The myth of the American Dream wants the greatest fortunes often to arise from adversity. The problem is that, sometimes, one bad choice is enough to destroy years of hard work and all dreams of wealth. This is the strange story of the McDonald’s brothers, the forgotten founders of the largest hamburger chain in the world.
Who were Maurice and Richard McDonald
Born in the early 1900s into a humble family of Irish immigrants from New Hampshire, Richard and Maurice McDonald quickly came up against the odds: their father Patrick, after 42 years of work in a shoe factory with 20,000 employees (GP Crafts), was suddenly fired; finding himself unemployed overnight and without a pension.
A hard blow for the whole family, which provides the two brothers with the necessary motivation to pack up their bags and try their luck in California, in the entertainment world. With some clothes and a high school diploma in their suitcase, Richard (aka Dick) and Maurice set out on the road, vowing to themselves that they would be millionaires by age 50.
What McDonald’s means
Things, initially, do not go as planned. We are towards the end of the 1920s: the two brothers dream of shooting and producing films, but only manage to win a few low-paying jobs in the Columbia studios. With no concrete hopes of conquering Hollywood, Dick and Maurice decide to set aside as much money as possible and give a concrete form to their Los Angeles dreams: to buy and manage a cinema.
The cinema is called Mission, it is located about 30 kilometers from LA and has 750 seats. They rename it The Beacon, add a snack bar and reopen its doors in 1930. The timing is not the best: we are in the midst of the Great Depression and the entertainment industry, predictably, suffers the blows of the recession.
The idea of catering: McDonald’s Barbeque
The bills pile up and the payments are always late: after seven years the two brothers raise the white flag and decide to sell the cinema. In their minds, however, a new project is already making its way: the world of catering. Without leaving California, the two open a club in San Bernardino and call it Barbeque. To be precise: McDonald’s Barbeque.
It’s a classic drive-in: cars pull up, order and receive food brought to them by girls on roller skates. The menu has 25 different courses; but among these there is one that is the most popular: the hamburger. After a few years, Dick and Maurice decide to completely revise their formula: they close the restaurant to renovate it and prepare for the reopening, which will take place in 1948.
The change is radical: not only is the menu now limited to burgers, but the girls on rollerblades have disappeared. Customers have to park their car, enter the shop and order directly at the counter. The decision, probably taken to maximize costs (a philosophy that still reigns in any McDonald’s today), is unsuccessful. Customers are used to receiving food directly in the car; as soon as they realize that things are working differently in the San Bernardino club, they get in gear and head elsewhere.
The role of truckers in McDonald’s history
To save the two brothers from yet another failure are the truck drivers, who start frequenting the McDonald’s Barbecue during their work breaks. Things gradually start to work: the two brothers manage to produce profits of 100 thousand dollars a year and, above all, they begin to plan the expansion. In 1953 a second restaurant opens in Phoenix, Arizona. Then they return to California to open a new McDonald’s in Downey. The following year the restaurants became six (according to other sources as many as 20); and it is at this point that the man who will make Dick and Maurice fall into the oblivion of the story: Ray Kroc.
Ray Kroc, the real founder of McDonald’s
The story of Ray Kroc, also narrated in the film The Founder (starring Michael Keaton), is told in dozens of different ways; often – as the title of the aforementioned film suggests – he is even considered the real founder of McDonald’s. How is it possible? According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, in the 1940s Kroc was a manufacturer of multimixers capable of processing five different types of milk shakes simultaneously.
Kroc enters business with McDonalds, inaugurating the franchise system
In 1954, Ray Kroc decided to visit the San Bernardino restaurant, which used eight of his machines. Nothing surprising, considering how the two brothers had transformed the restaurant into an assembly line for hamburgers, fries and, in fact, milk shakes. Struck by this intuition, Kroc enters into business with the McDonalds, inaugurating the franchising system: he would have paid the two brothers a fee for each new restaurant he opened; commercially leveraging their brand and methods.
McDonald’s changes owner: oblivion
Things proceed without any particular jolts until 1961, when Dick and Maurice decide to give all control of their business to Ray Kroc (who in the meantime has opened something like 228 restaurants in franchising); keeping for themselves only the first restaurant in San Bernardino (renamed The Big M, no longer having control of the brand). Without wasting time, Kroc devotes himself to restyling: he eliminates the Speedee mascot from the brand and also gets rid of the large golden bow that characterized the first McDonald’s. On the advice of the designer Louis Cheskin, he still decides to keep the concept of the arch and transform it into a logo that was supposed to generate “a Freudian impulse in the customers”.
Thus was born the golden M which today is the universal logo of McDonald’s, but which in Ray Kroc’s mind also had to remember a female breast, unconsciously internalized by the male clientele. At the same time, Kroc’s work also begins to erase the two brothers, the real founders, from McDonald’s history.
What the McDonald’s owner earns
First of all, he has a golden effigy hanging in each restaurant in which he is called “founder”. Shortly after, he decides to get rid of what was left of the two brothers’ business for good, opening a McDonald’s a few hundred meters from their historic restaurant in San Bernardino, which will declare bankruptcy six years later. Not only that, in his first autobiography of 1970 (this Ray Kroc must have had an ego the size of a giant milk shake), Grinding It Out: the making of McDonald’s , even traces the birth of the chain back to 1955, when it opened its first franchised restaurant in Des Plaines, Illinois.
To the moral damage, the economic one is added. In this Ray Kroc has no faults, having legitimately acquired the brand. After all, however, we understand how Dick and Maurice literally threw away the possibility of realizing the dream they had imagined while they were packing their bags to move, still young, to California.
How much money would the two brothers have made if they hadn’t decided to sell?
Ray Kroc bought their chain for $ 2.7 million. A good fortune, in 1961. Which in fact allowed Dick and Maurice to return to live in New Hampshire (apparently they missed the climate of the extreme north-east of the United States), buy villas and drive in Cadillacs. By 1964, however, Ray Kroc had already opened his restaurant number 594. How much money would have reached the two brothers’ pockets if, instead of selling everything, they had continued to take a percentage from the new franchise openings?
The calculations are quickly made: the first contract with Kroc provided that for each franchised restaurant Dick and Maurice would receive $ 950, plus 1.9% on food sales and 0.5% of total turnover. Already in 1970, all this would have turned into a real income (being the brand in franchising, the two brothers could have limited themselves to signing contracts) of 15 million dollars a year. In 2012, it is estimated that these millions would have turned into 305 every year.
The McDonald brothers today
The two brothers are now long dead (Dick in 1971, Maurice in 1998); despite never having had children, they have left behind a host of heirs (stepchildren and grandchildren) who would surely have known how to use that immense patrimony left only in potential. This story ends with a meager consolation: after Ray Kroc’s death in 1984, McDonald’s began to correct the shot and also to reserve for the two brothers, the true founders, the space they deserve in the history of one of the most famous brands in the world.