by Steve Lancaster 8/31/17
I have avoided watching this movie for several years, but as it is available on Netflix I thought it might be worth some time. The movie claims to be the story of how Ray Kroc, an obscure salesman from the Midwest, became the biggest name in the restaurant business. The movie stars Michael Keaton as Ray Kroc, Nick Offerman as Dick McDonald, John Lynch as his brother Mac(Maurice), and Laura Dern as Ray’s long suffering first wife, Ethel.
The movie begins in 1954, Ray is a traveling salesman for Prince Castle selling multi-mixers for shakes and malts to restaurants, mostly drive-ins. Ray is a moderately successful of salesmen. The movie portrays him as struggling from one get rich idea to the next before driving to San Bernardino to find out why one restaurant wanted 8 multi-mixers. Ray was a much better salesman; this story is not Death of a Salesman. It is also not a rags to riches story, although The Founder wants to present it that way.
The original McDonald’s is on E street and 14th in San Bernardino CA. A location I know well, as in 1956 we lived near and I often ate there. I remember looking in the window at the staff producing hamburgers and fries. It was a whirlwind organizational ballet. I don’t know if I ever saw Ray Kroc there but I do remember seeing the brothers working on the floor. Ten years later, fresh out of high school, I would be working in a McDonald’s in Sacramento. And I did meet Ray Kroc at a training center called Hamburger High.
This was at the tail end of the first major expansion and by 1970, when I joined the Marines, there were over 20 restaurants in the Sacramento/Stockton market. The Founder, makes the McDonald brothers to be business babes in the wood, and Ray Kroc as a raptor tearing up the innocent. That view is partially correct.
The brothers were somewhat naive about franchising their concept, and Kroc did take advantage, but in the late 1950s franchising was a little understood model. The struggling development of how to franchise a restaurant and maintain quality, service and cleanliness is not dissimilar to every chain that started in the 50s and 60s.
The major conflict in The Founder between Kroc and the McDonald brothers is over quality; with Kroc seeking lower cost of sales and the brothers holding the line on quality as they contractually defined it in franchise agreements. There is an argument here for both sides; Kroc as a businessman is concerned with costs and the brothers are concerned with reputation. I am sure that there were some impassioned arguments.
In the end, Kroc makes a cash offer to the brothers with a verbal promise of royalties, a promise never kept, and the rest is history. The brothers got several million dollars and kept the original restaurant on E street, but had to rename it, The Big M; as using their own name was now copyright infringement. That location was later bought by the Corp. and the only remaining evidence is a brass sign indicating the first location.
The first McDonald’s restaurants had simple menus, used fresh meat, fresh potatoes and shakes were made from soft serve ice cream. There were only a few menu items and they could be produced rapidly with a high degree of quality. Today a McDonald’s menu is a blinding assortment of different size burgers, breakfast items, and even burritos. In Europe they even serve alcohol, go figure.
The original production methods of the McDonald’s brothers have been distorted. In the Marines, we call it FUBAR (F***ed up beyond all recognition). The company is now in its 3rd or 4th generation of CEOs and the innovative ideas of Dick and Maurice McDonald and Ray Kroc have been cast off in favor of an expanding universe of products that neither the McDonalds or Ray Kroc would approve.
The Founder has a mixed message. It extols the entrepreneur and innovation, and at the same time condemns corporate business model. Keaton makes a good Ray Kroc with the business he built from the 50s to the 80s. He had a multitude of faults, most of which are more than amply shown in The Founder. However, he also had a vision for the corporation he created and turned that vision into a world size business.
As a now former stockholder and early employee. I cashed in when the price hit $100. I guess my critique of the modern McDonald’s may be harsh. I seldom venture into a restaurant these days. The lousy service, long waits, and dirty interiors are just more than I can handle. However, The Founder does give a good overview of how this food behemoth began. Ray Kroc and the McDonalds are flawed people, who had good ideas and followed them, something America can be proud of. • (304 views)