Grinding It Out
The Making of McDonald's
By Ray Kroc, Robert Anderson
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 1977 Ray A. Kroc
All rights reserved.
There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.
— Shakespeare, Julius Caesar
I have always believed that each man makes his own happiness and is responsible for his own problems. It is a simple philosophy. I think it must have been passed along to me in the peasant bones of my Bohemian ancestors. But I like it because it works, and I find that it functions as well for me now that I am a multimillionaire as it did when I was selling paper cups for thirty-five dollars a week and playing the piano part-time to support my wife and baby daughter back in the early twenties. It follows, obviously, that a man must take advantage of any opportunity that comes along, and I have always done that, too. After seventeen years of selling paper cups for Lily Tulip Cup Company and climbing to the top of the organization's sales ladder, I saw opportunity appear in the form of an ugly, six-spindled milk shake machine called a Multimixer, and I grabbed it. It wasn't easy to give up security and a well-paying job to strike out on my own. My wife was shocked and incredulous. But my success soon calmed her fears, and I plunged gleefully into my campaign to sell a Multimixer to every drug store soda fountain and dairy bar in the nation. It was a rewarding struggle. I loved it. Yet I was alert to other opportunities. I have a saying that goes, "As long as you're green you're growing, as soon as you're ripe you start to rot." And I was as green as a Shamrock Shake on St. Patrick's Day when I heard about an incredible thing that was happening with my Multimixer out in California.
The vibrations came in calls from voluntary prospects in different parts of the country. One day it would be a restaurant owner in Portland, Oregon; the next day a soda fountain operator in Yuma, Arizona; the following week, a dairy-bar manager in Washington, D.C. In essence, the message was always the same, "I want one of those mixers of yours like the McDonald brothers have in San Bernardino, California." I got curiouser and curiouser. Who were these McDonald brothers, and why were customers picking up on the Multimixer from them when I had similar machines in lots of places? (The machine, by this time had five spindles instead of six.) So I did some checking and was astonished to learn that the McDonalds had not one Multimixer, not two or three, but eight! The mental picture of eight Multimixers churning out forty shakes at one time was just too much to be believed. These mixers sold at $150 apiece, mind you, and that was back in 1954. The fact that this was taking place in San Bernardino, which was a quiet town in those days, practically in the desert, made it all the more amazing.
I flew out to Los Angeles one day and made some routine calls with my representative there. Then, bright and early the next morning, I drove the sixty miles east to San Bernardino. I cruised past the McDonald's location about 10 A.M., and I was not terrifically impressed. There was a smallish octagonal building, a very humble sort of structure situated on a corner lot about 200 feet square. It was a typical, ordinary-looking drive-in. As the 11 o'clock opening time approached, I parked my car and watched the helpers begin to show up — all men, dressed in spiffy white shirts and trousers and white paper hats. I liked that. They began to move supplies from a long, low shed at the back of the property. They trundled four-wheeled carts loaded with sacks of potatoes, cartons of meat, cases of milk and soft drinks, and boxes of buns into the octagonal building. Something was definitely happening here, I told myself. The tempo of their work picked up until they were bustling around like ants at a picnic. Then the cars began to arrive, and the lines started to form. Soon the parking lot was full and people were marching up to the windows and back to their cars with bags full of hamburgers. Eight Multimixers churning away at one time began to seem a lot less far-fetched in light of this steady procession of customers lockstepping up to the windows. Slightly dazed but still somewhat dubious, I got out of my car and took a place in line.
"Say, what's the attraction here?" I asked a swarthy man in a seersucker suit who was just in front of me.
"Never eaten here before?" he asked.
"Well, you'll see," he promised. "You'll get the best hamburger you ever ate for fifteen cents. And you don't have to wait and mess around tipping waitresses."
I left the line and walked around behind the building, where several men were hunkered down in the shade baseball-catcher style, resting their backs against the wall and gnawing away on hamburgers. One wore a carpenter's apron; he must have walked over from a nearby construction site. He looked up at me with an open, friendly gaze, so I asked him how often he came there for lunch.
"Every damned day," he said without a pause in his chewing. "It sure beats the old lady's cold meatloaf sandwiches."
It was a hot day, but I noticed that there were no flies swarming around the place. The men in the white suits were keeping everything neat and clean as they worked. That impressed the hell out of me, because I've always been impatient with poor housekeeping, especially in restaurants. I observed that even the parking lot was being kept free of litter.
In a bright yellow convertible sat a strawberry blond who looked like she had gotten lost on her way to the Brown Derby or the Paramount cafeteria. She was demolishing a hamburger and a bag of fries with a demure precision that was fascinating. Emboldened by curiosity, I approached her and said I was taking a traffic survey.
"If you don't mind telling me, how often do you come here?" I asked.
"Anytime I am in the neighborhood," she smiled. "And that's as often as possible, because my boyfriend lives here."
Whether she was teasing or being candid or simply using the mention of her boyfriend as a ploy to discourage this inquisitive middle-aged guy who might be a masher, I couldn't tell, and I cared not at all. It was not her sex appeal but the obvious relish with which she devoured the hamburger that made my pulse begin to hammer with excitement. Her appetite was magnified for me by the many people in cars that filled the parking lot, and I could feel myself getting wound up like a pitcher with a no-hitter going. This had to be the most amazing merchandising operation I had ever seen!
I don't remember whether I ate a hamburger for lunch that day or not. I went back to my car and waited around until about 2:30 in the afternoon, when the crowd dwindled down to just an occasional customer. Then I went over to the building and introduced myself to Mac and Dick McDonald. They were delighted to see me ("Mr. Multimixer" they called me), and I warmed up to them immediately. We made a date to get together for dinner that evening so they could tell me all about their operation.
I was fascinated by the simplicity and effectiveness of the system they described that night. Each step in producing the limited menu was stripped down to its essence and accomplished with a minimum of effort. They sold hamburgers and cheeseburgers only. The burgers were a tenth of a pound of meat, all fried the same way, for fifteen cents. You got a slice of cheese on it for four cents more. Soft drinks were ten cents, sixteen-ounce milk shakes were twenty cents, and coffee was a nickel.
After dinner, the brothers took me over to visit their architect, who was just completing work on the design of a new drive-in building for them. It was neat. The building was red and white with touches of yellow, and had snazzy looking oversized windows. It had some improved serving area features over those being used in the McDonald's octagonal structure. And it had washrooms in back. In the existing building, customers had to walk to the back of the lot to the long, low building that was a combination warehouse, office, and washrooms. What made the new building unique was a set of arches that went right through the roof. There was a tall sign out front with arches that had neon tubes lighting the underside. I could see plenty of problems there. The arches of the sign looked like they would topple over in a strong wind, and those neon lights would need constant attention to keep them from fading out and looking tacky. But I liked the basic idea of the arches and most of the other features of the design, too.
That night in my motel room I did a lot of heavy thinking about what I'd seen during the day. Visions of McDonald's restaurants dotting crossroads all over the country paraded through my brain. In each store, of course, were eight Multimixers whirring away and paddling a steady flow of cash into my pockets.
The next morning I got up with a plan of action in mind. I was on the scene when McDonald's windows opened for business. What followed was pretty much a repeat of the scenario that had played the previous day, but I watched it with undiminished fascination. I observed some things a lot more closely, though, and with more awareness, thanks to my conversation with the McDonald brothers. I noted how the griddleman handled his job; how he slapped the patties of meat down when he turned them, and how he kept the sizzling griddle surface scraped. But I paid particular attention to the french-fry operation. The brothers had indicated this was one of the key elements in their sales success, and they'd described the process. But I had to see for myself how it worked. There had to be a secret something to make french fries that good.
Now, to most people, a french-fried potato is a pretty uninspiring object. It's fodder, something to kill time chewing between bites of hamburger and swallows of milk shake. That's your ordinary french fry. The McDonald's french fry was in an entirely different league. They lavished attention on it. I didn't know it then, but one day I would, too. The french fry would become almost sacrosanct for me, its preparation a ritual to be followed religiously. The McDonald brothers kept their potatoes — top quality Idaho spuds, about eight ounces apiece — piled in bins in their back warehouse building. Since rats and mice and other varmints like to eat potatoes, the walls of the bins were of two layers of small-mesh chicken wire. This kept the critters out and allowed fresh air to circulate among the potatoes. I watched the spuds being bagged up and followed their trip by four-wheeled cart to the octagonal drive-in building. There they were carefully peeled, leaving a tiny proportion of skin on, and then they were cut into long sections and dumped into large sinks of cold water. The french-fry man, with his sleeves rolled up to the shoulders, would plunge his arms into the floating schools of potatoes and gently stir them. I could see the water turning white with starch. This was drained off and the residual starch was rinsed from the glistening morsels with a flexible spray hose. Then the potatoes went into wire baskets, stacked in production-line fashion next to the deep-fry vats. A common problem with french fries is that they're fried in oil that has been used for chicken or for some other cooking. Any restaurant will deny it, but almost all of them do it. A very small scandal, perhaps, but a scandal nonetheless, and it's just one of the little crimes that have given the french fry a bad name while ruining the appetites of countless Americans. There was no adulteration of the oil for cooking french fries by the McDonald brothers. Of course, they weren't tempted. They had nothing else to cook in it. Their potatoes sold at ten cents for a three-ounce bag, and let me tell you, that was a rare bargain. The customers knew it, too. They bought prodigious quantities of those potatoes. A big aluminum salt shaker was attached to a long chain by the french-fry window, and it was kept going like a Salvation Army girl's tambourine.
The McDonald's approach to french fries was a very interesting process to me and, I was happy to observe, it was every bit as simple as the McDonald boys had told me it was. I was convinced that I had it down pat in my head, and that anybody could do it if he followed those individual steps to the letter. That was just one of the many mistakes I would make in my dealings with the McDonald brothers.
After the lunch-hour rush had abated, I got together with Mac and Dick McDonald again. My enthusiasm for their operation was genuine, and I hoped it would be infectious and rally them in favor of the plan I had mapped out in my mind.
"I've been in the kitchens of a lot of restaurants and drive-ins selling Multimixers around the country," I told them, "and I have never seen anything to equal the potential of this place of yours. Why don't you open a series of units like this? It would be a gold mine for you and for me, too, because every one would boost my Multimixer sales. What d'you say?"
I felt like I'd dragged my tie in my soup or something. The two brothers just sat there looking at me. Then Mac gave that little wince that sometimes passes for a smile in New England and turned around in his chair to point up at the hill overlooking the restaurant.
"See that big white house with the wide front porch?" he asked. "That's our home and we love it. We sit out on the porch in the evenings and watch the sunset and look down on our place here. It's peaceful. We don't need any more problems. We are in a position to enjoy life now, and that's just what we intend to do."
His approach was utterly foreign to my thinking, so it took me a few minutes to reorganize my arguments. But it soon became apparent that further discussion along that line would be futile, so I said they could have their cake and eat it too by getting somebody else to open the other places for them. I could still peddle my Multimixers in the chain.
"It'll be a lot of trouble," Dick McDonald objected. "Who could we get to open them for us?"
I sat there feeling a sense of certitude begin to envelope me. Then I leaned forward and said, "Well, what about me?"
When I flew back to Chicago that fateful day in 1954, I had a freshly signed contract with the McDonald brothers in my briefcase. I was a battle-scarred veteran of the business wars, but I was still eager to go into action. I was 52 years old. I had diabetes and incipient arthritis. I had lost my gall bladder and most of my thyroid gland in earlier campaigns. But I was convinced that the best was ahead of me. I was still green and growing, and I was flying along at an altitude slightly higher than the plane. It was bright and sunny up there above the clouds. You could see nothing but clear skies and endless acres of billowy hummocks all the way from the Colorado River to Lake Michigan. But everything turned gray and threatening as we began our descent into Chicago. Perhaps I should have taken that as an omen.
My thoughts, however, as we glided through the churning blackness, were on those hidden streets and alleys below where I had grown up along with the century.
I was born in Oak Park, just west of Chicago's city limits, in 1902. My father, Louis Kroc, was a Western Union man. He had gone to work for the company when he was twelve years old and slowly but steadily worked his way up. He had left school in the eighth grade, and he was determined that I would finish high school. I was the wrong kid for that. My brother, Bob, who was born five years after me, and my sister, Lorraine, who came along three years after him, were much more inclined to studies. In fact, Bob became a professor, a medical researcher, and we had almost nothing in common, he and I. For many years we found it difficult even to talk to each other. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Grinding It Out by Ray Kroc, Robert Anderson. Copyright © 1977 Ray A. Kroc. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.