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Pure Americana:  The Founding of McDonald's
by
Thomas C. Dolly

Editor:

Mr. Dolly’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 McDonald’s restaurant.

Tom Dolly 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 Tennis Court

Sweeping in 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.

A curious 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.

In additional 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.

The tennis 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

In the 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.

By the 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!

Pure Americana

The drive-in, 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.

During the 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 were hard.

Carhop Drive-Ins

“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 business.

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.

Something Different

The brothers, 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.

For several 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.

“We didn’t 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.

Customers did 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.

Business 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!

Awesome

Huge crowds 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 speed.  Awesome!

So impressed 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.

Golden Arches

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.

Architect 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. 

Charles Fish, 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.

“I sketched 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 wasting words.

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 promoted it.

Copycats

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 Bernardino unit.

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.

A savvy, 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 Mr. Kroc.

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 behind!

Tough-Minded

Richard and 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.

Fomenting “Revolution”

Apparently 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.

The following paragraphs reveal in rich detail, the astonishingly fertile, creative and versatile minds of Richard and Maurice McDonald.

“At this 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.”

“However, at 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.”

Does anyone 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!

The McDonalds 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.

Symbols Sublime

The Golden 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

“Sometimes 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.

“One friend 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.

Volumes have 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.

Footnotes

1 Philip Langden, Orange Roofs, Golden Arches, Knopf (1986), p. 89.
2
“anything” was underlined by Mr. McDonald in a letter to this writer, 12/20/1989.
3
This quote is taken verbatim from letters between Mr. McDonald and the author.
 

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