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The Real McDonald’s: The San Bernardino Origins of a Fast Food Empire

McDonalds and Speedee Logo
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The first McDonald's in San Bernardino, CA

"Over the years, I have received letters and phone calls from television stations, radio stations, authors, reporters, et cetera, and they all told me the same story. It seems that if they contact your company in Oak Brook regarding my present address, they have been told that the company has no idea where I live or if I am even alive. On several occasions they have been told that there really was never a McDonald. They were told McDonald’s was only a fictitious name that was chosen because it was easy to remember." – Richard “Dick” McDonald

"Look it is ridiculous to call this an industry. This is not. This is rat eat rat, dog eat dog. I’ll kill ‘em and I’m going to kill ‘em before they kill me. You’re talking about the American way of the survival of the fittest.” – Ray Kroc

McDonalds Meal
McDonald's burger, fries and a drink

On a summer day in 1954, a brash, charming Multimixer salesman from Chicago named Ray Kroc stood in the parking lot of a small, oddly shaped fast food joint in dusty, suburban San Bernardino. He watched in awe as a noonday crowd of over 100 patrons ordered hamburgers, fries, and most importantly, milkshakes for insanely low prices. The food was served with lightning speed, and the customers, many of them working class families, gushed about the quality of their meals. Thoroughly excited, he rushed up to the ownersbrothers Richard “Dick” and Maurice “Mac” McDonald. “My God, I’ve been standing out there looking at it but I can’t believe it. When will this die down?” he asked. “Sometime late tonight,” Dick responded. “I’ve got to become involved in this,” Kroc replied, thus changing the course of food service around the globe. 

Dick and Mac, who Kroc would dismiss in later years as a “queer pair,” were born in New Hampshire. Their father was a foreman in a shoe factory. The brothers were undoubtedly products of New Englandtaciturn, hard-working, reserved and humble. Around 1930, they made their way to California in search of a better life. They worked as crew on Hollywood one-reelers, owned a movie theater in Glendale for four years, and then decided to get into the burgeoning drive-in restaurant business. In 1937, they opened their first food stand near the Monrovia airport, where they sold primarily hot dogs.

In 1940, the brothers moved their establishment to Fourteenth and E Streets in San Bernardino. They named the restaurant McDonald’s Barbeque (it was later shortened to McDonald’s). The drive-in featured an exposed kitchen outdoor seating only, and a menu of twenty-five items including pulled pork and hamburgers. Customers ate at an outdoor counter or in their cars, where they were served by carhops. The brothers had an almost symbiotic partnership and moral code that helped make the restaurant a success.  "We always did things together," Dick remembered. "If I was around and had to make a decision, I never said, 'I've got to wait for my brother to get back and discuss it with him.' He did the same. You make a bad decision, no big dealyou just try to make the next one right."

Their close partnership paid off. McDonald’s was soon the most popular teen hangout in town. The brothers bought a mansion in the San Bernardino hills, where they lived with Dick’s wife and stepson. They also splurged on new Cadillacs every year. But mostly, they worked. And as the years went by, they began to see how their business could be improved, and most importantly, streamlined. They were excited to take on the new challenge. “We just became bored,” Dick recalled. “The money was coming in and there wasn’t much for us to do.”

1950s McDonalds
McDonald's as a 1950s teen hangout 

In 1948, with the money from McDonald’s still rolling in, the brothers surprised everyone when they decided to shut down for three months to revamp their entire operation. They slashed their menu down to nine items, switched to paper wrappers and plastic cups, and cut their prices in half. They had their kitchen redesigned to ensure maximum efficiency, and standardized every order. For example, a hamburger would be served with mustard, ketchup, onions and two pickles. No more, no less. “If we gave people choice, there would be chaos,” Dick explained. Each job was specializedthere was a man who grilled the burgers, a man who added condiments, and a man who made the shakes. Most importantly, they fired their carhops and added two service windows where patrons could place orders for themselves. According to Dick:

Our whole concept was based on speed, lower prices and volume. We were going after big, big volumes by lowering prices and having the customer serve himself. My god, the carhops were slow. We’d say to ourselves that there had to be a faster way. The cars were jamming up the lot. Customers weren’t demanding it, but our intuition told us that they would like speed. Everything was moving faster. The supermarkets and dime stores had already converted to self-service, and it was obvious the future of drive-ins was self-service.
McDonald's Speedee Service Menu
McDonald's Speedee Service Menu

The brothers called this new system the “speedee service system.” When they reopened, their profits initially tanked, and it looked like they had made a losing bet. “The carhops we fired would come in and heckle us about getting their uniforms ready,” Dick recalled. “Even the old customers would ask when we were going back to the old system.” But soon, the revamped McDonald’s began to attract a new, highly desirable crowd. Working and middle class families began flooding the restaurant, lured by the low prices, quick service and friendly atmosphere. “The kids loved coming to the counter,” employee Art Bender remembered. “They would come with two bits in their fists and order a hamburger and a coke. They could still see Mama in the car, but they also could feel independent. Pretty soon, it sinks in that this is great for the business, this is important.”

By 1951, profits had soared to 40 percent above their pre-conversion levels. Word spread throughout the service industry, and soon curious entrepreneurs were making pilgrimages out to San Bernardino to meet the unassuming “Henry Fords of the restaurant business.”

“Drive-in operators and restaurant owners who were having the same problems we were having wanted to know if they could come out and copy the operation and if we had any plans they could buy. So many people were coming to see us that Mac and I were spending most of our time just talking to them.” Dick recalled.

McDonalds Speedee
"Speedee", McDonald's first mascot 

The brothers were generous with these would be restaurateurs. They inspired many future titans of the fast food industry, including Glen Bell, the founder of Taco Bell.  “There was a fraternity of us, and every one of us saw the McDonald’s in San Bernardino and basically copied it after the boys gave us a tour,” James Collins, head of Collins Food International (KFC) remembered.  “We became good friends, and we all took our lessons from the McDonald brothers.”

As the brothers’ acclaim grew, they showed little interest in opening more stores. They turned down a cushy partnership offer from the Carnation Corporation, a dairy supplier who saw McDonald’s country-wide potential. “We couldn’t spend all the money we were making,” Dick explained. “We were taking it easier and having a lot of fun doing what we wanted to do. I had always wanted financial independence and now I had it.” Eventually, they half-heartedly got into the franchising business.

They commissioned architect Stanley Clarke Meston to create a design for a modern restaurant that they could use to entice franchisees. In 1953, the first franchise was opened in Phoenix, Arizona. It was built using Meston’s plans. It featured the first of the iconic “Golden Arches” signs, which dot the world’s roads to this day. They had sold 21 franchises by 1954, when Ray Kroc entered their lives.

Oldest Operating McDonalds
1953 "Golden Arches" sign at the oldest operating McDonald's in Downey, CA 
McDonalds (2)
The "Golden Arches" that dot the world’s roads today

As the exclusive marketer of the Multimixer, which was used to make the ever popular milkshake, Kroc had become fascinated by the little San Bernardino fast food joint that kept ordering Multimixers from his company. “What are they doing with them?” Kroc asked his West Coast Sales representative. “Well, Ray, they use them all,” he replied. After reading about the brothers’ Speedee Service System, he was intrigued. And so on his next sales trip out West, Kroc made an appointment to meet the brothers in San Bernardino. “When I met the McDonald brothers, I was ready for opportunity,” Kroc explained. “By then, I had enough experience in food and beverage that I could tell a real idea from a counterfeit.”

Kroc eventually convinced the brothers to let him take over their franchise operation. At first they were reluctant. “See that house up there?” Dick asked Kroc, pointing to his mansion on the hill. “That’s home and I like it there. If we opened a chain I’d never be home.” Kroc assured the brothers that he would take care of everything.

And the rest is artery clogging history. Kroc opened his first McDonald’s in the Chicago suburb of Des Plaines in 1955. In the early 60s, Kroc bought the company outright from the McDonalds for $2.7 million. Feeling that they had given him an unfair deal, Kroc and the McDonalds would have a contentious relationship for decades, which was perfectly embodied in the streets of San Bernardino in the 1960s. When Kroc bought the company from the brothers, he also bought the McDonald’s name. While the brothers continued to operate the original McDonald’s, which they now called Mac’s Place, a gleaming new McDonald’s was soon built right across the road. The brothers eventually threw in the towel and closed Mac’s Place. In Kroc’s autobiography, he claimed that the first McDonald’s had been the one he opened in Des Plaines.

First McDonald's in Des Plaines
The first McDonald's Kroc opened in Des Plaines, IL 
Original McDonalds
Historic site of the original McDonald's in San Bernardino, CA

Mac died in 1971, and Dick moved back home to New Hampshire with his family, where he lived until his death in 1998. Dick eventually made peace with McDonald’s after Kroc’s death, and would often take his step-grandchildren to the local McDonald’s when they came to town. "They can't understand why I wait in line," he said. "They say, 'But Grandpa, it's named after you.' Of course, the lines move very fast. I always have a regular hamburger, an order of fries and a chocolate shake. In 1947 you could order exactly the same meal. It cost 45 cents.”

Further Reading:
McDonald’s: Behind the Arches, by John F. Love
Big Mac: The Unauthorized story of McDonald’s, by Max Boas and Steve Chain

Top image: Thomas Hawk/Flickr/Creative Commons License

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