The First McDonald’s

Remembering the First McDonald’s

Author: Barbara Diggs

Driving along the highway, I see something rising in the distance. Tall. Gold. Arching.Uh

Oh. I’d better drive quickly or the kids are going to –

“OOOOHHH! McDonald’s! Can’t we go to McDonald’s? Pleeeease??”
Too late.

No icon of the 1950s has endured better than the “Golden Arches” of McDonald’s Hamburger Restaurant. And it’s no wonder: those golden arches symbolize the optimism and forward-looking vision that was characteristic of many Americans in the 1950s. It’s hard to imagine now, but this world-wide, billion dollar franchise, started out as a solitary hamburger stand in San Bernardino, California.

It all began in late 1948, when the brothers Mac and Dick MacDonald revamped their successful barbeque restaurant in order to meet the heightened demand for drive-in restaurants generated by the post-war boom in automobiles. Instead of barbeque, they decided to create a drive-in hamburger restaurant with a novel operating system which, unbeknownst to them, would trigger the age of fast food.

Under their “Speedee Service System”, an assembly line of burger flippers, french fry cookers, and milkshake mixer operators rapidly churned out meals, while customers ordered from a nine-item menu directly at the counter and took their food away in paper sacs and ate with disposable utensils. The completion of every order took an estimated 15 seconds.

The fast service was one draw, but the low price was another. A hamburger cost 15 cents; cheeseburgers, 19 cents; fries, 10 cents; milkshakes, 20 cents. This was a meal almost everyone could afford.

The speedy service, low price formula was a winner. Customers came from miles around, and sometimes as many as 150 people stood in line to order. By 1951, the brothers were pulling in $350,000 annually from this single stand.

In 1952, the brothers franchised their operation, and another McDonald’s – now built with its familiar red-and-white tiles, slanted roof, and golden arches – was built in Phoenix, Arizona. Eight more franchises were quickly established in the West. The MacDonald brothers were astonished by their success.

They had no idea….

Enter Ray Kroc, an ambitious 52-year old milkshake mixer salesman, who, intrigued by his healthy sales to a certain Californian hamburger stand, went to see the business for himself. Upon witnessing the fast-moving lines of customers, and assembly line-like production of food, he knew that he had found his dream product. He and the McDonald brother cut a deal where Kroc would become the exclusive franchise agent for the restaurant.

In April 1955, Ray Kroc opened his first McDonald’s – the 9th nationwide – in Des Plaines, Illinois. After that, the restaurant expanded exponentially. By 1956, there were 14 restaurants and over 50 million hamburgers served, by the middle of 1960, there were 228 restaurants and over 400 million hamburgers sold.

In 1961, Ray Kroc bought the proprietary rights to McDonald’s from the McDonald brothers for $2.7 million, netting the brothers $1 million each. A pretty good sum for the time, but given the unmatched success that McDonald’s would become, it was practically a bargain for Kroc. Today there are more than 30,000 McDonald’s in 119 countries.

Sadly, this story of the American Dream fulfilled has an unpleasant twist.

One year after Ray Kroc purchased the rights to McDonald’s, he forced the McDonald brothers to remove the name “McDonald’s” from their San Bernardino restaurant. Then Kroc opened up one of his McDonald’s one block away.

The brothers continued to run their restaurant for several years under the name “Big M,” but with such fierce competition nearby, their business was sorely weakened, and in 1968, they sold it. The new owners tried to revive business, but it was hopeless. In 1970, Big M closed. Two years later, the historic hamburger stand was torn down.

Luckily, the people of San Bernardino were not willing to forget the progressive vision of the two brothers, and the contribution they made to American industry. In 1998, the mayor of San Bernardino established an “unofficial” McDonald’s museum at the original location of the popular hamburger stand.

McDonald’s Corporation doesn’t acknowledge that museum, however. According to them, the only “official” McDonald’s museum is located in Des Plaines, Illinois – the site of Ray Kroc’s first franchised restaurant.



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