The Man Behind McDonald’s Wasn’t Even a McDonald
It may surprise you to know that the man behind the McDonald’s global empire wasn’t even named McDonald. Actually, the king of the golden arches, Ray Kroc, wasn’t even in the restaurant or food business originally. And yet, Kroc managed to change both industries forever.
But it wasn’t an easy road for Kroc, who found success relatively late in life. As he famously said: “I was an overnight success alright, but 30 years is a long, long night.” Here’s how this longtime salesman made McDonald’s a worldwide phenomenon.
Who exactly was Ray Kroc?
Raymond Albert Kroc was born to Czech immigrant parents in Oak Park, Illinois, in 1902. At 15, he lied about his age in order to join the Red Cross Ambulance Corps. during World War I. Though the war ended before Kroc finished his training in Connecticut, he did meet another future mogul there, who was also a cadet: Walt Disney.
After that, Kroc returned to Chicago, where he dabbled in real estate and had a stint as a jazz pianist. Eventually, he became a salesman for the Lily-Tulip Cup Company. In the late 1930s, Kroc rang up a potential customer named Earl Prince Sr., who made milkshake blenders, and asked about his cup needs. That fateful call would change Kroc’s life forever.
It turned out, Prince would need a lot of cups. He had created a machine that could simultaneously blend five milkshakes. It was called the Multimixer. Impressed with the product, Kroc decided to get in on the action, and by the early 1940s, he was given exclusive rights to sell the Multimixer nationwide.
Milkshakes brought Ray Kroc to McDonald’s yard.
When the McDonald brothers, Maurice (aka Mac) and Richard, put in an order for eight Multimixers for their San Bernardino, California, restaurant (McDonald’s) in 1954, Kroc was once again wowed. He decided to check it out for himself. “I had to see what kind of an operation was making 40 [milkshakes] at one time,” he told The New York Times.
When he arrived at the San Bernardino restaurant, Kroc was so impressed by McDonald’s streamlined efficiency—and the quality of the food—that he became determined to get into the business himself.
The founding of McDonald’s as we know it is officially born, and starts taking over.
Luckily for Kroc, who was 52 at the time, the McDonalds were looking for a licensing agent. He persuaded them that he was the man for the job. In 1955, Kroc founded McDonald’s System, Inc. and opened his first McDonald’s franchise in Des Plaines, Illinois, on April 15 of that same year. After opening two more stores in 1955 in California, McDonald’s gross sales amounted to $235,000. When adjusted for inflation, that’s $2.2 million by today’s standards.
Kroc continued to expand McDonald’s, selling franchises on the condition that owners manage their restaurants themselves, rather than just act as investors. By 1961, there were 230 McDonald’s franchises in the United States, a 2,000 percent increase in six years.
The true burger king.
In 1961, Kroc bought the entire McDonald’s company from the McDonald brothers for the equivalent of $2.7 million. Sales, meanwhile, had reached a whopping $37 million.
Kroc immediately appointed himself president and adopted a bulldog management approach, insisting on certain quality standards, handpicking managers and franchisees, and pouring millions into advertising and research.
He was also the brains behind the employee training program eventually known as Hamburger University, which he started in 1961 in the basement of the Elk Grove Village McDonald’s in Illinois.
Beyond the golden arches.
Kroc continued to work at McDonald’s up until his death in 1984, at which point he’d been the company’s senior chairman for seven years. But Kroc was more than the man behind McDonald’s.
He bought the San Diego Padres Major League Baseball team in 1974, and his biography Grinding It Out: The Making of McDonald’s was released to much fanfare in 1977. When he died, he was worth an estimated $500 million. Not bad for a former cup salesman, huh?
Recently, Ray Kroc’s life became Hollywood fodder, thanks to the 2017 biopic The Founder. The film starred Michael Keaton as Kroc, and also featured Linda Cardellini, Laura Dern, and Nick Offerman. The Founder focused on the escalating tension between Kroc and the McDonald brothers in the late 1950s, and didn’t exactly paint the most sympathetic picture of Kroc.
Love him or hate him, Ray Kroc—the man behind McDonald’s as we know it—undeniably changed America’s eating habits forever.