RE: McBasket of Fries
Thu, 02/5/04 6:09 AM
Not that anyone asked, but I thought this little tome Jane and I wrote about a decade ago about McDonald's for our Encyclopedia of Pop Culture might be of interest:
Combine car culture with junk food, apply assembly line techniques and rigid standardization, season it with a fetish for cleanliness and absolute control, and serve it to the baby boom. The result is an empire that, right up there with Coca Cola, Walt Disney World, and devotion to handguns, has come to symbolize America all around the world: vulgar, expedient, cheap for anyone to buy a little piece of on a plastic tray, but a cash bearing bonanza for the men in charge.
In 1954, when Ray Kroc made a deal with the McDonald Brothers to franchise their restaurant idea nationwide, they had a clever, profitable little hamburger stand in San Bernardino, and a dozen branches scattered in California and Arizona. Twenty years later the McDonald brothers had been put out to pasture; McDonald's, with four thousand stores coast to coast (and beyond), had become the largest minimum wage employer in the country. Now, nearly twenty years after that, it has eight and a half thousand stores , and it owns more real estate than any company on earth.
There are two ways to think about McDonald's growth and phenomenal success. On one hand it is a rags to riches fable of a man who dared to dream in a land of unlimited opportunity, the story of pioneering business acumen and the thrill of taking risks, of hard work, wholesome idealism, selfless philanthropy, and Ronald McDonald, America's beloved ketchup coiffed clown. On the other hand, cynics see McDonald's ascension as a horror story. Its villain is Ray Kroc, a shrewd megalomaniac who began by screwing the McDonald Brothers, then built a billion dollar business on the backs of low paid teenage help and franchisees who got hoodwinked, all the while despoiling the environment in North America (by building ugly restaurants and littering the highway) and South America as well (by consuming so much beef that nations were encouraged to turn their rain forests into cattle land), and hardening the arteries of millions of customers who have grown accustomed to baneful robotic food. "McDonald's," Tom Robins wrote, "represents mediocrity at its zenith."
The facts are these: the McDonald's phenomenon started in 1948 when Mac and Dick McDonald, who had done fine selling hamburgers at their little California drive in since 1940, decided they didn't like how much of their income went to pay car hops, dish washers, and fry cooks. So, in what would later look like Godly prescience on the eve of the stupendous post war boom in car sales, highway building, and the move to suburbia, the McDonald brothers changed strategies. Instead of a full menu with the usual choice of condiments for each sandwich, customers would henceforth pick from a small, standardized menu and receive exactly the condiments that the McDonald brothers ordained. In exchange for giving up freedom of choice, burger buyers were treated to unbelievably fast service (under a minute), low prices (15¢ hamburgers; 10¢ fries; 20¢ milk shakes), and freedom from tipping. By 1952 the new McDonald's was so successful that it was featured on the cover of American Restaurant magazine in a story that told how the formula had cut operating costs in half. A sign in front of the brothers' restaurant (where the mascot was a winking, burger faced cartoon character named Speedee) boasted of six million hamburgers sold. So many entrepreneurs came to them wanting to copy their method that the McDonalds decided to franchise. In September, 1952 they ran an ad in American Restaurant for "McDonald's Self Service System Drive Ins."
Imagine: no car hops, no waitresses, no waiters, no dishwashers, no bus boys .... no more glassware, no more dishes, no more silverware. The McDonald system eliminates all of this!
Ray Kroc, who had become acquainted with the McDonald's business as a salesman for Multimixers (milk shake machines), liked everything about the formula. He liked the french fries, which always seemed fresh because the McDonalds had invented a shelf that kept them warm under a heat lamp; he liked the fact that everything was served in throwaway paper with no utensils whatsoever, because it eliminated not only dishwashing but the threat of pilferage; he liked the building's stark simplicity, without any landscaping or interior decor that needed tending; but most of all he liked the streamlined efficiency: there was no waste; customers were in and out in minutes; no one -- especially no teen agers, the bane of drive in operators -- loitered in the parking lot. In 1954 Kroc, who was then fifty two years old, made a deal with the brothers to sell franchises; and six years later he paid $2.7 million for the kit and kaboodle -- all trademarks, copyrights, and secrets. At first Kroc held rigidly to their formula, although he did add benches for people to sit on alongside some stores' kitchen windows; the benches were tile, so they could be hosed down quickly. The McDonalds kept their original San Bernardino store, renaming it Mac's Place because Ray Kroc now owned their name. But a few years later another hamburger shop opened up directly across the road. Like Mac's Place, the competitor had red and white tiles and golden arches; and it had a menu identical to theirs, too. In fact, it was a McDonald's ... franchised by Mr. Kroc. The McDonald brothers could not fight the national chain. "I ran 'em out of business," Kroc rejoiced after the brothers were forced to close.
McDonald's grew with the suburbs (a switch from previous chain restaurants' concentration in cities), building its early stores in places convenient for growing families with cars (and with kids) and trying to appeal to the kind of middle class customers Ray Kroc liked best, which he described as "fussy ... clean and proud." Kroc sometimes hired a plane so he could fly over towns and suburbs to spot churches and schools, taking them as signs of a community that would be right for McDonald's. He discovered a new way to make money by not merely franchising the name, but becoming landlord to the franchisees. He sold territorial licenses to men who made millions for themselves (and hundreds of millions for the company) filling towns, cities, and whole regions with McDonald's. Some who were with the company from the beginning grew fantastically wealthy; one -- Jack Simplot of Idaho, who provided the potatoes -- is now the richest man in Idaho, and rated by Forbes near the top of America's list of billionaires. June Martino, Ray Kroc's bookkeeper in the mid sixties when the company went public, took stock instead of a salary. A dollar's worth of that stock is worth well over two thousand dollars today. (Once, after Fortune Magazine criticized the golden arches as visual pollution, Ms. Martino wrote an angry letter defending the proliferation of McDonald's as a way of making highways less monotonous and "humanizing" the oppressive natural American landscape.)
In the early days, McDonald's worked hard to create an image Ray Kroc described as "a combination YMCA, Girl Scouts, and Sunday School." Early editions of the Operations Manual used at McDonald's Hamburger University in Illinois (where ambitious employees went to get degrees in "Hamburger Science") specified:
A man should shave every day, clean his fingernails every day, keep his teeth and breath fresh and clean all the time, bathe often to prevent underarm and other body odors and use a deodorant.... Personnel with bad teeth, severe skin blemishes or tattoos should not be stationed at service windows. Your windowmen and outside order takers must impress customers as being "All American boys." They must display such desirable traits as sincerity, enthusiasm, confidence, and a sense of humor.
For many years, McDonald's hired only male help. Female counter attendants, Ray Kroc felt, would "attract the wrong kind of boys."
The sixties was a boom decade for franchising schemes, and the number of McDonald's stores more than doubled, including not only hundreds of new franchises but also stores operated by McDonald's itself (McOpCo) -- a strategy that freed Kroc from having to depend on others to uphold his standards and allowed Hamburger Central to keep more profits. By 1966 two billion burgers had been sold. It was in the sixties that McDonald's began positioning itself as not merely a restaurant, but an expression of America, and of American values. Franchising, which in theory gave the little guy a chance to make it big, was pitched as the essence of free enterprise. "New Capitalists are Found in Motel, Drive In Industry," headlined the Hartford Courant in an article that quoted Ray Kroc as saying "We're teaching people how to become successful small businessmen." Later, in the seventies, Kroc boasted, "We've been a leader in advancing black capitalism," and television ads began to feature black franchisees and black employees, with theme songs about how they were serving the "community," a code word for black neighborhoods. Every McDonald's franchise was required to have a flag and flagpole, and was offered a wall plaque of an eagle holding a banner in its beak that read, "McDonald's. The American Way."
Not just McDonald's business practices, but the hamburgers themselves were touted as Americana in a bun. A children's book the company published in 1965 called Let's Eat Out told about an American family that decides to show a young German visitor named Hans the American way of eating. Directed by their son Tom, whose ten year old palate determines where the family goes out to eat, they drive to the edge of town and pull into a McDonald's:
Hans was looking at a flat, steel table, the grill. His eyes popped open when twenty four hamburgers were being prepared at one time. "That's pretty American," said Tom. "It's called mass production." ... Hans had scarcely spoken on this whole trip. Suddenly he grinned, sat up straight, and said in his best English, "Say, I can be as American as a hamburger sandwich."
In the late sixties, the company image changed, subtly but certainly. Carefree, eat in the car highway drive ins had disreputable connotations (as hangouts for bad elements of society and sources of traffic congestion and litter; and as junk architecture eyesores), so the design of the stores was altered to appear more authoritative and rigidly polite -- a corporate controlled environment that didn't tolerate deviation. The first McDonald's with indoor seating opened in Huntsville, Alabama, and in 1968 the original garish red and white striped buildings began to give way to the new look, more sedate McDonald's: brown brick walls, indoor dining, mansard roofs, and eventually even some hanging plants and imitation stained glass. By the time Ronald McDonald, the squeaky clean corporation clown (first played by Willard Scott), made his national television debut in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade of 1966 , the McDonald brothers' rather mischievous looking mascot, Speedee, was ancient history. Surveys have since shown that Ronald is recognized by 96% of all American schoolchildren, second only to Santa Claus. In January, 1967, McDonald's sponsored the first Super Bowl telecast, completing its growth from a fun hamburger business to a corporate giant; and in 1973, a Time cover story declared Big Mac "The Burger that Conquered the Country." The year before, in an interview with Institutions magazine, Ray Kroc explained the secret of his awesome success: "It is ridiculous to call this an industry. This is rat eat rat, dog eat dog. I'll kill 'em, and I'm going to kill 'em before they kill me. You're talking about the American way of survival of the fittest."
Throughout McDonald's history, the drive towards corporate hegemony has been balanced by powerful efforts to humanize the company, not only by crusading for kids' loyalty and by conspicuous community service (Ronald McDonald House serves families of children with cancer), but with advertising slogans, accompanied by misty eyed television commercials, to make customers feel respected, rather than like cash cogs in the burger assembly line. The most successful one was "You Deserve a Break Today," introduced in 1970 and phased out in 1974 (but used by Ray Kroc as the door chime for his Fort Lauderdale home ). Others have included "Your Kind of Place" (1966 1970), "You, You're the One" (1975 1978), "Nobody Can Do It Like McDonald's Can" (1978 1982), "Together, McDonald's and You" (1983 1984), and "It's A Good Time for the Great Taste of McDonald's" (1984 1990), which was frequently abbreviated to "Good Time, Great Taste." When the 1990 anthem, "Food, Folks & Fun," debuted in 1990, a company executive said it "puts the humanity back. It establishes this friendly, homely turf as ours." Typical "Food, Folks & Fun" television spots showed cute kids surviving their first day at school (then eating at McDonald's), working moms sharing quality time with daughters (over hamburgers), and an attractive, nervous couple on a first date (guess where they go to eat). In the summer of 1991, however, "Food, Folks & Fun" went on what company executives suggested would be a temporary hiatus, replaced by "McDonald's Today," in an effort to reprise the success of "You Deserve a Break Today," and to be -- in the words of a McDonald's marketing executive -- "more relevant." However, "Food, Folks, and Fun" never came back, McDonald's analysts having decided that it didn't focus enough on customers' concerns about price and service; in its place came "Whatever it takes: That's McDonald's today."
Ray Kroc had been proud of his hands on leadership. In his autobiography, a photo of him with a garden hose reads, "That's me washing down the front of the store. I may have been the owner, but I wasn't too proud to clean up. That's still true." Everything about the McDonald's operation was under his rigid control, and he was a fanatic about details, from the precise "ten patties to a pound of meat" rule (except for the HUGE Quarter Pounder) to the thank you and have a nice day employees were required to say to customers. But the stunning growth of the corporation made it impossible for Kroc to exercise that level of control, and by the early seventies, trouble was brewing. In 1973, disgruntled franchise owners formed the McDonald's Operators Association, claiming that Hamburger Central aimed to buy them out when their standard twenty year license expired, and leave them in the cold; in fact company owned stores went from thirty to forty percent of the total in 1973 and 1974. McDonald's said they were moving in only to ensure that every branch measured up to Ray Kroc's high standards. Today, about a quarter of the eleven thousand McDonald's businesses around the world are company owned, although Hamburger Central holds title to every site and every building.
One of the things Ray Kroc had liked best about the original McDonald's was the severely restricted menu. But as McDonald's faced competition, the menu expanded; and since Ray Kroc's death in 1984, the McDonald's menu has grown nearly as large as that in a normal restaurant. One of the earliest additions to the basic bill of fare was Filet O Fish, added after a franchisee in Cincinnati pleaded for something to help business in his battle against Big Boy fish sandwiches in Catholic parts of town; Big Mac was invented to compete against Burger King's Whopper. After a friend of Ray Kroc's said that he loved the french fries so much he sometimes bought two bags, Large Fries was invented. In 1972, a franchisee in Santa Barbara invented the Egg McMuffin; and suddenly McDonald's found a whole new source of revenue: breakfast. Chicken McNuggets appeared in 1983, and in a short time McDonald's had become the second largest chicken merchant on earth (after Kentucky Fried).
Dessert was always a problem because it is more difficult to mass produce and keep fresh. After failing with pound cake and strawberry shortcake, McDonald's introduced fried pies, which Ray Kroc said he liked because they had "that special quality, that classiness in a finger food, that made it perfect for McDonald's." Fried pies were the only dessert for years, now replaced by such healther items as fatless frozen yogurt and fruit sorbet.
In recent years, new additions have included salads (in 1987, because they are "nutritious"), the McDLT (which, by keeping hot and cold parts of the sandwich separate, eliminates the soggy lettuce problem), and the McLean burger (in which the use of seaweed extract helps reduce the fat content from the usual 19% to 9%). Many McDonald's menus now also include reduced fat McNuggets, low sodium breakfast sausage, burritos, fajitas, and pizza. In the summer of 1991, the company even tried test marketing fettucine Alfredo and Chinese egg rolls; and there are now plans to create a whole separate dinner menu including roast chicken and spaghetti with meatballs ... but not including alcoholic beverages or table service. When the Wall Street Journal discussed the expanding menu with Dick McDonald (who is retired in New Hampshire), the forefather of fast food warned that it was the elimation of complicated menus that made him and his brother Mac (who died in 1971) successful in the first place. "They should be very careful," Mr. McDonald said, "or fast food will be history."