Fast Food

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What the chains offered—and it was a wholly new thing—was predictable quality.

But the phenomenon goes far beyond a change in eating habits. The food at Hamburger Junction was pretty good; but it might have been swill, and there would have been no way for the newcomer to know that until the plate was put down in front of him. For years, of course, the bromide had it that one should “eat where the truckers eat”: at best, an erratic barometer of food quality. What the fast food chains offered—and it was an entirely new thing—was a predictable level of sanitation, service, and quality. The fortunes of the fast-food industry rose on this tide of assurance: you knew that whether you were entering a restaurant in Sante Fe or Bangor, you were going to get exactly the same meal. It is this standardization that most impresses foreign visitors when they are confronted with McDonald’s or Burger King, and it is the reflection of a particularly American kind of industrial genius.

It may have started in 1921 at the Royce Hailey’s Pig Stand in Dallas when drivers began pulling up for barbecued sandwiches. Doubtless it started with cars, a population pushing out of the cities into the suburbs, and a volume business based on large production at minimal costs: hamburger factories with retail outlets. Tracking down the earliest restaurants, however, is a formidable exercise in genealogy. Dunkin’ Donuts begot Mister Donut, which then begot Tastee Donut. White Castle sired White Diamond, Royal Castle, and White Crest. Some of the names give themselves over to chants: Taco Bell and Taco Tico, Taco Villa, and Tico Taco. The burger dynasty has maintained a somewhat bovine sound, not unlike cow bells gently clanging on a summer night: Burger King, Burger Chef, Bun & Burger, Wendy’s…Mooooooo. Compare the burger line to the clucking chicken family: Bojangles, Church’s Fried Chicken, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Popeye’s Famous Fried Chicken. In pizza there are the Italian uncles: Godfather’s, Domino’s, Pizza Hut. Presiding over dessert are the married monarchs Dairy King and Dairy Queen and their wicked stepson, Dairy Cheer.

The numbers associated with these restaurants are perhaps even more astonishing than the family tree. A statistical breakdown on McDonald’s alone is an MBA’s dream. John Love, author of McDonald’s: Behind the Arches, gives the following summation:

 

Ninety-six percent of Americans have eaten at one of the McDonald’s restaurants in the last year; slightly more than half of the U.S. population lives within three minutes of a McDonald’s; McDonald’s has served more than 55 billion hamburgers; McDonald’s commands 17% of all restaurant visits in the U.S. and gets 7.3% of all dollars Americans spent eating out; McDonald’s sells 32% of all hamburgers and 26% of french fries; McDonald’s is the country’s largest beef buyer; it purchases 7.5% of the U.S. potato crop; McDonald’s has employed about 8 million workers—which amounts to approximately 7% of the entire U.S. work force; and McDonald’s has replaced the U.S. Army as America’s largest job training organization.

So that you know what you missed, I should mention that a block of a hundred shares of McDonald’s stock bought when the company went public two decades ago is now worth around $400,000. The original cost was $2,250.

But the numbers only hint at the impact fast-food restaurants have had on our country. If you want to know what the fast-food industry really means, ask the next ten-year-old you meet where he’d like to eat if given his choice. Walk past a construction site in New York City around noon and note what the workers are eating for lunch. Check a potato farmer’s invoices and track down his biggest client. Ask the farmer how egg production received a boom with the introduction of McDonald’s Egg McMuffins and Burger King’s Bagel Sandwiches, or what it meant to the chicken industry when McDonald’s began serving Chicken McNuggets. Visit a quick-serve restaurant early in the morning and stay for breakfast. Finally, close your eyes right now and confess, honestly, how many fast-food jingles you can hum. If you can’t hum at least two or three, you’ve probably been unplugged for the past ten years.

For my money, the true fast-food boom—the light bulb switching on to mark a pioneering idea—began on a tennis court located on one side of the McDonald brothers’ San Bernardino house. The brothers, Maurice and Richard, were transplants from New Hampshire to California. They had already founded a successful restaurant that catered to the booming region surrounding San Bernardino in the 1940s. Housed in a shiny octagonal building with glass sides, the McDonald brothers had established an extremely well-run car hop restaurant. The parking lot was crowded daily. Teen-agers flocked to McDonald’s, as did the older lunch crews working on projects around the area. The McDonald brothers had become wealthy, not fabulously so, but rich enough to acquire a new Cadillac each year, a ninety-thousand-dollar mansion, and tickets to local boxing matches. Annual sales topped two hundred thousand dollars.