The History of McDonald’s and it’s Fast Food Legacy

We were taken to a fast food café where our order was fed into a computer. Our hamburgers, made from the flesh of chemically impregnated cattle, had been broiled over counterfeit charcoal, placed between slices of artificially flavored cardboard and served to us by recycled juvenile delinquents. ~ Jean Michel Chapereau

Everything today is fast. People think fast, speak fast, walk fast, write fast and eat fast. The speed of communication is rapid and getting more so with every breath that we take. No matter how fast you may or may not dance, hang on tightly to your hat and hold the pickle and the lettuce as we swirl the light fantastic into the phenomenal world of the McDonald’s fast food chain.

Fast food has become such an integral part of the busy American lifestyle that there are more than 300,000 restaurants offering it throughout the United States today. It’s convenient, predictable and, surprise, fast. Dick and Mac McDonald of Manchester, New Hampshire, introduced the McDonald’s restaurant in San Bernardino, California, in 1940, but the concept was modified and expanded by their business partner, Ray Kroc, of Oak Park, Illinois, who later went on to found McDonald’s Corporation.

The original menu contained 25 items, mostly barbecue. Popular and lucrative as a teen hangout, the brothers couldn’t help but notice that almost all of their profits came from hamburgers. In 1948, they changed the menu to include only hamburgers, milkshakes and French fries. At 15 cents each, the burgers were about half as expensive as at standard diners and they sold like hotcakes.

The year 1953 marked the beginning of the McDonald franchises with Neil Fox as the first franchisee in San Bernardino, California. It was the second McDonald’s however, that opened that same year in Phoenix, Arizona, that marked the introduction of the Golden Arches design. In 1954, entrepreneur and milkshake-mixer salesman Ray Kroc enters the scene proposing the franchise of McDonald’s restaurants outside the company’s home base of California and Arizona. The rest is as they say history, for by 1958, McDonald’s worldwide boasted that it sold 100 million hamburgers!

By 1955, Kroc opened his first restaurant in Des Plaines, Illinois. This location is considered the first franchised McDonalds restaurant, and today the building serves as a museum. He expanded upon the franchise business model, and allowed franchisees to be a big part of the marketing push behind building the McDonalds brand image.

In the early 1960s, Kroc bought out the McDonald brothers, and by 1965 had gone public, offering shares of McDonalds Corporation. This made him instantly wealthy. Around this same time, a Washington franchisee transformed himself into a clown and Ronald McDonald was born. In 1968, the Big Mac hamburger was introduced to a hungry, high-cholesterol world and found great success, as did the entire McDonald franchise system.

But we all know that nothing lasts forever. The death of Ray Kroc in January of 1984 was a serious blow compounded by the following July’s massacre at San Ysidro where James Huberty committed the worst mass murder on record at the time in US history, killing 21 people before he himself was gunned down by a SWAT team sniper. Despite this, McDonalds continued to enjoy unprecedented success, opening the first Soviet McDonald’s in Moscow and China in 1990 and expanding throughout the decade into Africa (Casablanca and Morocco).

In 2002, the bottom began to fall out when for the first time ever McDonalds posted a quarterly loss. The unhealthy repercussions of fast food could no longer be pushed under the rug after the publication of Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, an expose of fast food in general and McDonald’s in particular. This caused a serious reversal of image, and in 2003, McDonald’s campaigned actively to promote a healthier image for its food. In 2006, the company announced that it will include nutritional information on the packaging for all of its products and that future menus will emphasize healthier choices, such as chicken, salads and other fresh foods besides their old standby, hamburgers.

In every meal, uniformity was paramount and the burgers were created using an assembly line technique. The objectives were simple: consistency plus speed, plus convenience, plus most popular sales items equal significantly increased profits. This model worked very well for more than six decades, but nothing lasts forever.

We are a generation lost somewhere in the space of translation between fast versus slow food. For some of us, even dancing as fast as we can may never be fast enough to catch up to today’s dynamic emphasis on healthful living, not even for lucrative, highly successful conglomerates like McDonalds.

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