Discover the California Birthplace of Fast Food
The McDonald brothers, Dick and Mac, opened McDonald’s Hamburgers on Route 66 in San Bernardino, in 1948. Although their original building is gone, the site is a historic landmark that houses the Original McDonald’s museum. Outside are classic McDonald’s play structures that are great for photographs. It is located at 1398 East E Street, San Bernardino.
The McDonald’s in Downey is built in the classic “golden arches” architectural style designed by the McDonald brothers. Their original mascot, “Speedee,” is on the sign. The Downey location was third in the franchise chain and is the oldest continuously operated McDonald’s. It was opened in 1953, when the franchise was still under control of the McDonald brothers and not Ray Kroc. It is located at 10207 Lakewood Blvd., Downey, and also has a small museum.
McDonald’s Innovations Created “Fast Food”
What’s the big deal about McDonald’s? The concept of “fast food” was invented here, in California, by the McDonald’s brothers. It spread across the world and is a distinctly American creation. By inventing an assembly line for burgers, their “Speedee Service System” allowed McDonald’s to make burgers, shakes and fries fast.
It is hard to appreciate how innovative the McDonald’s brothers were because we live in an age that revolves around speed and efficiency. However, traditional car hops typically took twenty minutes to deliver the food to the customer. McDonald’s could fill an order in 15 seconds.
The McDonald’s brothers realized that America was changing. That the suburbs had created a culture of commuting to work. American life was speeding up, people always seemed to be in a hurry, and they wanted their food fast.
Simplify and Minimize to Increase Speed and Profit
In 1948, the brothers shut down their McDonald’s BBQ and renovated their restaurant. This is what they simplified:
- Eliminated car hops and had customers order directly from the front window and receive their food themselves.
- Packaged all the food in paper wrappings and paper cups. They no longer needed a dishwasher or to maintain the inventory of plates and silverware.
- Customers threw their own trash away so there was no need for bussing
- Made the hamburgers smaller. Instead of eight burgers from one pound of meat, they could get ten.
- Reduced their menu. They cut their menu from 25 items to 9. By analyzing their sales, they determined that 80% of their sales were hamburgers.
“So they decided to get rid of the labor-intensive barbecue and sandwiches and narrow the menu to the venerable American hamburger. That would allow them to mechanize the food-preparation process as well.”David Halberstam, The Fifties
Creating a Labor Assembly Line at McDonald’s
The brothers redesigned the kitchen to create an assembly line. This concept was popularized by Henry Ford for his automobile manufacturing plant in 1913. The goal was to implement continuous-flow production lines that reduce wasted employee movement and focused each worker on a specific task.
At McDonald’s, labor was specialized in the following ways.
- Three grill men who only cooked patties
- Two milkshake men
- Two french-fires men
- Two dressers who wrapped the hamburgers
- Three countermen to take orders
McDonald’s Designed New Equipment for Speed and Efficiency
The McDonald brothers analyzed the process of making burgers and, with the help of a local machinist, made the tools they needed.
- They replaced their 3 ft. cast-iron grill with two 6 ft. grills made of stainless steel which was easier to clean and held the heat better.
- They did experiments and discovered that infrared lights would keep fries warmer than heat lamps.
- They eliminated the condiment station which was always a messy eye sore in their opinion. Burgers came preassembled with ketchup, mustard, onions and two pickles.
- Ed Toman, a local friend with a small machine-tool shop, designed a one-squeeze stainless-steel pump that shot just the right amount of mustard or ketchup onto the burger. Toman failed to patent his invention, which could have made him a millionaire.
- Ed Toman also invented a stainless steel lazy Susan on which to prepare 24 hamburger buns with condiments and a larger, stronger stainless steel spatula.
- McDonald’s had 10 Multimixers and could make 50 milkshakes at once. Ed Toman cut 4 inches off the mixer spindles so that the shakes could be mixed in the paper cup instead of having to be transferred after mixing.
Dick McDonald wanted a machine to make uniform burgers. He went undercover and posed as a free-lance reporter. He visited several candy companies and asked how they made their perfect peppermint patties. He discovered a patty forming machine. Mix was put in at the top and, when a lever was pulled, a uniform patty came out the bottom. The same machine was modified to make hamburger patties.
The McDonald Brothers Franchise McDonald’s
The assembly line changes in the hamburger stand resulted in a 40% increase in gross annual receipts. By the mid-fifties, the McDonald brothers were sharing profits of $100,000 a year. They were content with their wealth and had big houses with tennis courts. They bought new Cadillacs every year.
In 1952, the McDonald brothers were on the cover of American Restaurant magazine. They were deluged with mail asking them how they had done it. Aspiring entrepreneurs visited the stand, including James Collins of Kentucky Fried Chicken.
“I had never seen anything as breathtaking since then. There was a line of people halfway out to the curb and the parking lot was full. There was nothing else like it. They had two hamburger lines and they were handling people every ten seconds.”James Collins, The Fifties
Although generous with their expertise, the McDonald brothers knew they needed to franchise their hamburger business. In 1952, they reluctantly sold their first franchise to Neil Fox in Phoenix. It was Fox’s idea to keep the McDonald’s name on his business.
Carnation offered to take them national throughout California and then eastward. The McDonald brothers were not interested.
“We are going to be on the road all the time in motels, looking for locations, finding managers. I can just see one hell of a headache if we go into that kind of chain.”Maurice McDonald, The Fifties
At the time Ray Kroc entered the McDonald’s picture, the brothers had sold nine franchises, including the one in Downey. The brothers were looking for a new manager to handle franchising.
Ray Kroc was a self-made man and a high school dropout. He had held a variety of jobs and was always on the lookout for the next big thing.
“Kroc believed in himself and his special vision of the American dream: If he only kept trying, surely one day lighting would strike and he would become rich and successful. He was always looking for the idea or invention that would make his fortune.”David Halberstam, The Fifties
The movie, The Founder, chronicles Kroc’s takeover of McDonald’s. However, the film makes Kroc sound like just a traveling salesman. It also downplays how much success the McDonald brothers were already having before Kroc appeared.
Kroc was selling Multimixers for his own firm, Malt-a-Mixer, when he met the McDonald brothers. Kroc started his firm in 1939, because he was so passionate about the shake-making machine. Earl Prince was an engineer who ran dairy parlors. In the late 1930s, pushed by Kroc, Prince developed a machine that used a single motor to drive five separate spindles which accelerated the milkshake making process.
Sales were originally high and, after WWII, Kroc was making $25,000 a year. By the standards of the time he was wealthy. However, by the early 1950s, Multimixer orders were slowing down. Kroc realized it was because the move to the suburbs had killed drugstores and their ice cream counters.
Kroc began looking for other avenues of revenue. However, he became curious that McDonald’s in San Bernardino kept ordering more Multimixers. In addition, other fast-food operators called him and said they wanted the same kind of mixers McDonald’s was using.
Ray Kroc and the McDonald Brothers
Ray Kroc was impressed with the efficiency methods the McDonald brothers had adopted. The alterations to his Multimixers caught his attention. He knew the brothers had developed their systems through trial and error. Rather than steal their ideas, as so many competitors were doing, Kroc wanted to become part of their business. He also loved the name McDonald’s.
Ray Kroc became franchise manager of McDonald’s in 1955. He awarded franchises slowly, at first and then faster. Twelve in 1956, forty in 1957, seventy-nine in 1959, and two hundred-twenty-eight in 1960. The company was becoming more identified with Ray Kroc than the McDonald brothers.
“(Kroc) took over the franchise end (of McDonald’s) at age of fifty-two, a diabetic who had already lost his gallbladder. Starting out all over in a new field when most men were starting to think about retirement, he was unbelievably hardworking and ambitious, and his ability to outwork everyone in his office was soon a legend.”David Halberstam, The Fifties
As franchise manager, Kroc was fanatic about quality control. He became furious if an owner bought substandard ingredients. Kroc forbade buying meat with additives. He pushed owners to use the best potatoes. He instituted specific quality control systems.
Kroc believed he was performing a service. His whole life became McDonald’s and he was uninterested in anything else.
“Consider, for example, the hamburger bun. It requires a certain kind of mind to see the beauty in a hamburger bun. Yet is it any more unusual to find grace in the texture and softly curved silhouette of a bun than to reflect lovingly on the hackles of a favorite fishing fly? Or the arrangements and textures and colors in a butterfly’s wings? Not if you’re a McDonald’s man.”Ray Kroc, The Fifties
McDonald’s is for Families
Kroc saw immediately that the prime focus of McDonald’s was families. He sold franchises to young couples that would work together on the restaurant. He situated restaurants in the suburbs and shunned downtowns. He didn’t hire women because he thought they would flirt rather than work.
“I’ve made up my mind that all hamburger joints had jukeboxes, telephones, and cigarette machines and that your wife and my wife wouldn’t go to a place with leather-jacketed guys and smoke-filled rooms.”Ray Kroc, The Fifties
McDonald’s used advertising slogans: “Give Mom a Night Out,” and “Give Mom a Night Off.” These eventually became the modern: “You Deserve a Break Today.”
Cleanliness was a top priority for Ray Kroc. Employees had crisp white uniforms. He did not allow beards or mustaches, nor gum chewing. The windows of every franchise had to be cleaned every day and customers had a view of burger preparation and cooking. Parking lots needed to be hosed down and garbage cans scrubed. Interior mopping was continuous.
“Some observers have suggested that (McDonald’s) be given credit for increasing the standard of service…When it opened in Hong Kong in 1975, McDonald’s was the first restaurant to consistently offer clean restrooms, driving customers to demand the same of other restaurants and institutions.”McDonald’s Wikipedia
Ray Kroc Buys the McDonald’s Company and Name
In 1961, Ray Kroc bought the McDonald’s name and the company for $2.7 million. By the time he purchased the business, the relationship between the McDonald brothers and Kroc had soured.
“(The brothers) heart had always been on their own stand. (Kroc) had come to think of them as careless and lazy, people who thought in small terms, willing to sit on the sidelines and make an easy profit while he did all the heavy lifting.”David Halberstam, The Fifties
When the brothers refused to sell Kroc their San Bernardino stand, Kroc became vindictive. He forbade them to use the golden arches or the McDonald’s name. They called themselves “the Big M.” Kroc then opened an official McDonald’s a block away from the original and drove them out of business.
The McDonald’s Museum in San Bernardino has photographs of the “Big M.” They also have tiles from Kroc’s McDonald’s, which went out of business in 1971.
Artifacts at the San Bernardino McDonald’s Museum
Ray Kroc changed the logos of McDonald’s to the Ronald McDonald clown in 1961, to focus on children and families. Willard Scott, who became the weather man on the Today Show, was the first clown.
The Happy Meal was invented in 1979, when Bob Bernstein was the CEO. The McDonald’s Museum in San Bernardino is a shrine to every Happy Meal toy made by the company. It also includes international Happy Meal toys.
The San Bernardino McDonald’s has playground equipment of the McDonald’s characters that used to be a big part of their advertising. You can see the fry monsters, Mayor McCheese, the talking trees, and the Hamburglar. They have a mascot costume for McGrimace, the purple monster. It turns out that he originally was evil with four arms. He was modified into a simpleton who loved shakes.
In addition to great photo opportunities, the San Bernardino McDonald’s Museum also includes a pressed penny machine. On the outside of the building is an incredibly detailed mural about the history of San Bernardino.
Ray and Joan Kroc Retire to San Diego
Ray Kroc retired in 1974. He and his third wife, Joan, moved to San Diego and bought the Padres baseball team. However, the couple didn’t live the highlife.
“I have never worshiped money and I never worked for money. I worked for pride and accomplishment. Money can become a nuisance. It’s a hell of a lot more fun chasin’ it than gettin’ it. The fun is in the race.”Ray Kroc, The Fifties
Ray Kroc never had children. The Krocs contributed to Republican candidates and philanthropies for research into alcoholism, diabetes, and other diseases. They are best known for the Ronald McDonald House. This nonprofit provides free housing for parents close to hospitals that treat children.
Ray Kroc died of a stroke in 1984. His widow, Joan Kroc, donated to peace and nuclear nonproliferation charities. Upon her death in 2003, her remaining $2.7 billion estate was distributed to a number of nonprofits including The Salvation Army, National Public Radio (NPR) and community centers in underserved neighborhoods throughout the U.S.
Fast food is an American invention that started in Southern California. Although younger kids might not realize the importance of McDonald’s, middle aged folks will enjoy visiting the San Bernardino and Downey McDonald Museums to stroll down memory lane.