Fast Food

The competition was fierce, but the American appetite appeared insatiable.

It is not surprising, therefore, to find that McDonald’s is the world’s largest owner of real estate. It passed Sears in real estate holdings in 1982 and is still growing. If we add to its holdings the real estate owned by the other major food franchises, it’s possible to glimpse the sheer scope of land they control. American towns are dominated, architecturally and in terms of landscape, by fast-food outlets. It is not simply an imagined perception one has when driving down the nation’s highways that the roads are lined with franchises of all descriptions. It is almost more accurate than we can allow ourselves to believe.

The late Ray Kroc, founder of McDonald’s Corporation, the man who is credited with franchising McDonald’s around the world, sometimes flew over prospective sites to look for church steeples and schools, taking them as signs that the community had a solid middle class. He liked isolated locations on cheap lots, well away from existing businesses. Because McDonald’s parking lots were designed in a U shape to guarantee a steady flow of traffic around the restaurant, he was happy with parcels in the middle of a block. He did not have to compete with the gas stations that preferred corner locations, a fact that greatly reduced the cost of franchising.


By the time McDonald’s hit its stride, somewhere in the mid-1960s, the company could not put in an outlet without alerting other franchises that the overlooked location was prime. Other fast-food chains moved in quickly, and the strip was born. Even today lesser chains keep an eye on the major chains and build in their shadows, hoping to catch some of the runoff business, secure that the “majors” have done research to determine the best location.

Zoning could not keep pace during the infancy of the fast-food boom. Perhaps no one saw that a redefinition of our highways was about to take place, or perhaps local businessmen and politicians were pleased to see depressed land values suddenly soar in price. In any case, the rush was on.

Even now the zoning regulations concerning fast-food franchises are confusing and inconsistent. If you look closely at a typical strip, you can see the quality of curbing changes from one zoning jurisdiction to another. In one place the restaurants are fronted by sidewalks; in other locations there are no sidewalks at all. Long-range planning, in most cases, was nonexistent. As a result, our highways are now crammed with franchise signs that, by most reasonable standards, must be considered eyesores.

Understandably, over the years the strips have ignited a good deal of political action and considerable ill will. In Oregon the state legislature introduced bills in 1979 and 1980 to outlaw throwaway containers. Both bills failed, but they have added fuel to the growing controversy around the country. Garden clubs are now asking that signs and roofs be constructed with neutral colors. Resort towns guard their scenic stature by stipulating that the restaurants agree to limit the sizes, and colors, of their signs. Careful landscaping is slowly becoming the rule. Most fast-food franchises realize that proper community relations are essential to good business, and they are quick to comply. In direct response to requests from conservation groups, franchises are building new outlets that attempt to blend with surrounding architecture. On college campuses, or in historic districts, it’s possible to come across a McDonald’s or Burger King with a brick facade marred only by a minuscule sign advertising its product.

The gaudy hamburger and ice-cream stands of the early 1940s and 1950s are being lost, and with them, a genuine period in American architecture. In fact, the most recent push by fast-food franchises is being made in our major cities. The urban population, once courted by White Castle and the corner soda fountain, is now patronizing McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken and Pizza Hut and Burger King. Some of the chains are experimenting with what is called “vertical rub-off stores”—two or three restaurants located on evenly spaced floors in a high rise, with each one stimulating purchases up and down the honeycomb of offices. Kroc, not long before he died, looked seriously at Chicago’s Sears Tower as a prospective site for three stores. “All three would have done well, with the trade from one rubbing off to the others and not encroaching at all,” he said in his book Grinding It Out. “We didn’t do that for various reasons, but we might try it somewhere in the future.”

The food franchises have entered our cultural history; Ronald McDonald is as well known as Ronald Reagan. “Where’s the beef?” became a throw-off line for politicians around the country. Colonel Sanders, before his death, was one of the most widely recognized individuals in the nation. A bearded gentlemen dressed up as the “Burger King” never quite caught on, but the phrase “Have it your way” and the name Whopper provide instant identification.