• U.S.

Burger Meister RAY KROC

7 minute read
Jacques Pepin

Among the army of burger flippers at work across America in the 1960s was a French chef putting his training to use at Howard Johnson’s on Queens Boulevard in New York City. I worked for HoJo’s from the summer of 1960 to the spring of 1970, doing my American apprenticeship, learning about mass production and marketing. The company had been started in 1925 in Massachusetts by Howard Deering Johnson, and by the mid-1960s its sales exceeded that of Burger King, Kentucky Fried Chicken and McDonald’s combined. There would be more than 1,000 Howard Johnson restaurants and 500 motor lodges. Yet after Johnson’s death in 1972, the company lost its raison d’etre. The restaurants became obsolete; the food quality deteriorated. You underestimate the clientele at your peril. The late restaurateur Joe Baum used to say, “There is no victory over a customer.”

As the Howard Johnson Co. went to pieces, Ray Kroc’s obsession with Quality, Service, Cleanliness and Value–the unwavering mission of McDonald’s–was gathering momentum. Kroc was adroit and perceptive in identifying popular trends. He sensed that America was a nation of people who ate out, as opposed to the Old World tradition of eating at home. Yet he also knew that people here wanted something different. Instead of a structured, ritualistic restaurant with codes and routine, he gave them a simple, casual and identifiable restaurant with friendly service, low prices, no waiting and no reservations. The system eulogized the sandwich–no tableware to wash. One goes to McDonald’s to eat, not to dine.

Kroc gave people what they wanted or, maybe, what he wanted. As he said, “The definition of salesmanship is the gentle art of letting the customer have it your way.” He would remain the ultimate salesman, serving as a chairman of McDonald’s Corp., the largest restaurant company in the world, from 1968 until his death in 1984.

In 1917, Ray Kroc was a brash 15-year-old who lied about his age to join the Red Cross as an ambulance driver. Sent to Connecticut for training, he never left for Europe because the war ended. So the teen had to find work, which he did, first as a piano player and then, in 1922, as a salesman for the Lily Tulip Cup Co.

Although he sold paper cups by day and played the piano for a radio station at night, Kroc’s ears were better tuned to the rhythms of commerce. In the course of selling paper cups he encountered Earl Prince, who had invented a five-spindle multimixer and was buying Lily cups by the truckload. Fascinated by the speed and efficiency of the machine, Kroc obtained exclusive marketing rights from Prince. Indefatigable, for the next 17 years he crisscrossed the country peddling the mixer.

On his travels he picked up the beat of a remarkable restaurant in San Bernardino, Calif., owned by two brothers, Dick and Mac McDonald, who had ordered eight mixers and had them churning away all day. Kroc saw the restaurant in 1954 and was entranced by the effectiveness of the operation. It was a hamburger restaurant, though not of the drive-in variety popular at the time. People had to get out of their cars to be served. The brothers had produced a very limited menu, concentrating on just a few items: hamburgers, cheeseburgers, french fries, soft drinks and milk shakes, all at the lowest possible prices.

Kroc, ever the instigator, started thinking about building McDonald’s stores all over the U.S.–each of them equipped with eight multimixers whirring away, spinning off a steady stream of cash. The following day he pitched the idea of opening several restaurants to the brothers. They asked, “Who could we get to open them for us?” Kroc was ready: “Well, what about me?”

The would-be Great War veteran would grow rich serving the children of World War II vets. His confidence in what he had seen was unshakable. As he noted later, “I was 52 years old. I had diabetes and incipient arthritis. I had lost my gall bladder and most of my thyroid gland in earlier campaigns, but I was convinced that the best was ahead of me.” He was even more convinced than the McDonalds and eventually cajoled them into selling out to him in 1961 for a paltry $2.7 million.

He was now free to run the business his own way, but he never changed the fundamental format that had been devised by the brothers. Kroc added his own wrinkles, certainly. He was a demon for cleanliness. From the overall appearance, to the parking lot, to the kitchen floor, to the uniforms, cleanliness was foremost and essential. “If you have time to lean, you have time to clean,” was one of his favorite axioms. He was dead on, of course. The first impression you get from a restaurant, through the eyes and nose, is often what determines whether you’ll go back. By 1963 more than 1 billion hamburgers had been sold, a statistic that was displayed on a neon sign in front of each restaurant. That same year, the 500th McDonald’s restaurant opened and the famous clown, Ronald McDonald, made his debut. He soon became known to children throughout the country, and kids were critical in determining where the family ate. According to John Mariani in his remarkable book America Eats Out, “Within six years of airing his first national TV ad in 1965, the Ronald McDonald clown character was familiar to 96% of American children, far more than knew the name of the President of the United States.” Being a baby-boom company, McDonald’s has found maturity a bit difficult. Its food today is as consistent as ever. But Americans are different, much surer of their tastes. They no longer need the security McDonald’s provides. So the same assets that had made the restaurants so great started to turn against the company, especially after Kroc died in 1984. People looked at uniformity as boring, insipid and controlling, the Golden Arches as a symbol of junk-food pollution. Franchisees began to feel increasingly alienated from top management, especially in its aggressive expansion policies.

Ironically, no adjustments are needed outside the U.S. With restaurants in more than 114 countries, McDonald’s still represents Americana. When I return to France, my niece’s children, who are wild about what they call “Macdo,” clamor to go there. It has a somewhat snobbish appeal for the young, who are enamored of the American life-style.

Still, it’s likely Ray Kroc would have moved on to something else if he had found a better idea. Even after McDonald’s was well established, Kroc still tried, often with dismal results, to move forward with upscale hamburger restaurants, German-tavern restaurants, pie shops and even theme parks, like Disneyland. He always had a keen sense of the power of novelty and a strong belief in himself and his vision.

Like many of America’s great entrepreneurs, Kroc was not a creator–convenience food already existed in many forms, from Howard Johnson’s to White Castle–but he had the cunning ability to grasp a concept with all its complexities and implement it in the best possible way. And that’s as American as a cheeseburger.

Jacques Pepin is a chef, author and host of the popular PBS television series Jacques Pepin’s Kitchen: Cooking with Claudine

Franchising the American Dream

In the 1850s, a network of salesmen paid the Singer Sewing Machine Co. for the right to sell the newly patented machines in specific regions. The franchise system, adopted by the auto and oil industries early in the century and popularized by the fast-food industry after World War II, today cuts across more than 70 industry categories, from tax-preparation services to hotels (Kemmons Wilson created Holiday Inn in 1952 because he couldn’t find a decent place to sleep on the road). There are nearly 3,000 franchise chains in the U.S. with 600,000 units, which ring up almost $1 trillion a year, or 41% of all retail sales. Bill Rosenberg, who founded Dunkin’ Donuts in the ’50s, credits franchising for the swift growth of his company: “I wanted to grow fast and efficiently and wanted people to own their own business.” Dunkin’ Donuts now has around 4,000 units worldwide.

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