If it was called Kroc’s instead of McDonald’s, would we dine there?
I never thought the time Ray Kroc confiscated the play-by-play microphone at a Padres baseball game and heartlessly apologized for the deplorable way his team was playing would be my Woodstock. I kind of remember being there, although my son asserts he’d remember if we had been.
Like millions of people who claim they were present for Jimmy Hendrix’s guitar-shredding Star-Spangled Banner at the peace, love and mud festival in 1969, I vividly remember being at San Diego stadium that night and hearing the National Anthem and the pulsing of the ballpark’s organ’s rhythmic notes followed by “Charge.” But maybe it was a different night. Or maybe I was at Woodstock.
My point is that in all my years of covering franchising that’s as close as I’ve gotten to a personal experience with Ray Kroc. But now I don’t have to rely on alternative facts, because I have both a book and a movie to fill in the gaps of my knowledge of the man who changed the way we eat.
“The Founder,” starring Michael Keaton as Ray Kroc, tells the darker side of the birth of the Golden Arches. Kroc wasn’t the founder of the largest QSR chain in the world, so much as someone who knew a good idea when he saw it and had the tenacity to pursue it against all odds.
He approached the McDonald brothers about franchising their concept, right after their original salesman suffered a heart attack. I know this not from watching the movie, which claims the brothers were unhappy with the job their salesman was doing, but from reading Lisa Napoli’s fact-checking blog. Napoli wrote “Ray & Joan: The Man Who Made The McDonald’s Fortune And The Woman Who Gave It All Away,” and uses her extensive research to debunk some of the movie’s plot twists.
While I contend only people in the industry will unabashedly enjoy the film, everyone who likes a good peek behind a public façade will have a hard time putting the book down. Who knew how hard it was to give millions away?
Movies based on true stories always take some liberties to move the plot along. And it’s fun to see what they fudged on. For instance, Joan Smith played an organ in a St. Paul white tablecloth restaurant, not a piano. Although an organ would have been a nod to the Krocs future baseball team ownership, I’m guessing the screenwriter thought a piano was classier.
Both Krocs were said to be good at tickling the ivories, and in the movie, Ray joins Joan at the piano to sing “Pennies from Heaven.” Since restaurants are known as a pennies business, was the choice of songs an insider’s joke? (Napoli doesn’t debunk the duet, but I’m guessing that while Ray was smitten with Joan at first sight, he didn’t sing about it. Leave that to La La Land.)
The movie also casts Joan’s first husband, Rollie, as the owner of the fine-dining establishment who later signs on as a McDonald’s franchisee.
Napoli writes that Rollie was hired to be the manager of the McDonald’s, but he later did become a franchisee in his own right. The only women who could work at a McDonald’s during the early days were the wives of franchisees—and they had to wear white. Fortunately, Joan looked good in white.
Sadly, Napoli also claims the scene where Joan introduces the idea of using milkshake mix to cut down on dairy and refrigeration costs is not true.
At first I was bummed that a woman didn’t come up with that innovation, but in retrospect I’m glad a mother didn’t take the milk out of the milkshake.
Some of the early innovations the two McDonald brothers invented were: eliminating carhops (employees) so people had to get out of their cars and order from a window; a QSR assembly line for burgers; a “gun” which gave each bun a squirt of ketchup and mustard before exactly two pickles and a sprinkle of onions were added. The burgers were wrapped in logo’d wax paper and placed in a bag, eliminating the need for silverware or plates.
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Kroc, it seems, was fanatical about picking up trash in the parking lot and browbeating the brothers.
The whole time I watched the movie, I was thinking about how uncomfortable it would have been to sit next to McDonald’s top brass during the film. In 1990 I sat in a San Diego movie theater as a reviewer for the premiere of The Grifters, starring hometown girl, Annette Bening. Four rows behind me were her proud parents, and during the scene where she slowly walks across the screen completely nude, all I could think about was her father sitting four rows behind me—watching (I’m easily creeped out).
While Michael Keaton never appeared nude in the movie, thus eliminating that bit of tension, I know McDonald’s is especially sensitive to criticism and anything reflecting negatively on the brand.
Years ago when I first started hearing about Ray Kroc and his handshake deals, the stories were meant to demonstrate the trust both Kroc and the vendors had for each other. But in the movie, he asks the McDonald brothers to take the $2.7 million in cash and to do a handshake deal on the promised 1 percent of future earnings they wanted, in order to appease the financier. That isn’t how it happened, according to Napoli’s research.
The brothers wanted either all cash or to keep their original deal of 0.5 percent of the royalties.
Sometimes you have to take movies with a grain of salt—as much as you’d find in a small order of fries.