What Did the McDonald Brothers Teach Us?
Published on October 29th, 2017 | by John0
On a recent trip to Atlanta I finally got around to watching ‘The Founder.’ The story of Ray Kroc, the man who took (or in some cases stole) the McDonald brothers’ restaurant chain and turned it into one of the largest and most successful franchises and corporations in modern history. I’ve made a deliberate attempt on this site to avoid as much chatter about the big three fast-food giants. In my humble opinion they’ve done nothing to promote the qualities of our favorite food but rather exacerbated everything that is wrong with big food – from pink slime to an overweight population that thrives on sugar and fat.
But who am I to judge what a free-thinking individual can put in their body. We all have our guilty pleasures like dry vodka martinis or my inability to keep Twizzlers in my cupboard without consuming the entire bag in one sitting.
After watching ‘The Founder’ I surmised at least three possible themes. No-holds-barred capitalism; the payoff of persistence; or the innovation of the American mind. I kind of like the third.
Probably the most fascinating scene in the film is watching Richard (Dick) McDonald design the restaurant of the future. Without the aid of computer automated design or 3D modeling, he uses a tennis court and several pieces of chalk to iterate through several concepts until he achieves perfection. This orchestration of trial and error is the epitome of old fashioned innovation and elbow grease. The McDonald brothers were tirelessly dedicated to perfecting their model that would produce juicy burgers, hot crispy fries, and cold frothy milkshakes – consistently.
The success of their first few restaurants are testament that you can produce good food efficiently and cost-effectively. Keep in mind this occurred in 1948 when most food was actual food and milkshakes were made of real ice cream and milk! Their concept became the model for the fast-food industry. It wasn’t until organizations adopted processed food and meat factories to save time and money that the industry went down its malignant route. But that’s another story that plenty others have told. Speaking of this story, the rest of the movie presents how Ray Kroc manipulated the McDonald brothers, Dick and Maurice (Mac), and ‘stole’ their concept – eventually taking over the McDonald’s name and organization.
Like all films good or bad, a certain level of creative license is taken when it comes to fact versus fiction. I did a little research and most of the film is true. However it seems that the McDonald brothers wanted to sell McDonald’s to Ray Kroc versus the ‘hostile takeover’ the film asserted. But unfortunately for the McDonald brothers, Kroc reneged on his handshake deal to give them .5% royalty on McDonald’s profits. A sum of money that was worth over $300 million by 2012. I guess Kroc was ticked after learning that the original McDonald’s restaurant wasn’t included when he bought the company. Not only did he break the deal, he forced the brothers to rename the restaurant ‘The Big M.’ He then went on to open a McDonald’s a block away which eventually put them out of business six years later. Whoever said business wasn’t personal.
Probably one of the other Kroc acts that earned him much disdain is his claim he was the founder of McDonalds. Unsurprisingly and unfortunately he’s not the first businessman to claim someone else’s idea. You don’t have to look far to know that Mark Zuckerberg didn’t create Facebook but more or less took/borrowed/stole the idea from the Winklevoss brothers. Or that Steve jobs didn’t invent the graphical-user-interface (GUI) and mouse, but borrowed the concept after seeing it at PARC Labs (a unit of Xerox). Even Thomas Edison which most of history proclaims to have invented the light bulb was really the first one to develop a practical and inexpensive one.
I think I need to stop here before I slide down this slippery slope. There’s a fine line between copying/stealing/borrowing and being a visionary. There’s also the case of how big a jerk you are. The nuances can be endless, hence the need for ethics classes at most major universities. I guess the lesson here is you can be a great inventor, but if you can’t market the idea or get it into the hands of the masses, find someone who can. And have a rock-solid contract in place, and well, even that won’t provide any assurances. It seems that the marketer will get the accolades and money. The innovator, a posthumous asterisk in history. But on the other hand what good is a great idea if it never gets off the ground or into the hands of someone who really needs it.
It’s too bad that the original McDonald’s concept got lost in mass production and pink slime. I remember when McDonald’s opened in our neighborhood on Long Island. There was so much buzz and hype we all literally ate it up. If there’s an iconic American burger it’s a Big Mac. If I was forced to eat a fast food burger that’s my choice. Which brings me to the chain that is doing exactly what McDonalds originally sought and what most fast casual restaurants are pursuing – fresh made-to-order burgers, reasonably priced, and relatively quick. And the winner here is In-N-Out. This privately held family owned restaurant is literally the big kahuna. They don’t have customers – they have rabid fans. Check out any In-N-Out and there’s always a line at the drive-through. These guys do one thing and one thing only – burgers, fries, and shakes. No hot dogs, chicken sandwiches or salads. And it’s all fresh made on site. Even the fries are hand-cut on premise. What a novel idea.
Why aren’t In-N-Out’s everywhere? Because their commitment to quality (Dick and Mac McDonald’s original obsession) overrides all decisions. No franchises. Only locations that are within a certain radius of their distribution centers. You won’t find a microwave in any of their restaurants either. And if you look closely under one of their paper cups or wrappers you’ll see Bible versus. You think they care if someone is offended? I doubt it. And why? Because they’re true to their ideals and beliefs. And that my friends is why they are killing it. By the way, next time you’re out West, try an In-and-Out Burger Animal Style. It’s by far the best fast casual – fast food burger out there. Trust me.
So here we are almost 70 years after the first McDonald’s opened and we are still managing to invent new and glorious ways to prepare our illustrious burger. Almost every type of restaurant has a burger concept on its menu. Even James Beard award-winning chefs have elevated burgers to haute cuisine status. Never before have we’ve been offered so many options. And like all art forms, the burger will continue to be re-invented. Just as the English language has over 170,000 words, original masterpieces will continue be written and enjoyed and our beloved burger will evolve and multiply as long as the focus is on commitment and quality. Simple yet glorious words to live by.