Last night, BU’s Food and Wine program hosted The New School’s Andrew Smith for the final installment of the semester’s Pepin Lectures. The grandfather of culinary historians, and author or editor of 28 books on the subject, Mr. Smith captivated his audience during an hour-long journey through the history of fast food.
Fast food existed long before McDonalds, he began, and street food has long thrived around the world. So what set the golden arched drive-in apart? Milkshakes and suburbs.
Beginning in the 1940s, increased commutes meant less time to return home for lunch, and disposable incomes allowed for eating out. Broad ownership of automobiles pushed food vendors off the streets, and the ability to travel from city to city meant a need for food on the outskirts of town.
Several restaurants attempted quick service models, but drunken chefs and flirtatious carhops decreased efficiency and sales. So a set of Californian brothers, the McDonalds, attempted to do something new. By downsizing and simplifying the menu, the brothers trained their employees in every aspect of the business. With no more need for unreliable chefs, the brothers honed in their model until they achieved the most efficient internal operation of the time. Eager to expand their booming business, the brothers franchised their idea with a catch: every franchisee had to sign a detailed contract promising to hold to the brothers’ standards.
As buzz of the McDonalds spread across the country, quick service start-up owners flew to San Bernadino to observe what was going on. One businessman in particular was curious about their model: Ray Kroc. At the time Kroc was attempting to market his high speed Multimixer – a machine that could spin multiple milkshakes at a time. When the brothers ordered ten machines (he typically had trouble selling even one), Kroc was instantly intrigued. A master-franchiser, Kroc partnered with, and eventually bought out, the McDonalds in order to expand the restaurant to his own home in Chicago. By focusing advertisements beyond just teens to suburban families and young children, the McDonalds Corporation rapidly increased their customer base. Soon, the Golden Arches became a symbol of America and a sign of modernity. The global spread signified a worldwide desire to grasp a taste of the United States.
It is easy, particularly as a food studies scholar, to begin a conversation about fast food by looking its many ills. However to do so ignores a fascinating history that transformed the food industry. While food waste, labor standards, and health concerns are legitimate issues to examine, a critique of the fast food industry is incomplete without understanding its role in American history. Newer businesses like Chipotle, Clover, and B.Good reveal the potential future for the quick service industry – fast food models with a healthier mission. But these quick, relatively cheap, and more nutritious options are made possible only because of the shift in production methods started by the McDonald brothers.
So next time you speed past your local drive-thru in search of a healthy, last-minute bite to eat, be sure to thank those shining arches for the burrito you’re about to receive.