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The Founder

I recently watched the movie The Founder, the story of Ray Kroc, who took over the McDonald’s franchise and planted the seeds for it to become the empire we know today.

I found it a fascinating movie in many ways, but what particularly caught my attention was the approach Kroc used when he sold the McDonald brothers on the idea of the franchise, and later pitched it to others – because as is so often the case, even though food is involved, it really wasn’t about the food.

When Kroc first tried to get the McDonald brothers to let him try to franchise their operation, he compared the restaurant to church. He emphasized family values – for instance, getting rid of the juke boxes that attracted the “wrong sorts” to the carhops. He focused on an image of wholesomeness, of a place that was more than just a restaurant, where people could come together to break bread. He also pushed the idea of building near churches, to attract church-going families, and he wanted the Golden Arches to be as recognizable as a church steeple.

Later, in expanding the franchise, he talked about how McDonald’s would be like family, at first targeting husband and wife couples to work the franchise, where one could be inside overseeing, and the other out front interacting with customers.

And when I did a quick search of McDonald’s and family values, I found an interesting website analyzing commercials from the 1980’s through 2011 that present McDonald’s as a treat, allowing families to spend time together without the pressure of cooking or cleaning up.

It reminds me all over again of all the things food represents for us. It’s far past the point of simply filling our bellies, or even tasting good. It acts as a way to connect us, representing love and comfort and warmth. This is not new to McDonald’s – far from it – but because this is how we’ve come to view food, this focus is likely a big part of what allowed the restaurant to become so successful.

I personally remember when I was kid that going to McDonald’s was a treat, because we so rarely went out to eat, and we certainly didn’t have things like French fries at home – we did have homefries, but they didn’t have the golden crispiness of the fast food fries. And I remember being attracted by Ronald McDonald, and the toys in the Happy Meals. So it does seem that the advertising succeeded

But as I got older, going to McDonald’s no longer felt like a treat. It seemed more like a place of last resort, and not someplace I’d consider going with family to spend some quality time. Others might do this, but the focus on uniformity is part of what I don’t like. I also don’t feel like it’s a place that wants to foster feelings of comfort and togetherness.

The sad irony is that, at least from the movie, it appears that Richard (Dick) and Maurice (Mac) McDonald truly did want something wholesome, of good quality, and to serve people with pride and care. They protested when Kroc wanted to change to using a shake mix for the milkshakes instead of ice cream, and in the movie, they ask what’s next, sawdust in the burgers and frozen French fries? (It appears that this was a sly nod to the fact that there are reports of wood pulp in the burgers, and that McDonald’s does freeze their fries as part of the process).

Had the brothers remained in control of McDonald’s, it likely would have been very different – and it’s also just as likely that it wouldn’t exist, or only in a small pocket of the country. I wonder, too, how they would have advertised it, if they would have focused on the family, or just let their product and service speak for itself.

It’s impossible to say what would have been in different circumstances, but for anyone curious about how this massive chain started, I’d say The Founder is worth watching – it just might not leave you with much of an appetite.

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