Americana: The Founding of McDonald's
article is a condensed, abbreviated synopsis of an outstanding research
paper he wrote for a class at Bellevue University.
It challenges many long-accepted “facts” about the founding of
describes himself as a “retired, old-time drive-in/fast food entrepreneur,
part-time college student, sales merchandiser, and devoted sportsman.”
His research sheds valuable new light on the pioneering efforts of
two men who launched the fast food industry.
McDonald’s – Born On a
from the Mojave, the brisk autumn wind carried an invigorating bite, hinting
at an unseasonable winter squall. It
was late, and little past 11:00 p.m. Seven men strode onto a well-lit tennis
court located behind a stately, white-columned southern style mansion.
Two men consulted over a sheet of paper and spoke in firm positive
tones as they supervised the activities of the other five. Red chalk perimeter lines and carefully composed geometric
shapes were drawn and redrawn on the court’s smooth surface. When the rendering was complete, the men carefully arranged
themselves at various locations in relation to the lines and shapes.
Gesturing and speaking as they passed, the men moved from place to
place, pausing and stopping, first before one shape then another.
The allemande continued – right then left, again and again – past
midnight into the predawn chill. Finally,
at 2:00 a.m., the men were satisfied and dispersed.
neighbor may well have mistaken these nocturnal antics as some sort of giant
outdoor board game – or perhaps a fraternal group rehearsing a holiday
square dance routine. The
drawing was, in fact, a full-scale floor plan and equipment layout for
McDonald’s new self-service concept.
The supervisors were Maurice and Richard McDonald.
to the brothers on that fateful night were four drive-in employees and Ira
Rowe, a draftsman. The southern-style mansion was the McDonald’s home.
“Most architects don’t really understand drive-ins.
Maybe it’s because not many ever worked in one,” explained
Richard McDonald. Experience had taught the brothers to do their own design
work. Ira Rowe was there to
make a working drawing from the full scale layout drawn of the tennis court
and sketch provided by Richard McDonald.
Leaving little to chance, the brothers wanted to actually go through
the paces of their new system.
“We started a
little after 11:00 p.m. that night and finished at 2:00 in the morning,”
said Richard McDonald as he related the tennis court story to me.
“After we all went home,” he continued, “it rained and washed
the drawing away. There were
puddles of red chalk rain water all over.
We had to clean that up and do the layout all over again,” McDonald
chuckled in good humor as he reminisced.
court vignette was developed from a 19
minute telephone interview with Richard McDonald, September 30, 1989.
I initiated the interview hoping to enlist Mr. McDonald’s help in
resolving widely held misconceptions and gross inaccuracies regarding the
founding of McDonald’s Hamburgers. Mr.
McDonald was most gracious and, in a clear, strong Yankee voice – which
belied his more than four score years – answered all questions in full. Direct quotes in the opening text are from that call as well.
It Is Bizarre
reference material that I have examined, I was astonished at finding so few
pages devoted to the men who created McDonald’s, Richard and Maurice
McDonald. My research unearthed
little more than biographical McNuggets (forgive me, I couldn’t resist),
never striking a vein rich with McDonald brothers’ historical data.
millions, Marshall McLuhan’s global villagers meet and eat at McDonald’s
– familiar to people from Moscow, Idaho to Moscow in the former
U.S.S.R.! Richard and
Maurice McDonald’s hamburgers have become the cuisine of the people – a
class leveling, international volksburger as it were.
Yet, the brothers have remained lightly sketched, shadowy characters
in the history they made with the masterpiece they created.
It is bizarre!
fast food industry is pure Americana. It
originated in America and happened nowhere else in the world.
The creators were Maurice (Mac) and Richard (Dick) McDonald. The purpose of this article is to demonstrate that fact –
irrefutably. This is a
quintessentially American sage.
Roaring Twenties, like thousands of others throughout American, Richard and
Maurice McDonald moved from their home in Manchester, New Hampshire west to
California. Early on they found
work as truck drivers for Columbia Movie Studios.
Saving their money very diligently, they eventually decided to go
into business for themselves. They
purchased a small movie theater called the Beacon in nearby Glendora,
California. But the theatre
business, like most other businesses in the 1930s was depressed.
Profits were lean. Times
“It was the
Depression, there wasn’t much money around.
Wiley’s Root Beer Stand was one of the few businesses in town that
was taking in any real cash. That’s why we got into the drive-in business,” explained
Richard McDonald in response to my telephone question.
Hard times or not – taking a calculated risk as they would
throughout their business careers – the brothers sold the Beacon and
opened a carhop drive-in at Arcadia, located twelve miles from Glendora.
For the next three years they did reasonably well as they learned the
In 1940, the
McDonalds found a great location on E Street in San Bernardino, a much
larger and growing city. “We cut the building in half and trucked each part from
Arcadia to San Bernardino on separate days.
There were some low bridges and a few other tight spots, but we made
it! The whole move cost about
$200,” laughed Mr. McDonald, remembering.
The brothers re-assembled the octagon-shaped building, hired a crew
and opened for business.
Over the next
seven years, with carhop service for over 100 cars, McDonald’s Drive-in
became the most popular spot in town. It
was a real money-maker. However,
serious problems were beginning to appear.
Staffing a food service operation is never easy.
Hiring and keeping a good, well-trained staff for a drive-in is even
more difficult. Having owned
and operated an A & W Drive-In for 10 years, I can assure the reader
this is no picnic.
particularly Richard, wanted a long-term, in-depth solution.
They saw the problems facing them as multidimensional and involving
every facet of their drive-in operations, not just carhops and fry cooks. Richard McDonald recalled, in a “Business New Hampshire”
interview that “that things were getting stale and we thought we would do
something different.” The
brothers closed San Bernardino’s most popular carhop drive-in forever.
months prior to closing, the McDonalds had been making plans.
An extensive study of guest checks confirmed what they had already
surmised. Although there were
over two dozen items on the drive-in menu, hamburgers, cheeseburgers, side
orders and soft drinks produced 75 to 85 percent of the volume and most of
the profit. Percentages such as
these were well known throughout the drive-in business.
This was nothing new. What
was new – truly exceptional – was the use the brothers made of this
data. The decision was made to
limit the menu to the volume-producing items and those items only. This is very definitely doing “something different.”
Big Time Breakthrough
When the new
McDonald’s opened in December of 1948, the sharply limited menu and new
order-taking system greeted the customers.
Carhop service windows were manned by “window boys” who doubled
as cashiers, wrapped the burgers, and filled most orders in well under a
minute. Customers received
their 15 cents burgers dressed with ketchup, mustard, pickle, and a light
sprinkle of chopped onion.
tell anyone that we put onion on, there wasn’t much anyway,” said
McDonald over the phone, “we didn’t want anything to slow service.”
A precooked and dressed hamburger was central to the McDonald’s
system. Giving people a choice on onion or other condiments would
defeat the system.
not take to the new style immediately.
Many simply drove away when a carhop failed to appear.
Others did not understand the procedure or resented the limited menu
or food preparation methods.
dropped by more than half. The
McDonald’s were on the verge of losing it all; but they hung tough, and
slowly the business began to grow. In
about 15 months cash receipts equaled the old drive-in’s grosses.
But, the high volumes absolutely essential to sustain the low prices
were not being produced. The
brothers polished and tightened operational procedures and, as always,
stressed their hallmarks: product quality and cleanliness, both personnel
and premises. They continued to hammer away, emphasizing speed, speed and
more speed coupled with attentive, courteous service. “We almost threw in the towel three times.
People said we were cuckoo. Nobody
wanted to wait on themselves or throw away their own trash,” said Richard
McDonald to a “Business New Hampshire” reporter, explaining what most
believed and was accepted gospel in food service circles.
Undeterred, driving hard, the brothers broke through – big time!
formed lines of 200 and more at service windows and were dispatched in
minutes. Cash receipts passed
$275,000 yearly in 1951. By
1953 gross sales had risen to over $300,000 annually.
Net profits would soon approach $100,000 per year.
These huge volumes were generated by a 15 cent hamburger and pure
was Carnation Corporation with the brothers’ revolutionary system that
they offered to develop a national chain of McDonald’s in partnership with
the brothers. Richard and
Maurice turned them down, preferring independence to corporate bureaucracy.
Besides, as always, the brothers had other plans.
It was obvious
to the McDonalds that their self-service system was eminently bankable.
They decided to franchise their invention.
The time was right in their judgment.
This market assessment proved to be prophetic.
In order to
market the franchise, Richard McDonald knew that the old, octagonal building
had to go. He wanted an eye-catching building. A building that people, with one look, would recognize as
McDonald’s. He tried
commercial artists and architects and was, as usual disappointed.
They simply lacked the imagination to capture the excitement, drive
and verve McDonald had envisioned and demanded for his building.
McDonald’s new building deserved the best design possible, and got
it from Richard McDonald himself. He
began sketching, searching his mind for the distinctive building that he
knew was there.
Stanley Meston has been given credit for the McDonald’s Self-Service
System building design. As late as 1984 he actually stated that the Golden Arches
were his idea too. Former
“Business Week” writer John F. Love and author of the critically
acclaimed book, McDonald’s Behind the Arches, further muddies the
water by also crediting Meston with McDonald’s building design.
Neither case is supported by the record.
associate of Stanley Meston throughout this period, unequivocally states in
Philip Langdon’s excellent book, Orange Roofs, Golden Arches, “Dick
McDonald had the basic plan worked out in rather meticulous detail.
I did a few sketches…that we thought were more architectural, but
he held firm. The colors and
the arches were asked for by McDonald.
The red and white title was something he wanted…Dick McDonald was
not interested in professional design services.”1 As with Ira
Rowe, the tennis court draftsman, Mr. McDonald needed a professional to
formalize his design and to get the necessary building permits.
the arches one night,” replied Mr. McDonald to my question.
During the telephone interview, I had asked him to clear up the
Meston contention. “I drew
pillars and others ideas and that night I sketched the arches.
That’s how it happened. Meston
never liked the arches. As a
matter of fact, I saw him years later and asked him if he liked the arches
now? He still wouldn’t admit they were a pretty good idea,”
continued McDonald. “Why,”
I asked, “wouldn’t he admit it now?”
“Ego,” answered Mr. McDonald with characteristic directness, not
It is clear
that Richard McDonald designed both the building and the Golden Arches.
The McDonald’s also named the arches, often referring to them as
their “Golden Arches.” An
advertising man, to his great credit, recognized the symbolic appeal and
It must have
seemed to the McDonald brothers that some days half the lunch crowd was made
up of people taking notes and drawing layouts of their operation.
So compelling and successful was the McDonald brothers’ concept
that it shaped – literally – the entire fast food industry.
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Richard and
Maurice were honored in the extreme. Burger
Chef, Hardee’s, Carrols, Burger King and Henry’s to name a few – were
copied in whole or in part after McDonald’s Self-Service System.
Henry’s – long defunct – was the ultimate copycat; it was a
copy of a copy. Henry’s took
its design from Collins’ Hamburger Handout.
Collins’ operation was a duplicate of the McDonald’s original San
Bad Luck, Good Luck
With the new
system, the building and the Golden Arches, the brothers had a complete
franchise package. They had
recently hired William Tansey, the aggressive former sales manger of Golden
State Creameries, to be their national franchise sales agent.
However, in a matter of months, poor health forced Mr. Tansey’s
retirement. As this point the
brothers had franchised at least 15 units.
ring-wise pro salesman from Chicago saw the opening, jammed his foot in
opportunity’s door and kept it there.
Sales of his Multimixer milkshake blenders had plunged disastrously.
By his own admission, he was desperate for a new connection, the
McDonald’s Self-Service System was a godsend.
It was a proven, successful concept, beautifully packaged, and ready
to go – or, more precisely, ready to sell.
William Tansey’s bad luck had become Ray Kroc’s great good
fortune. The McDonalds hired
In a letter to
this writer, Richard McDonald defined Kroc’s role as franchise agent in
unmistakable terms. It was
stated, “Whenever Ray sold a franchise, this franchise had to be
immediately assigned over to the McDonald brothers. He only had permission to sell franchises.”
The brothers drew up the sales agent contract, set all conditions and
retained complete ownership of all trade names, trademarks and business
secrets. In short, Ray Kroc
worked for the McDonalds. They gave the day to day grind to the Kroc group and were
rewarded handsomely with fees and royalties.
A sweet deal even for a couple of transplanted Yankee traders from
New Hampshire. Clearly, the
McDonalds just didn’t get to town on a load of turnips with a cow tethered
Maurice McDonald were tempered by decades of fierce food service
competition. They were
successful survivors of Great Depression business struggles, eighteen-hour
days, and pioneering veterans of near hand-to-hand combat in the burgeoning
drive-in business. Ignoring
jeers and skepticism, the brothers had displayed a driving will, and
implacable resolve to succeed with their golden-arched, revolutionary
business concept. These were
the tough-minded McDonald brothers with whom would-be buyers or brokers
would negotiate. It wouldn’t
be easy. The McDonald brothers
would prove the equal of all corners, whether with Carnation’s corporate
counsel or with a hardsell pro salesman and his Chicago lawyers.
things must have been “getting stale” because the brothers began
planning to do “something different” once again.
They ended their six year association with the Ray Kroc group,
accepting a $2.7 million buyout offer.
Richard and Maurice – already millionaires and with the added two
million plus – had grand plans to foment revolution in another industry.
These McDonald boys were getting to be real troublemakers.
paragraphs reveal in rich detail, the astonishingly fertile, creative and
versatile minds of Richard and Maurice McDonald.
time,” wrote Mr. McDonald in a letter to this writer, “we were working
on a new project and that was a chain of no-frills motels across the
country. This was in 1961 and
really the only chain of motels was Howard Johnson’s… Our entire theme
would play up the thrift angle as we had done with hamburgers…We would
cater to the tourists starting to travel across the country, salesmen, and
most of all, the families who wanted a spotless room…at down to earth
prices. We believe we would
have been tough competition for Howard Johnson’s.”
this time, my brother’s health began to deteriorate badly.
He wanted me to continue with the new project and he would try to
help. I told him we had started
together about 35 years ago and when he called it quits, I would do the
same. That is what we did.”
seriously question the McDonalds’ assertion that they “…would have
been tough competition for Howard Johnson’s?”
The brothers anticipated the budget motel trend by at least a decade.
Just as in fast food, the McDonalds were far ahead of the curve in
this area too. Remember, this
was 1961; a national “no-frills” motel segment did not exist.
It was a plan
so daring and brilliant in concept that it would turn a room full of Harvard
MBA’s green with envy – if they could understand it.
For it was just such an august, learned assemblage which concluded
that McDonald’s Self-Service System would never spread beyond its
regional, Western base. No doubt Richard McDonald is amused by Harvard’s less than
accurate assessment of McDonald’s prospects.
Golden Brown French Fries
No story about
McDonald’s would be complete without reference to their famous french
fries. Selling tens of
thousands of orders each month made the McDonald brothers among the
world’s foremost experts on french fried potatoes – hands down.
While their fries were usually very good – 30,000 orders a month
from the San Bernardino store alone – some sacks of potatoes produced
better, golden brown fries than others.
Why? With the same
concentration and attention in detail that produced McDonald’s
Self-Service System, the McDonalds brothers were determined to find the
answer – and they did!
personally did the basic research which established that the Idaho Russet
potato and proper aging were keys to consistent, high quality french fries.
The brothers performed endless cutting and deep-frying tests in
pursuit of a solution that would produce a consistent, golden brown french
fry. This trial and error research was conducted in a special
aging warehouse built in San Bernardino, California by the McDonald brothers
expressly for that purpose.
These are not
niggling concerns; they are of major importance.
This was the seminal research that ultimately changed the way
potatoes are processed throughout the American potato industry.
If McDonald’s Corporation revolutionized the potato industry, then
the revolution began with Richard and Maurice McDonald.
The record should reflect their indispensable contributions.
Arches remain the only universally-recognized symbol in a bland era of
committee-designed logos and cookie-cutter architecture.
The fast food buildings of today are indistinguishable from suburban
dental clinics or savings and loan branch offices.
They are all brick and glass – no sass no class!
Does anyone envision a future preservation group leading a movement
to save any of the current fast food buildings as they have with the early
McDonald’s, A & W Root Beer and others?
I think not.
What passes for
creative logo design and “serious architecture,” pales in comparison
with Richard McDonald’s brilliantly conceived and designed candy-stripped
building with the soaring Golden Arches and flashing Speedee Chef Sign.
The building, the sign, and the arches are the defining symbols of
the pioneering fast food era. They
are sublime. They were and
remain a world-class merchandising and marketing master stroke.
Behind The Arches
after reading excerpts from an article on McDonald’s, I began to wonder if
the McDonald brothers ever had anything2 to do with
the success of McDonald’s,” wrote Richard McDonald, his puckish wit
apparent. “During the years
from the time we first met Ray Kroc in 1954 and hired him in 1955 to be our
franchise agent, there was never any mention over the years that Ray was
founder of McDonald’s. However,
after we sold to Ray and his associates, he was elevated to be the
founder,” noted Mr. McDonald, dryly.
wrote what I thought was a great line.
He said, “if Kroc was the founder, it would be interesting if a
customer, instead of ordering a Big Mac, would order a Big Kroc,” related
Mr. McDonald, obviously amused by his friend’s ironic humor.
been written about the McDonald’s Corporation and Ray Kroc.
The preceding paragraphs – hopefully clarifying – and my
well-considered judgment are all that I can muster in response:
“Dick, you and Mac had everything to do with the
success of McDonalds!”
The legions of
McDonald’s chroniclers, as they sorted through the midden behind the
arches, would have discovered more had they dug a little deeper.
They might even have found Richard and Maurice McDonald.
Philip Langden, Orange Roofs, Golden Arches, Knopf (1986), p. 89.
“anything” was underlined by Mr. McDonald in a letter to this writer,
This quote is taken verbatim from letters between Mr. McDonald and the
Home - Top of Page