Picture the Food Scene Before McDonald’s Was McDonald’s
The first hamburger stand opened by the McDonald brothers in 1948.
Today it’s hard to believe that McDonald’s didn’t always exist as the original disrupter of the nation’s food scene, but a recent talk by author Lisa Napoli on the subject paints the picture that seems especially appropriate to share today, on the eve of our No. 1 food holiday.
Picture post-World War II America, with cars and more cars and the roads to get around in them. “Dick and Mac McDonald came to California from New Hampshire to get into the movie business,” Napoli told a crowd of restaurant folks at the Restaurant Finance & Development Conference in Las Vegas earlier this month. “They didn’t make it in the movie business,” but they did start a diner with carhops, where people would drive up and socialize until their food came. “It didn’t matter that it took a long time because people wanted to hang out.”
But the McDonald brothers wanted that to change. “They took the tennis court behind their house. They pared down their menu to nine items. They got rid of the carhops and most importantly they required customers to walk up to the window. You could get your food lickety-split and very, very cheap,” like 15 cents for a hamburger, said Napoli, the author of “Ray & Joan: The Man who Made the McDonald’s Fortune and the Woman who Gave it All Away.”
Ray, of course, is Ray Kroc, who was a milkshake-mixer salesman who came to the first McDonald’s in San Bernardino. “He was dazzled by the place and asked if he could franchise,” and a long and twisting tale later, McDonald’s is the international juggernaut it is today, but not before Ray met Joan Smith, who was playing the piano in The Criterion in St. Paul, Minnesota. She became his third wife in 1969 and then his widow in 1984. She was the largest shareholder, and “started giving away the money in bulk.”
To Napoli, the lesson in the McDonald’s tale is this: “An idea starts in the strangest way. This story is iconic,” she said. You can ponder that as you partake or make your annual Thanksgiving feast, and with any luck hit a favorite restaurant or two in the long weekend that follows.
As for me, we’re hosting two dinners with family and friends at our house this year, and I could use some of those super-efficient systems the McDonald brothers created for the back of the house, or better yet a crew of dishwashers—oh wait, I guess that’s what children and nieces and nephews are for.