The true, sad story of the McDonald brothers


The myth of the American Dream is that the greatest fortunes are often born from adversity. The problem is that sometimes, one 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.

Who were Maurice and Richard McDonald

Born in the early 1900s into a humble family of Irish immigrants from New Hampshire, Richard and Maurice McDonald quickly faced reverses of fortune: their father Patrick, after 42 years of work in a shoe factory with 20 thousand employees (G.P. Crafts), was suddenly fired; finding himself unemployed and without a pension from one day to the next.

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A very hard blow for the whole family, which provides the two brothers with the necessary motivation to pack up and try their luck in California, in the world of entertainment. With some clothes and a high school diploma in their suitcase, Richard (aka Dick) and Maurice hit the road, vowing to themselves that they would be millionaires by the time they turned 50.

What does McDonald’s mean

Things initially don’t go as planned. We are towards the end of the 1920s: the two brothers dream of shooting and producing films, but only manage to land a few low-paid jobs in the Columbia studios. Without concrete hopes of conquering Hollywood, Dick and Maurice decide to save as much money as possible and give concrete form to their Los Angeles dreams: buying and managing a cinema.

The cinema is called Mission, it is located about 30 kilometers from LA and has 750 seats. They renamed it The Beacon, added a snack bar and reopened its doors in 1930. The timing wasn’t the best: we were in the midst of the Great Depression and the entertainment industry, predictably, suffered the blows inflicted by the recession.

The idea of ​​catering: McDonald’s Barbeque

The 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 minds, however, a new project is already taking shape: the world of catering. Without leaving California, the two opened a place in San Bernardino and called it Barbeque. To be precise: McDonald’s Barbeque.

It’s a classic drive-in: cars pull up, 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 review 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 burgers, but the girls on skates have disappeared. Customers must park their car, enter the store and order directly at the counter. The decision, probably taken to optimize costs as much as possible (a philosophy that still reigns in any McDonald’s today), was not successful. Customers are used to receiving food directly to their car; as soon as they realize that things work differently in the San Bernardino club, they shift into gear and head elsewhere.
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The role of truck drivers in the history of McDonald’s

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What saves the two brothers from yet another failure are the truck drivers, who begin to frequent McDonald’s Barbecue during their work breaks. Things gradually start to work: the two brothers manage to produce profits of 100 thousand dollars a year and, above all, they begin to plan expansion. In 1953 a second restaurant opened in Phoenix, Arizona. Then they return to California to open a new McDonald’s in Downey. The following year there were six restaurants (according to other sources as many as 20); and it is at this point that the man who will make Dick and Maurice fall into oblivion in history makes his appearance: Ray Kroc.

Ray Kroc, the real founder of McDonald’s

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

Kroc goes into business with McDonald’s, inaugurating the franchising system

In 1954, Ray Kroc decided to visit the San Bernardino restaurant, which was using as many as eight of his machines. Nothing surprising, considering how the two brothers had transformed the restaurant industry into an assembly line for burgers, fries and, indeed, milk shakes. Struck by this intuition, Kroc went into business with the McDonalds, inaugurating the franchising system: he would pay the two brothers a fee for each new restaurant he opened; commercially exploiting their brand and methods.Advertisement – Continue reading below

McDonald’s changes ownership: forgotten

Things proceed without any particular shocks until 1961, when Dick and Maurice decide to hand over all control of their company to Ray Kroc (who in the meantime has opened something like 228 restaurants in franchising); 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 dedicated himself to the restyling: he eliminated the Speedee mascot from the brand and also got rid of the large golden arch that distinguished the first McDonald’s. On the advice of designer Louis Cheskin, he nevertheless decided to keep the arch concept and transform it into a logo that was supposed to generate “a Freudian impulse in customers”.

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

What the McDonald’s owner earns

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

In addition to the moral damage, economic damage is added. Ray Kroc is not to blame in this, having legitimately acquired the brand. After doing the math, however, we understand how Dick and Maurice literally threw away the possibility of realizing their imagined dream while they were packing their bags to move, still kids, to California.Advertisement – Continue reading below

How much money would the two brothers have made if they hadn’t decided to sell?

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

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

The McDonald brothers today

The two brothers have now been dead for some time (Dick in 1971, Maurice in 1998); although they never had children, they left behind a host of heirs (stepchildren and grandchildren) who would certainly have known how to use that immense patrimony which remained only potentially. This story ends with little consolation: after the death of Ray Kroc in 1984, McDonald’s began to correct its aim and also 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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