In 1940, two brothers opened a drive-in restaurant in San Bernardino, California. It was a success. A few years later, Mac and Dick McDonald took a risk. They got rid of carhops, table service and silverware and cut the menu to the items folks ordered most: burgers, shakes, a slice of pie. And there at the foot of Route 66, where it spun out of the Mojave Desert, the nascent American car culture met an entirely new thing: fast food. Here was a meal you could get in under a minute and eat one-handed while you drove. The whole thing seemed synchronized to the arrival of the suburb and the automatic transmission, a country hungry and on the move, insatiable, racing after whatever came next.
What came next was traveling Multimixer salesman Ray Kroc and his limitless ambition. America’s genius is its dynamism, its mobility, its appetite. No one knew that better than Kroc. In 1954 he got the rights to franchise McDonald’s from coast to coast, and soon oversaw the founding of Hamburger University to teach not culinary passion, nor even cooking: Hamburgerology was about standardization, the perfection of repetition, speedy systems management. Every uniform would be spotless, every cheeseburger the same from Bangor to La Jolla.
For every success there was a corresponding failure. For every Filet-O-Fish—launched in 1962 to capture Lenten business—there was a Hula Burger, because who doesn’t love grilled pineapple on a bun?
McDonald’s wasn’t the first chain or the first drive-in or even the first drive-thru (that was Red’s Giant Hamburg in Springfield, Missouri, 1947-1984). But it was the only one with Kroc’s franchise model, and the first to perfect its mass advertising. If slogans like “The Closest Thing to Home” were good, even better was “Twoallbeefpattiesspecialsaucelettucecheesepicklesonionsonasesameseedbun.” And Ad Age called “You Deserve a Break Today” the best commercial jingle of the 20th century.
By the late 1990s McDonald’s claimed to be opening a new store somewhere every three hours. In Sweden, that meant a ski-thru. In Sedona, Arizona, turquoise arches.
Today nearly two million people work at 36,000 McDonald’s stores in 119 countries. But there’s a price to dynamism and supersized growth. Over the years McDonald’s has been called out for everything from devastated rainforests to childhood obesity, from gassy cattle to empty calories and cultural imperialism. In March, new CEO Steve Easterbrook, a Brit, was handed the keys to the corner office the week before it was announced that sales were swooning worldwide. The company issued a statement referring to its “urgent need to evolve.” Within a month, it had announced plans to diversify its offerings—a Big Mac fashion line, a trial run for all-day breakfast.
But can McDonald’s really change? Licking its wounds from dollar-menu wars with Wendy’s and Burger King, feeling pressure from “fast casuals” like Chipotle, undermined by regional insurgents like In-N-Out Burger and Shake Shack, McDonald’s is beset, Goliath on a battlefield thick with Davids.
And yet 75 years later the fries are still unrivaled, the service mostly efficient and mostly polite. Drive through and the whole car smells like your first day at the state fair. The cheeseburger—centerpiece of a global empire—is as it ever was, a precision system for the delivery of discrete condiment flavors. Onion. Mustard. Pickle. Ketchup. The last bite always bun, slightly bittersweet, tasting of sugar and raw white flour. Maybe the McNuggets you ordered were forgotten, your empty hand grasping those few loose fries at the bottom of the bag. But you’ve gone too far too fast to go back now.