These days McDonalds is everywhere. You don’t have to travel too far before you see those familiar golden arches – in fact, there are three of them within a two mile radius of my home! I’m not personally a big fan of them, but that’s not to say I haven’t enjoyed the odd meal occasionally when in a hurry. It’s one of those things that’s just always been there in life, taken for granted without much of a thought as to how it all came to be so huge. Turns out there’s a pretty interesting story to be told involving a couple of pioneering brothers, and the guy who eventually completely screwed them over…
Michael Keaton is Ray Kroc, a hardworking salesman who always seems to be on the road while his bored wife (Laura Dern) is at home. Repeatedly getting the brush off from restaurant owners who don’t want to buy his amazing new five-spindled milkshake machine and frustrated by the slow, unreliable service from the drive-ins where he goes to get his lunch. For this part of the movie, we’re actually pretty sympathetic with Ray as he struggles in his lonely, boring, unfullfilling job, listening to motivational records in motel rooms as he drifts off to sleep. And then he gets a call from two brothers, Dick and Mac McDonald. They don’t just want to buy one of his milkshake machines, they want to buy at least six in order to cope with demand in their restaurant. Ray puts down the phone and his mind immediately goes into overdrive – what kind of restaurant have these guys got that’s producing this kind of demand? He pulls out a map and looks them up – they’re in San Bernadino California, so he heads off in his car to pay them a visit.
When he arrives, the place is packed with customers queuing for food. As Ray joins the queue a woman assures him that he won’t have to wait long and sure enough, after placing his 15 cent order for a burger, fries and soft drink (bargain!), he promptly gets his order within 30 seconds – served in a paper bag, no plates, no cutlery. He thinks there must be some mistake and it’s pretty amusing to see the bemused look on his face as he struggles to accept the concept that we now all take for granted. Fast, cheap food that you can eat absolutely anywhere you want – in your car, at the park, it’s up to you.
Ray offers to take the brothers out to dinner so that he can hear their story. It’s a wonderful, captivating story too, one that could so easily have been the entire movie. The brothers have such a good rapport as they passionately talk about what they’ve worked to achieve. Moving their restaurant to where it is now, developing their own machines for applying perfect amounts of ketchup and mustard into each bun and spending six hours sketching out potential restaurant layouts on a tennis court while their restaurant staff choreograph their optimised cooking routines. Everything has been tweaked to perfection, even down to the exact cooking time and temperature for their fries. After sleeping on all this information, Ray goes back to the brothers early the next morning and offers them the idea of franchising. But, it’s something they’ve dabbled in before and gave up on, having felt that they had no control over the quality and attention to detail that they pride themselves on in their own restaurant. Eventually Ray wins them over though and a contract is drawn up. The brothers get final say on everything and get half a percent of the profits but it’s up to Ray to setup the franchises and find the people to run them.
It’s a slow, hard process though and although Ray does setup a few successful restaurants, he soon becomes frustrated at the lack of money he seems to be making and the lack of control he has on the decision making process whenever he wants to save costs. The McDonald brothers just seem to keep saying ‘no’! But after he receives some business advice, telling him he should be concentrating on buying the land that the restaurants are on rather than the burgers being cooked, the tide begins to turn. He eventually becomes powerful enough to overpower the brothers, trademark their name, and generally take credit for everything the brothers worked for and built, eventually putting them out of business.
Kroc becomes ruthless, and a complete arsehole. The brothers did eventually make some decent money out of their final deal with Ray, but it certainly wasn’t the 100 million dollars a year they could have been making if they’d been treated right. You really feel for them, as they completely lose control of everything. But you can’t help wondering if things would have worked out that much different for them if they had never met Ray at all. Their restaurant will certainly have continued to do well for a while, but by focusing on just their one restaurant, how long before somebody else stole their idea and ran with it, somebody with the drive and vision to make real money like Ray, leaving them with no money settlement at all? After all, as the motivational LP that Ray listens to clearly pointed out at the start of the movie, “Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence, talent will not, nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent …”.