The real, sad story of the McDonald brothers

It wants the myth of the American Dream that the greatest fortunes often arise from adversity. The problem is that sometimes a wrong choice is enough to destroy years of hard work and all dreams of wealth. This is the strange story of the McDonald’s brothers, the forgotten founders of the largest hamburger chain in the world.

Born in the early 1900s in a humble family of Irish immigrants from New Hampshire, Richard and Maurice McDonald quickly met the reversals of fate: Father Patrick, after 42 years of working in a shoe factory with 20 thousand employees (the GP Crafts), was suddenly fired; finding himself unemployed and without a pension overnight.

A severe blow for the whole family, which provides the two brothers with the necessary motivations to make weapons and luggage and try their luck in California, in the world of entertainment. With some clothes and a high school diploma in a suitcase, Richard (known as Dick) and Maurice travel, swearing to themselves that they would become millionaires within 50 years.

Things don’t go as planned initially. We are in the late 1920s: the two brothers dream of shooting and producing films, but they manage to conquer only a few poorly paid jobs in the Columbia studios. Without concrete hopes of conquering Hollywood, Dick and Maurice decide to set aside as much money as possible and give their Los Angeles dreams a concrete form: to buy and manage a cinema.

The cinema is called Mission, it is located about 30 kilometers from L.A. and has 750 seats. They rename it The Beacon, add a snack bar and reopen its doors in 1930. Timing is not the best: we are in the midst of the Great Depression and the entertainment industry, predictably, suffers the blows caused by the recession.

Bills pile up and payments are always late: after seven years the two brothers raise the white flag and decide to sell the cinema. In their mind, however, a new project is already making its way: the world of catering. Without leaving California, the two open a bar in San Bernardino and call it Barbeque. To be precise: McDonald’s Barbeque.

It’s a classic drive-in: cars pull over, order and receive food brought to them by girls on roller skates. The menu has 25 different courses; but among these there is one that is the most popular: the hamburger. After a few years, Dick and Maurice decide to completely revise their formula: they close the restaurant to renovate it and prepare for the reopening, which will take place in 1948.

The change is radical: not only is the menu now limited to hamburgers, but the girls on skates have disappeared. Customers must park their car, enter the shop and order directly from the counter. The decision, probably taken to maximize costs (a philosophy that still reigns in any McDonald’s), is unsuccessful. Customers are used to receiving food directly in the car; as soon as they realize that things are working differently in the San Bernardino club, they go into gear and go elsewhere.

To save the two brothers from yet another failure are the truck drivers, who start attending McDonald’s Barbecue during their work breaks. Things gradually begin to work: the two brothers manage to produce profits of 100 thousand dollars a year and, above all, begin to plan the expansion. In 1953 a second restaurant opens in Phoenix, Arizona. Then they return to California to inaugurate a new McDonald’s in Downey. The following year the restaurants became six (according to other sources even 20); and it is at this point that the man who will make Dick and Maurice fall by the wayside: Ray Kroc.

The story of Ray Kroc, also narrated in the film The Founder (starring Michael Keaton), is told in dozens of different ways; often – as you can guess from the title of the film just mentioned – he is even considered the real founder of McDonald’s. How is it possible? According to the British encyclopedia, in the 1940s, Kroc was a manufacturer of multimixers capable of working five different types of milk shakes simultaneously.

In 1954, Ray Kroc decided to visit the San Bernardino restaurant, which even used eight of his machines. Nothing amazing, considering how the two brothers had transformed the restaurant into an assembly line for hamburgers, french fries and, indeed, milk shake. Struck by this intuition, Kroc entered into business with the McDonalds, inaugurating the franchising system: he would pay the two brothers a share for each new restaurant he opened; commercially exploiting their brand and their methods.

Things went on without particular jolts until 1961, when Dick and Maurice decided to hand over all control of their business to Ray Kroc (who in the meantime has opened franchises something like 228 restaurants); keeping for themselves only the first restaurant in San Bernardino (renamed The Big M, no longer having control of the brand). Without wasting time, Kroc is dedicated to restyling: it eliminates the Speedee mascot from the brand and also gets rid of the large golden bow that distinguished the first McDonald’s. On the advice of designer Louis Cheskin, however, he decides to keep the concept of the arch and transform it into a logo that should have generated “a Freudian impulse in customers”.

Thus was born the golden M which today is the universal logo of McDonald’s, but which in Ray Kroc’s mind also had to remember a female breast, unconsciously internalized by male customers. At the same time, Kroc’s work to erase the two brothers, the true founders, from McDonald’s story also begins.

First of all, it hangs a golden effigy in each restaurant in which it is called the “founder”. Shortly thereafter, he decided to finally get rid of what was left of the two brothers’ business, opening a McDonald’s just a few hundred meters from their historic San Bernardino restaurant, which will declare bankruptcy six years later. Not only that, in his first autobiography of 1970 (this Ray Kroc must have had an ego the size of a giant milk shake), Grinding It Out: the making of McDonald’s, even traces the birth of the chain to 1955, when it opened its first franchise restaurant in Des Plaines, Illinois.

Economic damage is added to the moral damage. Ray Kroc has no fault in this, having legitimately acquired the brand. All in all, however, it is understandable how Dick and Maurice literally threw away the possibility of realizing the dream they had imagined while they were packing their bags to move, still young, to California.

Ray Kroc purchased their chain for $ 2.7 million. A good fortune, in 1961. Which in fact allowed Dick and Maurice to return to live in New Hampshire (apparently, they felt the lack of the climate of the far north-east of the United States), buy villas and tour Cadillac. By 1964, however, Ray Kroc had already opened his restaurant number 594. How much money would have gone into the pockets of the two brothers if, instead of selling everything, they continued to take a percentage from the new franchise openings?

The calculations are soon made: the first contract with Kroc foresaw that Dick and Maurice would receive $ 950 for each franchise restaurant, plus 1.9% on food sales and 0.5% of total turnover. Already in 1970, all this would have turned into a real income (being the franchise brand, the two brothers could have limited themselves to signing contracts) for 15 million dollars a year. In 2012, these millions are estimated to have turned 305 every year.

The two brothers have long since died (Dick in 1971, Maurice in 1998); although they never had children, they left behind a host of heirs (stepchildren and grandchildren) who would surely have known how to use that immense patrimony left alone in power. This story ends with a meager consolation: after Ray Kroc’s death in 1984, McDonald’s started to correct the shot and also to reserve the two brothers, the true founders, the space they deserve in the history of one of the most famous brands in the world.

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