At the Movies: 'The Founder' Is Made for Followers of Franchising
Restaurants are said to be a pennies business, so it was only fitting that when the Ray Kroc character in the film, "The Founder", meets his future wife, Joan, playing the organ at a fine-dining restaurant in St. Paul, he joins the attractive blonde at the keyboard to lustfully sing “Pennies From Heaven.”
It was the pennies—or in this case the 1.4 percent he was receiving from McDonald’s franchisees—that turned a down-on-his-luck milkshake machine salesman into a fast-food force to be reckoned with. McDonald’s under his iron fist revolutionized the way the world eats. But he didn’t make the transition from pennies to dollars until he met the man who convinced him the only way to make serious coin was to own the real estate under the restaurants.
There’s lots of irony in the movie starring Michael Keaton as Ray Kroc, starting with the title. Kroc may have referred to himself as the founder of McDonald’s, but in reality the gold mine under the golden arches was the brainchild of two brothers, Dick and Mac McDonald, who engineered a way to sell quality hamburgers cheap and fast. They could deliver a 15-cent hamburger in 30 seconds that Kroc described as the best hamburger he'd ever eaten. He had one word for them: franchise. And the movie’s depiction of Kroc’s insertion of himself into the business and ultimate takeover was none too flattering.
While I personally enjoyed it—seeing Kroc ask a young go-getter for his name and hearing him say, "Fred Turner, sir," was akin to a celebrity sighting—I think it’s an insiders’ movie (Turner becomes Kroc's right-hand man). It had a lackluster opening weekend in January, according to boxofficemojo.com and brought in even less the following week. However 83 percent of the audience surveyed by the Rotten Tomatoes review site liked the movie.
Although it’s based on the true story, some of the facts were massaged for the screen. Real stories are often messy, and therefore, more complicated than can be portrayed entertainingly on the big screen. Because I was intrigued with the Joan/Ray angle, I bought Lisa Napoli’s 2016 biography, “Ray & Joan, The Man Who Made The McDonald’s Fortune And The Woman Who Gave It Away.” The book is 351 pages, 85 of which are references. And it’s a good read.
A review in The Wall Street Journal said Kroc was not as down on his luck as was portrayed in the movie. And according to the book, Joan was Kroc’s third wife, not second, and he met her while selling a franchise to the St. Paul fine-dining restaurateur who then hired her husband to manage it.
As a student of franchising for more years than I care to remember, I liked that the movie spent so much time on the McDonald brothers’ system. While it was a ballet of orchestrated efficiency, it’s not going to have the same buzz as the dancing in "La La Land."
The possible fallout McDonald’s the corporation is going to have to deal with is being viewed once again as “the man.” And their man Kroc didn’t come across as the benevolent giant, corporate would have liked their “founder” to be.