Long before Ronald McDonald, and long before Big Macs and fries, people in 1950s America would frequent the neighbourhood drive-ins for dinner.
There is a scene early on in The Founder in which a dejected-looking Ray Kroc (played by Michael Keaton, of Batman and Birdman fame) is sitting in his car waiting for food at an utterly unimpressive drive-in restaurant — the same place that just rejected his pitch to sell multi-mixer milkshake machines. He’s sitting there in his car frustrated, waiting for his food, and when it arrives it’s not even that good.
The name of the establishment: “Griffith’s Drive-In.”
The message in that scene was obvious. “Griffith’s” was the symbol of everything wrong with eating out. You weren’t going to see multitudes of “Griffith’s” franchised all over the world one day.
As it turned out, a big order for multi-mixers from a place in San Bernardino, Calif. got Kroc’s attention. An intrigued Kroc drove all the way to California to check it out.
When he gets there, he’s spellbound. Kroc has never seen anything like it. People lining up at the counter to buy ready-made burgers, fries and soft drinks, delivered in a paper bag. There was a huge line of customers, but the line moved fast. What’s more, the food turned out to be pretty good.
Kroc realizes he just has to get involved and makes an offer to the proprietors: franchising. They just have to take this operation to the rest of the country. “Do it for America,” he says.
The proprietors of this restuarant were Dick (played by Nick Offerman) and Mac (John Carroll Lynch). The McDonald brothers.
The story of The Founder is one of how the original McDonald’s Hamburgers stand in San Bernardino was transformed into the ultra-successful McDonald’s franchise that took the world by storm.
Even though many people know Ray Kroc as the “man behind McDonald’s,” many don’t know all the details about how it started and probably think the whole thing started with him.
You find out it’s all a little complicated. This is more about a guy taking someone else’s idea and then running with it.
The story in The Founder spans the period of time in the 1950s and early ‘60s when Kroc was in business with the McDonalds.
We see how Kroc took on the role of franchising McDonald’s across the country, and how he risked everything, including his house and even his marriage, to try to make it work.
You see Kroc’s drive and ambition, and his vision of McDonald’s as being more than just a hamburger stand. For him it was about family, it was about America. His vision was of franchises that would be family friendly, and he sought out franchisees who had those values, who sought their share of the American dream.
But it was also a period of struggle in which the very future of the company was on the line. Tension between the McDonalds and Kroc built to a head.
Ultimately what this story is really about is (spoiler alert!) how Kroc finally gave the shaft to the McDonald brothers.
They got double-crossed, all right, but the McDonald brothers also just plain blew it. For all their successes, the McDonalds never could fully see what a potential gold mine they had on their hands.
The McDonald brothers always obsessed over minute details and were never full-steam-ahead type of guys, and that clashed with big-picture-guy Kroc whose attitude was to think big and be big.
But you also came away from the movie with this sense of Kroc being somewhat amoral in many ways. You saw it not only in his cold-hearted business dealings, but in other aspects of his life, like his own crumbling marriage to Ethel (played by Laura Dern).
Maybe this was the point of director John Lee Hancock and writer Robert D. Siegel: for all the family-values stuff Kroc wanted McDonald’s to promote, Kroc himself was always a contradiction.
To underscore it was a scene where Kroc meets the woman who would become his future wife (Joan, played by Linda Cardellini) for the first time. Kroc is introduced to her by, of all people, her husband.
“Don’t tell me this guy would stoop so low as to try and steal another man’s wife” was my reaction.
I got the sense this movie only scratches the surface when it comes to Kroc. When it came to figuring out what really made Kroc tick, the movie didn’t seem to go to any great depth.
The main thing I wanted to know was why Kroc felt this need to claim McDonald’s was all his own doing. He talked about how it all started in 1954, at his own restuarant in Des Plaines, Ill. — McDonald’s No. 1. Yet the true “No.1” was down in San Bernardino.
I wish I came away from The Founder having figured out this mystery man Ray Kroc, but I sure left the theatre having learned much about the company itself. Quite honestly, I came away with a newfound respect for McDonald’s.
You really have to respect how McDonald’s transformed the way people get a quick bite to eat, something we now take for granted.
The innovations of that early operation — with their “speedee service system” approach, which included a menu limited to the basics like burgers and fries and a specifically mapped layout to encourage a fast, assembly-line approach —were revolutionary for the time. The notion of people standing in line to buy food delivered in a paper bag, instead of sitting in your car waiting for carhops, made the early McDonald’s stand out from the competition. You had to admire the early commitment to cleanliness, and customer service, and to upholding high standards.
The more you think of it, the more you realize how great an American business story it is. Ray Kroc’s gift was that he was able to see something in that original McDonald’s operation and have the vision and ambition to take it to the next level.
(The Founder is currently shown in Saskatoon at the Roxy Theatre, with show times at 9:30 p.m. nightly plus 2 p.m. matinees Saturday and Sunday.)