From Immigration to Mega-Wealth

This is a picture of Ray Kroc's first McDonald's restaurant in Des Plaines IL USA - now a museum.

This post first appeared on the Irish Executives Network blog.

The month of May in the history of entrepreneurship and the Irish Diaspora marks the founding of one of the most famous restaurants of our time: McDonald’s.

Founded 15 May 1940 by the children of Irish immigrants to America, McDonald’s is now a $27.5 billion global powerhouse employing 1.8 million people. Curiously, for such a successful chain, it took the company 21 years to trademark the name “McDonald’s.” Its main, ahem, contribution to Irish culture is the introduction in 1970 of the Shamrock Shake.

In addition to popularizing fast-food eating, McDonald’s has become part popular culture. Even its creepy mascot, Ronald McDonald, is an icon. That clown, in turn, became the inspiration for Krusty the Clown in another global touchstone, The Simpsons.

According to Yahoo Finance, it now sells over 75 burgers a second! And selling to 68 million people in a typical day, it means the chain feeds 1% of the world’s population daily. The site says it has employed an estimated one in eight of all American workers, and is also the world’s largest toy distributor.

Born in the early 1900s in Manchester, NH, to Irish-born parents, brothers Richard “Dick” McDonald and Maurice “Mac” McDonald decided to open a restaurant in California in 1940.

The US Census of 1910 states their father Patrick was brought to the United States as a baby from Ireland in 1877. Their mother Margarete’s family also left Ireland in 1884 while she was still a child. In the census, Maurice is listed as “Morris,” which would be more in keeping with the Irish pronunciation of the name.

The family left for California in the late 1920s. In 1937, Patrick opened a food stand called “The Airdrome” near an airport on Route 66 in Monrovia. “Hamburgers were ten cents, and all-you-can-drink orange juice was five cents,” according to the company history on Wikipedia. Dick and Mac joined forces in 1940 to open McDonald’s in San Bernadino, Calif.

Here, they refined the modern — and much maligned — fast-food system. They opened “drive through” restaurants that sold mostly burgers off a streamlined menu. The McDonald’s introduced the “Speedee Service System” in 1948.

According to the Chicago Tribune, Dick once said, “You make a point of offering a choice and you`re dead–the speed’s gone. Guy comes in, you ask him what he wants on his burgers, he says, `I gotta go back to the car and ask my wife.` Wouldn`t work.`”

But speed was just one factor in the company’s success. The others were cleanliness, price and promotion. This included playgrounds and sponsorship.

Their original mascot was a man in a chef’s hat, called Speedee. It would be 1967 before Ronald McDonald made his appearance. Business began to pick up when the McDonalds franchised their first restaurant to Neil Fox in Phoenix, Ariz.

Company lore has it that Dick and Mac thought they were franchising the “speedee” system. But when Richard went to Phoenix, he was surprised to see a replica of the San Bernadino store — right down to the name McDonald’s outside. From that point, the brothers began to franchise their entire concept.

In 1954, their milkshake machine salesman, Ray Kroc, became curious about the amount of business he was doing with McDonald’s. Described by the Chicago Tribune as a “Chicago-based snake-oil salesman,” he was good at sales. He partnered with the brothers, and Kroc is generally credited with driving the phenomenal growth that would see the chain become a colossus.

Kroc reportedly became frustrated with the Dick and Mac’s desire to maintain a low number of restaurants, and he offered to buy them out in 1961. There were 350 McDonald’s franchises at the time, and the brothers sold for $2.7 million plus 1% of gross sales. His aim to make McDonald’s the number one fast-food chain in America.

Although the company now has 34,000 locations worldwide, its Wikipedia page shows that it has a long way to go in Africa and “the Stans.” It has outlets in just three African countries, for example: Morocco, Egypt and South Africa.

The brothers stayed in California where Mac died in 1971, aged 69. Shortly after, Dick moved back to New Hampshire where he died in 1988, aged 89.

Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.