- Historic Sites
It began with a few people trying to get hamburgers from grill to customer quicker and cheaper. Now it’s changed the way Americans live. And whether you like it or hate it, once you get on the road you’ll eat it.
April 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 3
But the McDonalds began to sense the limitations of their restaurant. Car hop service was becoming increasingly burdensome. The turnover rate in their work force was accelerating. Not only were they being pressured by competitors copying their operation, but they were also forced to compete against other industries for employees. Moreover, because the typical car hop was young and naturally attracted an adolescent clientele, the theft of knives and forks was driving up their operational costs.
In the fall of 1948 the brothers made a bold move. Risking their entire operation, they closed the restaurant for three months in order to overhaul the business. They fired the car hops. The windows formerly used by car hops to fill orders were converted to self-serve windows where customers could place their own orders. The kitchen was streamlined; the standard three-foot grill gave way to two six-foot grills custom-built by a Los Angeles kitchen supply company. Paper products replaced plates and flatware, thereby eliminating the need for a dishwasher. The menu was cut back from twenty-five items to nine: cheeseburgers, hamburgers, three soft-drink flavors, milk, coffee, potato chips, and a slice of pie. The reduced number of menu items limited customer choice and, in turn, made “precooking” possible. Because of the increased speed and volume of sales, the cost of a hamburger plunged from thirty cents to an incredible fifteen.
When the restaurant reopened, business was slow. Nevertheless, the McDonald brothers stuck to their new formula. Within six months their trade had begun to recover. They added milk shakes and french fries to the menu. The real boom, though, came from an unexpected, and up until that time largely untapped, market share: adults and families.
McDonald’s, by getting rid of the car hops, was no longer a “hangout.” Small children, fascinated by the newly honed kitchen techniques and the assembly-line method of making hamburgers, began to ask their parents to take them to McDonald’s. Because of the cost, parents were happy to oblige. Entire lower- and middle-class families were at last able to go out to a restaurant. The price was right, the service was automated, Mom escaped the kitchen, and no one had to be left home to mind the children.
But what about the tennis court?
As early as 1921 E. W. Ingram was selling five-cent hamburgers by the sack.
When it became evident that the new Speedy System, as the brothers were calling it, could revolutionize the industry, they sold their first franchise to Neil Fox, an independent gasoline retailer. Working with an architect named Stanley Meston, they designed a new store. Eventually they got everything to their liking, save for one crucial element. “When I came up with the idea of the so-called Golden Arches and designed them,” Richard McDonald wrote recently, “I could not find an architect who would use them in the building plans. They simply did not like the arches. So finally, George Dexter of the Dexter Sign Co. told me to have an architect leave the arches out of the plans and he would cut a hole in each corner of the roof of the building and lower the arches down through the holes.” The store opened for business, arches and all, in Phoenix in 1953 (and last winter those original arches went on permanent exhibition at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan).
It was in the design of the new kitchen, however, that the McDonald brothers revealed the depth of their ingenuity. Taking the night crew of their existing restaurant to their home tennis court, they persuaded them to go through the motions of making hamburgers. While the crew members pantomimed the routine of making burgers, shakes, and fries, the brothers followed them, marking in red chalk exactly where the kitchen equipment should be placed for maximum efficiency. They finished at 3:00 A.M. and knocked off for the night. The draftsman who had been hired to transcribe the plan to paper said he would get on it first thing the next morning. Unfortunately a rain came up and washed away the entire outline, leaving only a muddled red mess.
But I still think the true beginning of the fast-food industry is encapsulated in the image of the crew moving through the night, making imaginary hamburgers. It combines many of the crucial elements that were to spread throughout the fast-food industry: attention to detail, emphasis on speed and efficiency, a vision of the future, and a wonderful dose of pure whimsy.
As has happened in many industries, the McDonald brothers only refined ideas that were already in existence. As early as 1921 a Wichita, Kansas, man named E. W. Ingram served a five-cent hamburger and encouraged customers to buy them by the sack. The hamburgers were served with fried onions; the hamburger itself was steam-fried. He called the restaurant White Castle. The hamburgers caught on, and in a few years his restaurant chain had spread to eleven states. Capitalizing on Ingram’s success and company name, competing owners opened up restaurants called White Tower or Royal Castle.