Cold Open - McDonald’s Bar-B-Que
It’s May 15th, 1940 in San Bernardino, California where thirty-one-year-old Richard and 37-year-old Maurice McDonald are excited to open their brand new restaurant: McDonald’s Bar-B-Que.
It’s not an especially hot day, but the brothers, better known as Mac and Dick, are sweating as they pace anxiously in their empty parking lot. They have just minutes until their drive-up restaurant is set to open for the very first time.
Unable to stand around waiting any longer, Dick hurries back into the kitchen, busying himself double and then triple checking that they have everything they need: clean plates, napkins, cutlery, and of course the meat. Then, he takes a trip back out to the barbecue pit, which is stocked with hickory chips imported from Arkansas.
Satisfied that everything is as it should be, Dick returns to the parking lot where the tantalizing smell of slow-cooking meats already fills the air. He grabs his brother Mac and together they brief their employees one final time to make sure everyone knows exactly what to do when customers arrive.
This barbeque joint isn’t like most others – there’s nowhere for customers to sit and eat their food, save for a few stools at the counter. Instead, hungry visitors are encouraged to drive up, then stay in their car and wait for a McDonald’s employee to come to them. These carhops – young women in short skirts and majorette boots – will take their orders, then return with the food once it’s ready.
It’s not a completely revolutionary idea, but it’s new enough for San Bernardino that the brothers are anxious to ensure that everything goes off without a hitch. The McDonalds brothers aren’t new to the food service business, but this is their biggest venture yet, and they’re feeling the pressure.
The moment comes and as they flip their open sign, a car pulls into the lot and parks. Dick gives a signal to the nearest carhop, and she leaps into action, hurrying over to the driver’s window before they can open the door, her pen and notepad poised.
As the drivel then reels off his order, the brothers smile. Just maybe, everything’s going to turn out alright.
For several years now, the McDonald brothers have been on a mission toward rock-solid financial stability. When they were younger, their father was unexpectedly laid off from his decades-long job at a shoe manufacturer. He was left with no pension, no severance, and not much of a future. That’s when Mac and Dick vowed to make their own fortune, so they would never be subject to the whims of a heartless corporation. Seeing their father struggle, they decided that they would make one million dollars before they were 50 – an amount that would surely safeguard their futures.
But the brothers never dreamed of the level of success their restaurant will experience. Despite their nerves and uncertainty, the opening of their new business is just a step in Dick and Mac McDonald’s path toward veritable immortality – a journey that begins when the first McDonald’s restaurant opens on May 15th, 1940.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is May 15th, 1940: The First McDonald’s Opens.
Act One: The Gamble
It’s the morning of December 12th, 1948 in San Bernardino, California.
Dick and Mac McDonald are once again waiting in the mostly empty parking lot of their restaurant eager for customers. But the place looks much different today. For eight years, they ran it as a very successful barbecue stand. But in the fall of 1948, the brothers shut down McDonald’s Bar-B-Que for renovations.
Now, the restaurant has been reimagined. The brothers have streamlined the menu, doing away with the less popular items, and going all-in on their real money-makers: hamburgers. Gone too are the waitstaff, who have been replaced by a solitary cashier. There are also no plates or the cutlery and accompanying dishwashers. The building’s interior has been refitted to become a hyper-efficient kitchen, with staff working on an assembly line to churn out product as fast as possible.
The brothers are confident their idea is solid. This new business model will minimize overhead and maximize profits – so long as people show up. McDonald’s Bar-B-Que has been popular enough that it was bringing in three-hundred-thousand dollars in sales every year — over $3 million today. But the brothers hope their revamped restaurant will make even more. Still, they have their apprehensions: What if people aren't interested in this new incarnation? What if they balk at the idea of placing their order at a window. Maybe they won’t want to carry their hamburgers and potato chips back to their cars in paper bags.
But the brothers aren’t willing to give in to their doubts. The two siblings are betting that thisversion of McDonald’s is going to be a winner. And they’re banking on it. None of their other pursuits have amassed them the fortune they’ve been dreaming of since their father was laid off years earlier. And they’ve tested plenty of different ideas.
First, the pair tried their luck in Hollywood, working as handymen and set movers for film studios. But something about movie-making didn’t do it for the two brothers, so they shifted focus a little – and opened a movie theater instead. But the business wasn’t very successful. They needed something else.
By this time, it was around 1937, and the brothers were living in Monrovia, just east of Los Angeles. There, they opened a pair of hot dog stands near the local airport. Thinking strategically, the men placed the stands on opposite sides of Route 66, so as to capture customers driving in both directions. Motorists could pull up to the small, octagonal buildings and order orange juice, hot dogs, and burgers.
The busier they got, the clearer it was that the McDonald brothers had finally found something they were good at – something that could make them their million dollars. But they weren’t content to wait for things to happen. Although the business was doing quite well, Monrovia just didn’t have a big enough population for the kind of success Mac and Dick were after. So in 1940, they loaded one of their stands onto a truck and drove it 40 miles east to San Bernardino.
This larger city offered a thriving customer base for the brothers. A hot dog stand had been fine for people passing through Monrovia, but the people of San Bernardino would surely want something more substantial. So as the brothers oversaw the reconstruction of their building, they made some changes to their business model too, landing on a drive-up barbecue restaurant instead of simple hot dogs and burgers.
That restaurant was an overwhelming success. But the brothers weren’t content with owning the most popular drive-in in town. They’d worked hard to get themselves where they were, but they knew they could do more with an even better and more lucrative restaurant.
One of the main issues they’d noticed was efficiency. Not only did carhops slow things down, they were attracting the attention of teenagers, who liked to hang around the parking lot and flirt with the young women. In turn, that made it difficult for paying customers to pull up to the restaurant. So if Dick and Mac wanted to make improvements, the carhops would be one of the first things to go.
It was also the menu. Looking at their books, they noticed that around 80% of their sales were from hamburgers alone. With numbers like that, it just didn’t make sense to run a menu with over 20 other items on offer.
So, as the summer of 1948 drew to a close, the brothers shut down and put up signs promising that they’d be back soon with America’s first drive-up burger bar.
Now, in the middle of the busy holiday season, their opening day is here. If the weather holds up, the brothers have high hopes for the day’s sales, and they’re counting on word of mouth to help drive business from there.
To their delight, Dick and Mac’s business alterations will pay off. Before long, customers will line up to enjoy the newest incarnation of McDonald’s. The brothers needn’t have worried about their restaurant concept. Its efficiency and popularity will send business soaring, catching the attention of customers and intriguing fellow businessmen. Their new version of McDonald’s will not just be a success, it will be the start of a phenomenon, one poised to change the fast food industry forever.
Act Two: Shakes, Burgers, and Fries
It’s 1954 in Los Angeles, California.
Fifty-two-year-old Ray Kroc steps into a car and starts driving eastward, quickly leaving the airport he just flew into.
Ray is in California for a whirlwind visit. But he didn’t fly all the way from Illinois to take in the sights of Hollywood, or even to relax on the sun-drenched beaches of Malibu. Instead, Ray’s making a 65-mile drive east to San Bernardino to visit a burger restaurant that’s caught his attention.
A driven businessman to the core, Ray did well for himself as a paper cup salesman when he was younger. He devoted countless hours to learning about his customers’ businesses – what they needed, what was helpful, and what consumers wanted most, so he felt intimately familiar with the restaurant business.
Then, fifteen years ago, one of his customers showed him a new invention: a five-spindled milkshake machine called ‘The Multimixer.’ At the time, soda shops around the country were almost exclusively using mixers that could only make one shake at a time. Ray knew that the Multimixer had the potential to improve efficiency and profits. So, he left his well-paying job behind and became the exclusive distributor for the Multimixer.
By the end of the 1940s, he was making around $25,000 every year, almost $300,000 today. But then, everything started to change. In the first few years of the 1950s, Americans started moving out of cities, opting for a quiet life in the growing suburbs. That meant that once-popular neighborhood soda fountains were all but abandoned by their customers. Eventually, many of them closed, which meant that Ray’s customer base shrank considerably – no one seemed to need to make several milkshakes at once anymore.
And that’s why it caught Ray’s attention when one business ordered eight Multimixers this year. Even at the height of his success, that kind of order would have been eye-catching. Now, though, with his fortune drying up, it merited closer inspection. Maybe, Ray thought, there was an opportunity for him in San Bernardino, California.
Pulling up to the hamburger drive-up, Ray quickly understands why Mac and Dick McDonald needed eight Multimixers. There are customers lining up to place orders for burgers, fries, sodas, and plenty of milkshakes. Aside from the sheer number of customers the restaurant attracts, Ray is especially impressed with the efficiency of the operation. The menu is a streamlined list of nine items, which makes ordering a simple, rapid affair. Likewise, the food itself is delivered in just seconds. The modern kitchen inside the octagonal building uses bespoke equipment to churn out hamburgers as fast as customers can order them.
It’s a well-oiled machine. And looking at the restaurant, Ray thinks about how much money he could make if there were more just like it around the country – each with their own set of eight Multimixers.
So, Ray approaches the brothers to suggest that they franchise McDonald’s. But Mac and Dick already started that process, which meant that there were already eight more stores like the first on the west coast. They’d even hired an architect to create an eye-catching concept for all their locations – each standing out with red and white tiles and bright yellow arches on either end of the buildings.
But Mac and Dick’s franchise agent had quit recently, and the brothers aren’t interested in putting in the effort to expand any further. But Ray Kroc is. Milkshake machines are one thing, but he can see that this is a golden opportunity. So he offers to take on the job himself.
By the following year, Ray's purchased the rights to franchise locations across the country, and opens his very first McDonald’s in Des Plaines, Illinois, in April of 1955. But Mac and Dick neglect to tell Ray that they’d already sold the franchise rights in that area to someone else. So, before he can open his shiny new restaurant, he has to fork out an extra $25,000 to buy the other guy out.
This complication will signal the beginning of a rocky relationship between Ray and the McDonald brothers. The siblings will maintain a tight grip on their original concept, and remain reluctant to allow Ray to make any changes of his own. Despite this friction, over the next few years, Ray’s vision for McDonald’s will see the business grow from a California success story into a nationally-recognized juggernaut.
Then, in 1961, Ray will offer to buy the brothers out. They’re both in their fifties by this stage and had easily surpassed their million-dollar goal. So, the brothers will sell the business to Ray for $2.7 million and walk away, ready to put their feet up. But while the McDonald brothers begin slowing down, Ray Kroc is just getting started.
Act Three: The Big M
It’s 1962, and Ray Kroc is back in San Bernardino, California. But this time, he’s not here to visit the first McDonald’s location. He’s here to open a new one.
He didn’t know it at the time, but his deal to buy Mac and Dick’s share of McDonald’s didn’t include the deed to their original location, so the brothers have retained ownership of the very first restaurant. But incensed by this move, Ray has exercised his rights as sole owner of the company trademarks to force the brothers to rename their store and alter the building’s exterior.
There’s only going to be one McDonald’s in town, and it will belong to Ray Kroc. In a move surely designed as a twist of the knife, he opens a new McDonald’s in San Bernardino, less than a block away from the brother’s restaurant, which is now called ‘The Big M’.
Over the next few years, as McDonald’s grows rapidly in popularity, the two San Bernardino burger joints will battle it out. But although theirs is the restaurant that started it all, Mac and Dick’s store will eventually be forced to close in 1972. The building will be demolished the same year, erasing the physical evidence that ties that location to the birth of an empire.
In the decades following the original restaurant’s closure, McDonald’s will become a global behemoth, one that far outstrips any of its founders’ wildest dreams. The McDonald brothers had grand plans to earn a million dollars, Ray Kroc wanted a thousand stores across the US. But even those lofty goals prove minuscule compared to what will actually happen.
Today, McDonald’s is the leading food service retailer in the world. There are over 38,000 locations in more than 100 countries, and although there are ups and downs for the business, there’s no telling where it will go from here – just like there was no way Dick and Mac McDonald could have known what they’d set in motion when they opened the first McDonald’s restaurant on May 15th, 1940.
Next on History Daily. May 16th, 1997. US President Bill Clinton officially apologizes for the Tuskegee Experiment which used African American men to study the long-term effects of untreated syphilis.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Muhammad Shahzaib.
Sound design by Mollie Baack.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by Joel Callen.
Produced by Alexandra Currie-Buckner.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.