- Written by Randal C. Hill Randal C. Hill
The Great Depression strangled the economies of many of American cities, including Manchester, New Hampshire, the hometown of the McDonald brothers.
Determined to do better than their factory-worker father, Richard (born 1909) and Maurice “Mac” (born 1902) McDonald set off for Los Angeles in the late 1920s, their sights set on the burgeoning movie industry. Each was armed with a high school diploma and a desire to become a millionaire by age 50.
They landed jobs at Columbia Studios, where they pushed around movie sets and props. They worked hard, saved their money, and rented a small movie theater. After four years, though, they had yet to see a profit.
“It was the Depression,” Richard McDonald said. “There wasn’t much money around.” Yet one drive-in neighbor was doing well.
“Wiley’s Root Beer Stand was one of the few businesses in town that was taking in any real cash,” McDonald said. “That’s why we got into the drive-in business.”
The brothers opened McDonald’s, a small hot dog stand, in nearby Pasadena. Staffed by comely teenage carhops, their new venture proved profitable.
But the brothers saw the rapidly growing blue-collar town of San Bernardino—50 miles east—as offering greater potential. In 1940, they moved their operations there, bought cheap land downtown, erected a new facility, and expanded their menu.
Times were great for the next seven years. McDonald’s became the “in” spot in town, with teenage cruisers often filling the 125 parking spaces.
However, the kids tended to loiter, make noise, spend little money, and keep adult customers away. The brothers wanted to attract families more than rowdy adolescents. They shut down their business and planned a new approach.
Receipt records showed that, while McDonald’s offered over two dozen menu items (including tamales, chili, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches), about 80 percent of their sales came from burgers, as well as side orders and soft drinks.
So the pair decided to reopen with a new concept: sell only the high-volume items most customers wanted, offering people tasty food at low prices. And they would make some other changes, too. Big changes.
Really big changes.
Richard and Mac McDonald opened for business again in December 1948 to an initially befuddled clientele. Gone were the carhops, as well as the jukeboxes, cigarette vending machines, pay phones, and newspaper racks. Paper wrappings and cups replaced silverware and plates that required dishwashing.
With no indoor seating, customers now had to line up at service windows, where spotlessly uniformed and smiling young men dispensed food items and took cash, often in less than a minute. Taking a cue from Henry Ford’s groundbreaking assembly-line idea, the McDonald brothers had developed the “Speedee Service System.” Food was now prepared ahead of time in a mechanized kitchen manned by a 12-person crew, each member repeatedly doing one specific task.
The most common window order was a burger that included ketchup, mustard, two pickles and a sprinkling of chopped onion. Each came wrapped in paper and was kept warm by heat lamps.
By the late 1990s, McDonald’s claimed to be opening a new store somewhere in the world every three hours.
The price for each was 15 cents (4 cents extra for a cheeseburger). Milkshakes cost 20 cents, fries and sodas were a dime each, coffee a nickel. Now even the poorest of families could enjoy an occasional meal out.
The fast food business had been born. Many McDonald’s customers weren’t ready for the abrupt and unique changes. Some folks drove off when no carhops appeared. Others complained about the new procedure or the limited menu or that the food was already prepared. Business dropped in half.
“We almost threw in the towel,” Richard McDonald once admitted. “People said we were cuckoo. Nobody wanted to wait on themselves or throw away their own trash.”
But the brothers hung tough, and ultimately customers came around.
Did they ever! It seemed that every hungry San Bernardinoan drove to McDonald’s on busy North E Street. Sometimes window lines numbered 200 hungry folks at once.
By 1953, the brothers were raking in $300,000 annually and claiming a net profit of $100,000. They became among the richest people in San Bernardino.
Richard McDonald, his wife, and the still-single Mac McDonald lived together in splendor in a sprawling 25-room mansion with a tennis court. Each year they bought three new Cadillacs.
When the Carnation Corporation offered to develop a national chain with them, the brothers said no. But the idea inspired the McDonald brothers to consider franchising.
Richard McDonald set about changing the store’s look, replacing the old octagonal McDonald’s building with a modern, eye-catching design that featured the soon-to-become-iconic Golden Arches. Then the franchising idea faded … for the time being.
One day in 1954, a Chicago milkshake-mixer salesman named Ray Kroc showed up in San Bernardino. He wanted to find out why the McDonald brothers had ordered eight of his Multimixer machines—capable of whipping up 48 creamy shakes at once—for only one location.
Quickly sensing a potential business goldmine, Kroc bought the rights to franchise the brothers’ restaurant nationwide.
Ray Kroc, a high school dropout, opened his first McDonald’s in 1955 in Des Plaines, Illinois. A mere six years later, he bought out the brothers for $2.7 million in cash.
Richard and Mac McDonald kept their San Bernardino business going, though, renaming it “Big M.” Kroc retaliated by opening a McDonald’s nearby and driving the brothers out of business.
Anyone who knew the hard-driven Kroc probably wasn’t surprised. He once said of his business rivals, “If any of my competition were drowning, I’d stick a hose in their mouth and turn on the water.”
Numerous feuds ensued, which drove many a stake between the aggressive Ray Kroc and the company’s more mellow founders. For a while, Kroc called his Des Plaines location the “original” McDonald’s and opened new stores with wall plaques that featured his likeness and an obviously hyperbolic description of how “his vision, persistence, and leadership have guided McDonald’s from one location in Des Plaines, Illinois, to the world’s community restaurant.”
Really, Mr. Kroc?
Randal C. Hill is a rock ’n’ roll historian who lives at the Oregon coast. He may be reached at email@example.com.