In the 1940s, when Old McDonald’s had its genesis under the guidance of siblings Dick and Mac McDonald, it bore the stamp of a barbecue-centric establishment, featuring fare like ribs and barbecued pork sandwiches.
However, the reins of the restaurant were later taken over by Ray Kroc, who orchestrated a simplification of the menu, streamlined operations, and ultimately conquered the global stage.
The inaugural McDonald’s, located at 1398 North E Street at West 14th Street in San Bernardino, California, emerged on May 15, 1940, thanks to the efforts of Richard and Maurice McDonald.
The duo ushered in the “Speedee Service System” in 1948, embodying the principles of the contemporary fast-food restaurant, reminiscent of White Castle’s practices from over two decades prior.
Come April 1952, the McDonald brothers, eyeing efficiency enhancements and a more visually striking presence, sought a new architectural design. Stanley Clark Meston was chosen from at least four candidates.
This novel design attracted attention for its lustrous surfaces adorned with red and white ceramic tiles, stainless steel, vibrant sheet metal, and glass. Neon lights in red, white, yellow, and green pulsated, complemented by two 25-foot yellow sheet-metal arches dubbed the “Golden Arches.”
A smaller arch sign by the roadside featured an animated neon figure in a chef’s hat, known as Speedee, striding across the top.
To encourage swift dining, the brothers implemented various tactics, including reduced heating in the dining area, fixed and angled seating directly over food, spaced seating to discourage socialization, and cone-shaped cups obliging customers to hold their drinks while eating.
In 1954, Ray Kroc, a purveyor of Prince Castle’s Multimixer milkshake machines, discovered that the McDonald brothers utilized eight of his machines in their San Bernardino establishment.
Intrigued, Kroc, accompanied by his friend Charles Lewis, who had proposed improvements to the McDonald’s burger recipe, visited the restaurant. Despite skepticism from the brothers, Kroc saw potential in franchising McDonald’s nationwide.
Believing in the success of the McDonald’s model, Kroc suggested national franchising while assuming the responsibility for establishing new franchises outside California and Arizona. The brothers retained 0.5% of gross sales.
By 1960, McDonald’s restaurants were generating $56 million annually, capitalizing on the surge in U.S. automobile use due to suburbanization and the interstate highway system.
In 1961, Kroc’s conflict with the founding brothers reached a zenith, leading to a proposition: the brothers would sell their business to him for $2.7 million. Lacking the funds, Kroc enlisted Harry J. Sonneborn, who secured the money. Kroc acquired the brothers’ interests, paving the way for an IPO and McDonald’s ascent to the top of the fast-food hierarchy.
The exact process of the sale remains unclear, depicted as a hostile takeover in the 2016 film “The Founder.” However, historical accounts suggest a more voluntary transition.
The original 1940 menu by Richard and Maurice McDonald featured hamburgers, cheeseburgers, potato chips, coffee, and Coca-Cola. The burgers comprised freshly ground 100% beef, quickly cooked on a griddle, with toasted buns.
McDonald’s menu expanded in the 1960s with the introduction of the Filet-O-Fish sandwich and the Big Mac. The 1970s and 1980s saw further additions, including chicken nuggets, the Egg McMuffin breakfast sandwich, and salads.
In the 1940s-1950s, McDonald’s advertising highlighted the speed and efficiency of service, featuring slogans like “Service with Speed” and “Speedee Service,” along with cartoonish characters like Speedee, a winking chef.
The 1960s marked a shift to emphasizing food quality, introducing the Big Mac and the Filet-O-Fish, along with promotions focusing on fresh, high-quality ingredients.
The 1970s witnessed more sophisticated advertising, emphasizing the emotional appeal of the brand. Campaigns like “You Deserve a Break Today” positioned McDonald’s as a place for community gatherings, portraying families and friends enjoying McDonald’s food together.