restaurant.  Immediately after visiting the San Bernandino restaurant he became convinced that he could sell exceptional numbers of mixers to every new restaurant that they opened, and so he offered the McDonald brothers a deal.

Although they were truly innovative the two brothers were not particularly ambitious and were they were satisfied with their one restaurant that provided them with a comfortable life and regular income.  But Ray Kroc realised the potential and with much bigger plans proposed a chain of new McDonald’s restaurants and he tried to convince them to expand the operation but eventually became frustrated with their lack of vision and  forced them into an agreement.

Kroc prepared a business proposal but insisted that he could not show all of the details to the potential investors so the agreement was made with a handshake (as opposed to a milkshake). The brothers dithered and Kroc became annoyed that they would not transfer to him the real estate and rights to the original unit.  Kroc closed the transaction and then refused to acknowledge the royalty portion of the agreement because it wasn’t in writing.  The McDonald brothers were clearly poor businessmen and no match for the ruthless Kroc, they even neglected to register the name McDonalds so to force the issue Kroc opened his new McDonald’s restaurant near the brothers diner which they were forced to change to “The Big M”.

In 1961, he finally purchased the company from the brothers. The agreement was for the McDonalds to receive $2.7 million for the chain and to continue to receive an overriding royalty of 1.9% on future gross sales  and very specifically 1.9% because when negotiating the contract the McDonald brothers said that 2% sounded greedy.

McDonalds didn’t reach the United Kingdom until 1974 and now there are over a thousand of them and the Company business plan is to open thirty new restaurants every year.  I don’t remember when I first started using McDonalds, probably at about the time my children started to request it as a dining option, and now, apart from the occasional breakfast bun, I would only use it if I am absolutely desperate!

One place where Kroc failed to make an impression was at Disneyland.  In 1955 he wrote to Walt Disney offering a deal: “I have very recently taken over the national franchise of the McDonald’s system. I would like to inquire if there may be an opportunity for a McDonald’s in your Disneyland Development.”  The story goes that Walt was too busy to deal with the matter himself so he passed it on to the President in charge of concessions.  Allegedly he agreed but wanted to increase prices by 50% with all the extra profit going to Disney.  Kroc refused and it was to be another thirty years before they worked together.

Ray Kroc with Burger

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15 responses to “Age of Innocence – 1955, The Unstoppable Force of McDonalds

  1. Thanks for giving so many explanetions about McDonals but doubtless they and other kind of Fast Food, is the reason there are so many fat people, many of them don’t know how to control the way they eat… munch… many times it’s very bad for health.

  2. Pingback: Age of Innocence – More About McDonalds | Have Bag, Will Travel

  3. Purely from a business perspective, that was a great idea: to streamline and discount fresh food. I wonder when that familiar “M” logo, seen in the second photo, originated.

  4. Andrew I had known the story of McDonalds. Like you we frequented it when our kids were younger and now it perhaps when out on a road trip I stop in for a coffee or snack. I wonder if Kroc could have had any idea what would come of it all?

    • By the time he died in January 1984 there were over 6,000 diners in 31 countries. Canada was the second country to get a McDonalds in Richmond BC in 1967. Since the financial crash in 2008 there is no McDonalds in Iceland so be aware of that if you make a visit there!

  5. I never looked behind the logo to get the story about McDonald’s. Love it. Thanks for this post, Andrew. Interesting stuff. 🙂

  6. I last ate a Big Mac several years ago, when I was assured by my hosts that McDonald’s had the cleanest toilets in Bulgaria – ‘maybe the only clean ones’. The town of Zaandam, a few minutes outside Amsterdam, claims to have been the site of the first McDonald’s in mainland Europe. Here endeth my expertise and I bow to yours, Andrew.

  7. Now we have one in the Children’s Hospital in Melbourne and there is a push for more and with the growing epidemic of obesity related sicknesses some say the it would be a good idea because “every McDonalds needs to have a hospital attached to it”

    • There was TV programme in the UK where a journalist tried to live on nothing but McDonalds for a month to test the health issues. He gave up after about 2 weeks just as his liver was about to burst. To be fair to McDonalds they didn’t make a fuss they just said that the whole thing was stupid and they would never advocate a 100% burger and milk shake diet!

  8. Personally I find their so-called food disgusting. My mother floored me one time when she came back from a trip to Japan and raved about the fact that it had a McD’s… my question was why bother traveling if you’re going to eat one of our worst exports.

    • To be fair they have made big improvements in the UK. There is an expanded menu and they appear to have an ethical purchasing policy. I still don’t really like it but sometimes cannot get out of taking my grandchildren there now and again!

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