This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode, The United States of McDonald’s, first released on January 28. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.
Correction: In the episode, Cynthia says that White Castle was the first to open and franchise fast-food restaurants. This is incorrect: White Castle was the first to open and build a chain of restaurants, but it didn’t franchise. We apologize for the mistake!
MARCIA CHATELAIN: For me, growing up in Chicago, McDonald’s was always around. We had birthday parties at McDonald’s because our apartment was on the small size. I went to McDonald’s after work in high school and after school. It was the go-to meal, when my mom and I were driving far distances and we needed something to eat. And so I have probably spent most of my life inside of a McDonald’s. So the fact that I wrote a book about McDonald’s is actually not that surprising.
NICOLA TWILLEY: This is Marcia Chatelain, she’s a professor of history and African American studies at Georgetown University. And her new book—the book about McDonald’s—it’s called Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America.
CYNTHIA GRABER: And speaking of the golden arches, there’s another new book out called Drive-Thru Dreams: A Journey Through the Heart of America’s Fast-Food Kingdom. It’s by journalist Adam Chandler.
ADAM CHANDLER: The golden arches are thought to be, according to an independent survey, more recognizable as a symbol than the Christian cross is around the world.
TWILLEY: Recognizable or no, I didn’t imagine we’d ever focus an entire episode on McDonald’s, but here we are. Together, Adam and Marcia tell a story about McDonald’s that is about much more than McDonald’s.
GRABER: Making it perfect for Gastropod, and we, of course, are Gastropod the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history. I’m Cynthia Graber—
TWILLEY: And I’m Nicola Twilley. And this episode, we’re getting to the bottom of how McDonald’s took over America.
GRABER: The story starts with who invented the hamburger? And how did it become so ubiquitous?
TWILLEY: But it gets bigger from there. This episode, we’re asking: is McDonald’s basically America’s national cuisine? And if it is, what can it tell us about who we are as a country?
GRABER: Plus, how did the taxpayer end up funding the spread of McDonald’s in the inner cities—and why were civil rights groups on board?
CHANDLER: Well, whatever idea you have of how huge fast food is, you should double it or triple it in your mind because the statistics are bonkers. They’re completely bananas. Eighty percent of Americans eat fast food every month. Ninety-six percent of them eat fast food every year, which is more than the number of Americans that participate on the Internet.
GRABER: Adam says there is not a single other place in America that 80 percent of Americans go to at least monthly—not a library or a gym or any house of worship.
TWILLEY: According to the Centers for Disease Control, which is not happy about this stat, more than a third of American children eat fast food every day. And for the population as a whole, it’s roughly the same—36 percent of us eat it every single day.
GRABER: And out of all the fast food available to us in the US, the biggest, the most popular chain, the one that serves literally 1 percent of the world’s population every day?
MCDONALD’S AD: It’s a good time for the great taste of McDonald’s!
GRABER: Of course, it’s McDonald’s.
CHANDLER: Which, according to somewhat recent stats, sells 75 burgers every second and serves 68,000,000 people per day.
TWILLEY: There is no real way to get your head around numbers that large. But what’s weird is that that size makes McDonald’s the biggest at almost everything it does. So Marcia told us that McDonald’s is even the largest distributor of toys in the world, just because of Happy Meals.
GRABER: But how did it get that big? To answer that, we have to go back to the beginning. It all starts about a hundred years ago with the invention of the hamburger.
CHANDLER: Well, there is a lot of debate, as there is debate about anything culinary in this world about who invented any particular item. There are many authors. But a lot of historians, culinary or otherwise, will give credit to Walt Anderson. And he was a fry cook in Wichita who, one day, in one of those kind of Isaac Newton, aha! moments, got really frustrated when he was cooking a meatball on a griddle and smashed it flat with a spatula. And the result was a burger that cooked through really quickly. And he put them in these specialty buns. And that’s sort of the most recognizable version of the burger that we have.
GRABER: Walt Anderson’s meatball-smashing moment was a breakthrough. He went on to launch White Castle. And that is believed to be the first fast food chain.
TWILLEY: In the nineteen-teens and -twenties, there weren’t fast food chains. Americans lived in a very different world—less connected, less cosmopolitan. Even as late as 1925, only half of all the homes in the United States had electricity. Even fewer had indoor plumbing. People weren’t used to dining out regularly.
CHANDLER: Generally speaking, there wasn’t a unified culinary culture. There wasn’t one item. We had ethnic enclaves that had their own specific blends of, you know, items that were cherished and part of a tradition.
GRABER: But in the 1920s, America was starting to change. The Model T was becoming more affordable and the number of people who owned cars more than quadrupled. Adam told us that 1920 was the first year that more Americans lived in cities than not—the U.S. was starting to become urban.
TWILLEY: The First World War was the first mechanized war and the 1920s was the Machine Age—technology promised to streamline and modernize every aspect of American life.
GRABER: The 1920s was also the beginning of radio’s golden age, and more and more people started to tune in to music and mystery and comedy shows—radio started to create a national culture.
CHANDLER: At the end of World War One, there were sort of this unifying aspect to American life that technology was bringing about. And the hamburger was part of that. It was part of finding a national diet.
TWILLEY: The hamburger did have one hurdle to overcome—Americans at the time were scared of ground meat.
CHANDLER: They were scared of it because they had all read The Jungle by Upton Sinclair and they were nervous about the quality of the food.
GRABER: The Jungle was a really important book from the early 1920s—we talked about it in our episode on the history of preservatives. It told the tale of a semi-fictional worker in a Chicago slaughterhouse and the nightmarish conditions there, for both the workers, and the resulting meat.
TWILLEY: Walt Anderson, the meatball-smashing genius behind the hamburger—he was fully aware that Americans thought ground meat was likely full of dirt and dead rats and even workers’ fingers.
CHANDLER: So what he did was he designed these stores that all look the same. They had stainless steel interiors and white tiles and they looked like castles. And White Castle was meant to kind of convey this stately, safe grandeur of a place where you could go and it would be the same everywhere you went. So it was meant to reassure consumers who didn’t really know what was safe to eat. And that really set the tone for what would come in the future of these industries, of franchising, of seeing something wherever you are and saying, oh, I know what I’m going to get here. This is familiar to me.
GRABER: White Castle was the first to open and franchise fast food restaurants, but it isn’t the biggest today. As you all know, that title goes to McDonald’s.
CHATELAIN: The McDonald’s brothers were these two men from New Hampshire who had kind of seen the extremes of the Great Depression. and they headed out to California to see where they could strike business gold.
TWILLEY: Dick and Mac McDonald headed west in 1930. They were in their twenties and their thought was maybe they could make it big in the movies.
CHANDLER: And they didn’t find as much success as they’d hoped. They were two sons of a shoe factory foreman, and they found success more in sort of the business side of production, the sort of catering.
TWILLEY: They went from that into the restaurant business.
GRABER: They opened up a barbecue stand in 1940 in Southern California.
CHANDLER: And it was one of the drive-ins of the era that people are often familiar with. Car hops in majorette boots and, you know, young guys cruising in cars and people hanging out and just kind of a big scene. And they were successful.
GRABER: That first restaurant was called McDonald’s, and it was in San Bernardino, which is just east of LA.
CHANDLER: Well, it’s meaningful that McDonald’s started in Southern California because Southern California was really where a lot of the changes that overtook America were happening, kind of on steroids.
TWILLEY: By the early 1940s, the Great Depression was finally over. San Bernardino was shifting from being a farming town to more of a manufacturing and service industry center. People were moving there, into the growing city and suburbs, and increasingly, they had a little disposable income.
CHATELAIN: But also San Bernardino was on Route 66. And so it was a place where a lot of people were traveling throughout California as well as the rest of the country.
GRABER: So Dick and Mac McDonald were doing pretty well for themselves. But then after eight years in the restaurant business, they surprised everyone by deciding to close their popular, successful restaurant and entirely revamp it.
CHANDLER: They re-diagrammed what the kitchen would look like. They used this assembly line model that White Castle had kind of employed. And they cut the menu items from twenty-five to nine.
CHATELAIN: They also fired all of the young women who were carhops because they felt like they were flirty and they would distract from the work that was happening there. They also wanted to pivot away from being a teen hangout to a family friendly place. They got rid of silverware because people would steal it or break it, and they went to wrapping burgers in paper. They wanted to create the most efficient kitchen possible in order to serve as many people as possible. And so the revision of the McDonald’s drive-in is what we are living with today: a highly automated, mechanized kitchen that is able to produce high volumes of food in a very short period of time.
CHANDLER: What they did was they basically just souped up the kitchen and turned it into a factory, an assembly line dusted with Hollywood magic. And the result was they could serve food for cheap.
TWILLEY: Even cheaper than their previous menu items had been.
CHANDLER: And at first people did know what to make of it. But it caught on very quickly.
GRABER: This new McDonald’s factory-style restaurant didn’t just catch on with eaters, it became a total phenomenon within the restaurant industry.
CHANDLER: People were coming from all over the country to kind of hear and see what was going on, because there were these whispers in the industry about this place that was so popular. And, you know, there were long lines and people were talking about this place that was not just serving a lot of people, but serving a lot of people quickly. So eventually the founders of Burger King, Taco Bell, a couple of other chains that didn’t quite make it, ultimately stopped by.
GRABER: And they copied what the McDonald brothers were doing. And, as you listeners know, some of those copycats are still around today.
TWILLEY: One of the businessmen who came to see it was none other than Ray Kroc. He was a salesman, and he sold the mixing machines for milkshakes. And the McDonald’s brothers had bought a shockingly large quantity of these machines. So Ray thought he’d go and see what they were doing with them.
GRABER: Ray had been in nearly every kind of commercial kitchen available at that time. He’d played jazz at speakeasies during Prohibition, he’d sold kitchen and restaurant supplies around the country—
CHANDLER: So he came to the McDonald’s restaurant in San Bernardino and he saw the crowds and he was completely blown away by it. And so immediately he said, this needs to be national. This needs to be everywhere.
TWILLEY: Ray convinced the brothers to let him start working with them. Before long, he bought them out.
GRABER: And the tool that Ray used to fulfill his dream of taking this model national, and then global, was the franchise.
CHATELAIN: So franchising is this concept that a parent company provides all of the blueprints and the instructions and the recipes for a product or service, and the franchisee pays for the right to deliver that good or service to an audience.
GRABER: Ray Kroc didn’t invent this franchise model. White Castle had already been using it, and in fact many experts think that the root of the idea goes back to the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages. Tax collectors did the work of the church and collected tithes, and they kept some of the money for themselves.
TWILLEY: At the start of the 20th century, Coca Cola had used the franchise model to make their sugary drink available at drugstores across America. But it was Ray Kroc who really took this franchise idea and ran with it.
CHATELAIN: The franchise model, I think is amazing because it allows companies to pass on all of the liability to this other party. So that was sort of the way in which McDonald’s grew really quickly and also took a lot of the risk out from opening places. And this is the way that they maintained control over franchisees. So it was consistent. You didn’t have rogue franchisees trying to sell Pepsi when you had a contract to sell Coke. And so it was a complicated system, but it’s what turned McDonald’s into the biggest and the fastest growing fast food restaurant in the world.
GRABER: The franchise model wasn’t the only reason for McDonald’s success. Ray was also super savvy, and he saw a number of changes that were happening in America in the mid 1950s.
CHANDLER: So the building of the highways, the interstate highway system in the mid 1950s after World War Two became a huge part of the national experience. Car culture led to the building of the suburbs. So people were moving out to the suburbs and becoming homeowners. A majority of Americans were homeowners for the first time after World War Two. And so you had commutes and you started having dual-income households.
TWILLEY: Ray Kroc had taken the temperature of America. He knew there was a baby boom and families were the main demographic—and he figured that these new suburban car-based families all needed a place to eat quickly and cheaply.
CHANDLER: And so he would scout out places where he thought—you know, this is before there was really impressive and intense software that determined where the best place to open a McDonald’s location might be, it was him in a low plane, scouting church steeples and schools looking for, okay, this is this is where a place will thrive, a McDonald’s will thrive.
TWILLEY: White picket fences included.
GRABER: But not everyone had access to this new America.
CHATELAIN: So for African Americans, after World War Two, I think the best description for it is kind of watching a film where you could relate to the characters, but know you could never be them. Because on one hand, the advertising industry and various industries are talking about this incredible prosperity and this wonderful opening up of opportunity after the war. And African Americans knew at the very core of it that each of those opportunities would be limited, hampered, or completely out of their grasp because of race.
TWILLEY: Those same highways that white suburban families were roadtripping on were destroying inner city neighborhoods by splitting them in half. And those lovely new suburbs were almost always off-limits to African Americans, thanks to redlining and restrictive property laws.
GRABER: At the same time, whites, who could move to the suburbs, did so basically en masse. And white businesses did, too. Which was almost all the businesses, because according to Time magazine, in 1968, only one percent of all businesses in the US were black-owned.
CHATELAIN: So all of this is to say by the late 1960s, where cities are really struggling with the fact that many African Americans are being left behind, they’re not reaping the benefits of recent civil rights legislation like the Civil Rights Act of 1964, all of these different forces erupt. And so, after Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968, there was a series of eruptions across the country.
ARCHIVE NEWS FOOTAGE: Now they’re moving in. The cops are moving in, and they are really these pelting these characters. They’re grabbing them, sticks are flailing, the cops are just laying it on. Oh, there’s piles of bodies on the street. There’s no question about it, you can hear the screams.
TWILLEY: That’s archive news footage from a CBS reporter in Chicago. But there were riots in cities across America in 1968. Stores were looted and set on fire, entire city blocks went up in flames. Think tanks and civic and business leaders worried that the inner cities were at a tipping point—that they could spiral out of control.
CHATELAIN: Ray Kroc and all of the executives at McDonald’s had to figure out what to do with restaurants in cities where fewer and fewer businesses were operating, as well as the racial tensions that some of their white franchise owners were concerned about.
GRABER: By this point, Ray Kroc had turned McDonald’s into a chain with more than 1,000 restaurants. He had always preferred the suburbs for his McDonald’s franchises. There were of course a few in the inner cities, but Ray wasn’t so interested in those properties.
CHATELAIN: He was hostile to the idea of the city until he realized how much money he could make.
CHANDLER: And a lot of it had to do with the fact that the suburbs were now saturated with all of this fast food and they needed a place to expand. And so what ultimately happened was that they started opening up in the cities.
TWILLEY: But with the segregation and the lack of opportunity, the customers in those cities were predominantly black. And the all-white McDonald’s franchise owners were not so keen on serving that demographic, particularly after the riots.
GRABER: And so those white franchise owners wanted to sell their franchises to black owners. And as it turns out, this is what everyone else wanted, too.
TWILLEY: Including civil rights activists. For most of the century, they had been fighting for—well, civil rights. They wanted equal opportunities, they wanted an end to discrimination, they wanted integration.
GRABER: Activists got some of those things officially, legally, but nothing really changed. So a new generation of black activists in the 60s changed course, and argued for black economic independence, not integration.
TWILLEY: And that argument all came to a head when Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968. The activists who stepped into his shoes were more focused on what they called silver rights, rather than civil rights
CHATELAIN: A generation of activists who are saying, well, maybe integration isn’t the goal. Maybe that shouldn’t be where we put our energy. We need to build things of our own. And it all moved the rhetoric towards business as the site where these politics would be played out.
GRABER: So civil rights leaders were on board with a focus on black ownership of businesses, and the government thought it was a great idea, too.
CHATELAIN: The president of the United States—as, you know, retrograde as Richard Nixon was—the president of the United states says, OK, I’ll support this idea. It takes the pressure off of integrating schools and integrating housing communities. Sure, I’ll put some money behind business.
TWILLEY: So Nixon is in favor of supporting black-owned businesses in inner cities, civil rights organizations and activists are in favor of supporting black-owned businesses in inner cities , and here’s McDonald’s, with some franchises looking for new owners in inner cities—
CHATELAIN: And so as this change is happening in the perspective on civil rights, this industry is saying, look, we can plant ourselves in your community. You can have a business in a very short period of time. And, if you do well, you know, you can have some type of black entrepreneurship. And so the federal government, through the Office of Minority Enterprise and other initiatives, especially under the Nixon administration, provided funding for African Americans to enter the franchising industry.
GRABER: Yep, that’s right, the taxpayer paid for McDonald’s franchises to open up in the inner cities.
TWILLEY: It was a heck of a lot cheaper than investing in schools and housing and all the structural reasons why African Americans in inner cities were struggling.
GRABER: And it also meant the government didn’t have to piss off the voters in the nearly all-white suburbs by doing any more to force them to integrate.
CHATELAIN: And so the Small Business Administration was very much committed to this idea that a franchise could serve the same role that a mom and pop store could in a local community.
TWILLEY: Now, you might question whether a black-owned franchise is really the same as a black-owned business.
CHATELAIN: Or do people make exceptions and say, well, very few African American businesses are able to thrive under the racist conditions of bank lending and of commercial real estate leasing and all of these other factors—if it’s a franchise, does it matter?
GRABER: And the consensus among everyone becomes, well, it’s the best option available.
TWILLEY: At this point, Ray Kroc is fully on board. Land is cheap in the inner cities.
GRABER: Compared to the suburbs, people weren’t driving in the inner cities, so there was practically limitless opportunity for expansion. He could pack his restaurants in much more densely.
TWILLEY: And these inner city McDonald’s found very willing customers. People loved it.
CHATELAIN: For us today, it’s hard to imagine a world without McDonald’s. But for communities that were getting McDonald’s for the first time, few people had seen anything like that. Food that was delivered so fast. Places where there were comfortable areas for kids to run around or to play. And for African Americans that were often shut out of the experience of dining and eating in restaurants and feeling safe, a McDonald’s that was owned by an African American in your community where you could be welcomed—this was no small thing.
TWILLEY: The first African American McDonald’ s franchise owner was called Herman Petty. And he took over a restaurant on Chicago’s Southside in 1968. Just three years later, 50 inner city McDonald’s were operated by African American franchisees. And they were some of the most profitable restaurants in the entire company.
CHATELAIN: Within a few years of the first black franchise owners coming into the system, McDonald’s noted that they were very successful, that they outpaced a lot of their white counterparts—not only because they were often serving a more captive market, but with the oil embargoes of the early 1970s, fewer people were going to use the precious resource of gas to drive to McDonald’s. But in the inner city markets, where there were few competitors, a lot more people were walking or taking public transport to their stores, McDonald’s found that black franchise owners were able to weather that economic storm, and they saw that they were very successful because of the markets that they were in. And so all of those different economic factors allowed for some of these early franchise owners to really show to McDonald’s that the black consumer market was an incredibly lucrative one.
GRABER: So as McDonald’s started to realize that there was a lot of money to be made in black communities, they also started to realize that they’d have to change their advertising strategy. At the end of the 60s, every single person in every single McDonald’s ad was white.
MCDONALD’S TV AD: McDonald’s is our kind of place, it’s such a happy place!
GRABER: Marcia says the kids singing in this ad, McDonald’s very first national commercial in 1967, they looked like they lived in an all-white world.
TWILLEY: This was a national problem, not just a McDonald’s problem. In 1967, the NAACP analyzed 351 ads shown on TV, and found that only 17 contained an African American, and, in that 17, there were only three where a black person was a central character.
CHATELAIN: So one of the kind of epic tales of African American advertising involves Tom Burrell and Burrell Communications, a Chicago-based advertiser, an advertising company that specialized in ethnic marketing.
GRABER: Tom Burrell is himself African American. Here he is being interviewed on TV after being inducted into the Advertising Hall of Fame in 2005.
TOM BURRELL VIA PBS: The general belief before we came on the scene was that television reached everybody. It failed to make the distinction between reach and effective reach. Just because I’m looking at something doesn’t mean that it’s getting to me. The difference is I might have been looking at it as an observer rather than as a participant.
TWILLEY: At the time Tom started working with McDonald’s, they had a big campaign called You Deserve A Break Today.
MCDONALD’S TV AD: You’ve been going strong all day, you deserve a break today, at McDonald’s.
CHATELAIN: And one of the stories that Burrell often talks about is when they received work from McDonald’s after a big push on the part of black franchise owners to get some culturally relevant material, they tried to do a black version of the You Deserve a Break Today campaign. And it’s this very beautiful African American woman with an afro. And she’s kind of very close to this guy. They might be on a date. And they tested it. And African Americans were like, what break are you talking about? We get zero breaks in our life. McDonald’s is not our break. It’s the place we go to to get our meals and get it fast. Like, not speaking to us at all. And they often held that up as an example to say, listen, if you are going to do this type of targeted advertising, you can’t just put a black face and have the same taglines.
TWILLEY: And so with Tom Burrell’s help, McDonald’s figured out how to speak to their black customers.
GRABER: This 1974 ad certainly did just that.
MCDONALD’S TV AD: Mama wants to get to church, she’s been waiting up since dawn. She wishes I would hurry up, and get some breakfast on. But after working hard all week, I’d like to get my rest, so we head to McDonald’s soon as we get dressed.
TOM BURRELL VIA PBS: What in fact happened happening was that not only did our work not offend the white audience, but in some cases it was more effective than the white-oriented material. And I suspect the reason for that is because it was more unique, more attention-getting, more entertaining.
MCDONALD’S TV AD: Big Mac, Filet-O-Fish, a Quarter-Pounder, French fries, icy coke, thick shakes, sundaes and apple pies. Big Mac, Filet-O-Fish, a Quarter-Pounder, French fries, icy coke, thick shakes, sundaes and apple pies!
GRABER: I still remember this double-dutch McDonald’s ad. It definitely aired in the greater DC area—we used to recite it on the playground, maybe even while jumping rope ourselves.
TWILLEY: Marcia told us they had ads with people rapping about Harriet Tubman and the Tuskegee Airmen, they even did hip hop black history.
CHATELAIN: And some of it does not age well. Occasionally I show them in my classes and my students are like, really? Did people actually say these things to black consumers? And I understand why they feel that way. But one of the things that I always want people to keep in mind is that in 1974, a black consumer looking at an advertising where people have afros like they have and they’re using a little bit of slang—while it can be a little cringy today, it meant a lot for people who were really on the outside of American consumer culture for decades, that this is the type of representation that a company was willing to invest in.
GRABER: The pinnacle of McDonald’s focus on the African American market wasn’t actually an advertisement at all. It was a documentary called Soul of a Nation.
CHATELAIN: Soul of a Nation was a radio production and educational—I’ll say that broadly—guide that was created in 1976. and it was the black history version of the bicentennial. It was underwritten by African American franchise owners of McDonald’s, and it was narrated by Bill Cosby with a score from Ray Charles. And so that also shows the ways that the McDonald’s advertising budgets were very high. McDonald’s was able to secure very, very famous African Americans as spokespeople and as co-sponsors on these different initiatives. But Soul of a Nation is kind of amazing to think about. because even in 1976, mass marketed African American history was really hard to come by. And that the fact that a person could go into a McDonald’s in Atlanta and Los Angeles and learn about people like Benjamin Banneker, the African American architect, or Crispus Atticus, the Revolutionary War hero, through eating McDonald’s is no small thing.
GRABER: McDonald’s was literally one of the first to do any of this. They were basically the first to invest heavily in the inner cities, and they were one of the first to invest heavily in advertising to black communities. And for a long time, they were really the only ones doing so.
TWILLEY: I will be honest, I’m not used to thinking of McDonald’s as a progressive company. But their representations of African American life and African American achievement were really important.
GRABER: I’m frankly still shocked that you could find out more about African American history in McDonald’s than nearly anywhere else at the time, including most schools. But the promise of McDonald’s in the inner cities wasn’t just that people could eat a hamburger for cheap and learn about history, it was also that the franchises would provide good jobs and keep money in the neighborhood. There’s a series of McDonald’s ads from the 1990s about Calvin—who is, yes, African American—and he gets an entry level job at McDonald’s.
MCDONALD’S TV AD, CALVIN’S FRIEND 1: Where’s Calvin?
MCDONALD’S TV AD, CALVIN’S FRIEND 2: He has a J-O-B.
MCDONALD’S TV AD, CALVIN’S FRIEND 1: He’s still flipping those burgers at Mickey D’s
MCDONALD’S TV AD, CALVIN: Here’s your order.
MCDONALD’S TV AD, CUSTOMER: Thanks, Calvin!
TWILLEY: His cool friends who are all being cool and hanging out cannot believe this S H I T! He’d rather work than hang? But Calvin is on his way up.
MCDONALD’S TV AD, CALVIN: Yup, I’m on the management team now, Mama!
MCDONALD’S TV AD, CALVIN’S MOM: Oh Calvin, I’m so proud of you!
GRABER: Was Calvin special?
GRABER: But seriously—How did that job thing pan out for everyone else?
TWILLEY: How much investment did a McDonald’s franchise really make in a neighborhood?
CHATELAIN: This was a big issue of debate and there are a number of anti-fast food folks in the 1970s that were suggesting that very few dollars actually stayed within the community. If you think about the way that franchising works, you have to pay a lot of administrative fees to the parent company. You are purchasing from predetermined suppliers that are often not local. your insurance company wasn’t necessarily local. And so other than payroll and philanthropy, the question of how much actually stayed in the community was a really good question.
TWILLEY: In the 1970s, some researchers worked out that only about 17 percent of what an individual McDonald’s restaurant spent actually stayed in the community where it was based. The rest went outside, back to headquarters and big national vendors.
GRABER: So some people said, it was time for genuinely black-owned businesses, businesses born in the communities where they were going to operate, time for them to take on McDonald’s and the other national fast food chains.
CHATELAIN: Oh, they were blown right out of the water. In the latter part of the book, I look at a business called Chicken George’s that was created by a Baltimore man named Ted Holmes, who was a believer in black capitalism and had thought about different types of businesses and investments.
CHICKEN GEORGE’S AD: Goodbye, ho-hum chicken! Hello, Chicken George! Goodbye, ho-hum chicken! Hello, Chicken George, Chicken George!
CHATELAIN: And he starts this fast food chicken restaurant that is quite popular locally, but he cannot maintain the business and keep up with the competition from KFC and Popeye’s—big brands that are able to do things like provide coupons and discounts. And, you know, Chicken Georgia’s is now one for the archives.
TWILLEY: So McDonald’s and other national chains were usually the only option. And of that 17 percent of their money that stayed in the community, roughly 15 percent went to labor costs.
CHATELAIN: One of the great promises of bringing these franchises into the inner city was that they provided jobs. The unemployment rate for African Americans was several times over the unemployment rates for whites. Entry level jobs for teenagers was incredibly hard to find. And so the promise that you could get a pretty good wage job through fast food really resonated in the late 60s.
CHANDLER: Well, for a long time, you know, before McJob became this pejorative term, working in a McDonald’s was seen culturally as truly honorable thing. You were learning responsibility. You were learning how to operate in a professional setting, often as a teenager.
GRABER: And Adam says these teen jobs weren’t considered great just for the African American community.
CHANDLER: Oh my god, everyone is flipping burgers. In 1996, McDonald’s estimated that one in every eight Americans had at some point worked at McDonald’s. One of those was Jeff Bezos, who is now the richest person in the world. He still brags about cracking eggs on the Saturday shift at McDonald’s. Paul Ryan, the former vice presidential candidate and House majority leader, talked about washing dishes at McDonald’s back when, you know, he was a teenager working for pocket money. And then you have cultural figures. Lin Manuel Miranda, Jay Leno, Pink, SEAL, Shania Twain.
TWILLEY: Working at McDonald’s used to be seen as formative—a stepping stone on the path to somewhere better. But at some point, that changed.
CHANDLER: I want to say McJob entered the actual formal dictionary in the late 1990s, as a term for sort of a dead-end job.
GRABER: By the 1990s, the people working in fast food restaurants were no longer teenagers.
CHANDLER: I think it’s anywhere between 26 and 29, depending on who you ask. That’s the average age of a fast food worker today. And that means it’s not, you know, a teenager learning responsibility for the first time, but somebody who’s trying to make ends meet and doing so under very difficult conditions. And so what became, you know, previously seen as a ladder of opportunity became more of a hamster wheel.
TWILLEY: A hamster wheel without health insurance and without a living wage and without many real opportunities for advancement.
GRABER: But it is true that these franchises made some people rich. Ray Kroc told reporters that McDonald’s had made more African American millionaires than any other company.
TWILLEY: Certainly, those black inner-city franchise owners often got rich. But if they wanted to expand, and operate restaurants in white neighborhoods? That was a no-no.
GRABER: The white franchise owners could operate anywhere they wanted, even in the inner cities. The black owners were segregated into only owning franchises in the inner city, so, unlike white owners, they had a limit on how much money they could make. And Marcia told us that this is kind of reflective of one of the major limitations of the whole black capitalism movement.
CHATELAIN: And so it’s easy to say, oh, well, that’s a simple idea. Giving people more opportunities to operate businesses and create jobs—what’s wrong with that? I think the fundamental tension in that idea is that it also that kind of silenced the voices that said, well, what about integration? And instead the move towards black capitalism and black businesses always presupposed and always imagined that these businesses would operate in hyper-segregated environments.
GRABER: Again, limiting opportunity, and taking pressure away from governments and society to make any real changes.
TWILLEY: Still, Marcia and Adam agree that within those hyper-segregated environments, McDonald’s often served as a gathering place—almost a community center.
CHANDLER: These third places, where people would go outside of home and outside of work to hang out, to, you know, to meet up, to just be somewhere that wasn’t home or work and to socialize.
GRABER: There aren’t many places where that happens in modern America.
CHANDLER: It’s a really unique feature to fast food because the barrier to access is a cup of coffee and you can hang out for as long as you want. You’re not sectioned off by your age. You don’t have to travel a long distance, necessarily. And that’s how it’s come to sort of inhabit this new role in American life. Whether it’s sort of a lack of resources, libraries and parks and other institutions that that normally would be attractive, has shifted to become fast food restaurants, which are climate controlled and, you know, are essentially welcoming for most people. And it is sad that that is kind of one of the few places where that happens. But if you’re looking for the bright spot, it’s that it still exists, that there are places where people kind of congregate. And it’s nice. It’s nice. It’s nice in a way that if you squint a little bit, it doesn’t seem terrible.
GRABER: If you have to squint that hard, it is actually kind of terrible.
TWILLEY: But it’s not just the physical restaurant itself that ends up playing a central role in the community. Especially in African American inner city neighborhoods, where there weren’t a whole lot of resources, Marcia says that McDonald’s made everything possible.
CHATELAIN: So the first time I ever competed in a quiz bowl competition about African American history, they were one of the sponsors, and they ensured that we got prizes at this big ceremony at the DuSable African American History Museum with the mayor there.
GRABER: They sponsored the American double dutch league, and the All-American high school band. And the McDonald’s All-American Basketball Game. Magic Johnson played in that game in high school. Shaquille ONeal. Michael Jordan. LeBron James. If you were a McDonald’s All-American athlete, you were one of the best high school basketball players in the country.
TWILLEY: This investment in African American high school students is great. And it’s also terrible. You don’t even have to squint, like Adam says, to see that there’s something really wrong with having one single fast-food company fund almost all the sport and culture in a community, and function as the community gathering place, and provide almost all the jobs, too.
CHATELAIN: And I am concerned about that. because I think no business should have that kind of impact or that kind of influence or authority in the lives of people who are in struggle. And so I think it’s really fascinating the way that fast food has in many ways represented a lot of the racial and economic inequalities and tensions in our country.
GRABER: But there’s something else. At the same time as McDonald’s was solidifying their hold over African American communities, there was a new concern rising about their role in the American diet.
CHATELAIN: And as fast food became more commonplace and became a regular fixture in the diets of Americans broadly, but especially of the poor, the surgeon general and other authorities on health started to commission studies.
TWILLEY: And they started to realize that America was in the midst of an obesity crisis. And that fast food consumption played a big role in that.
CHATELAIN: A lot of those critiques were racialized. and they were often used as a way to demean or critique the ways that people of color lived and the choices that they made for their children. But one of the elements of the conversation that always gets under my skin is that a lot of these inquiries into health disparities often presuppose that certain communities or certain people have an affinity for fast food. That there’s something natural. And burgers are delicious, and ice cream is good, and fries are amazing. I think a lot of people can say that. But I think that the way that the health researchers don’t consider the larger world in which fast food operates in certain communities that goes beyond the food.
TWILLEY: They’re missing the long history of racism and lack of opportunities that led to taxpayers helping fund all those inner city franchises, and to civil rights organizations supporting that investment, because it was so desperately needed. And it was basically only kind of investment on offer anyway.
CHATELAIN: And so that conversation, as it emerged in the 80s and the 90s, I think was very much ignorant of this history and did not want to acknowledge that racism constrains choices. and that people make the best choices they can under the various circumstances in which they live.
GRABER: Of course, it wasn’t only the black community that was being told that fast food was unhealthy. For the all the reasons Marcia mentioned, the health community did kind of target that message at the black community—
TWILLEY: But really, the whole country was hearing that message. And so were the fast food companies themselves.
CHANDLER: My favorite anecdote from this time is that Kentucky Fried Chicken actually shortened its name to KFC in 1991, because Fried was such an F word.
TWILLEY: In response to this new health consciousness, fast food chains started offering quote healthy options.
CHANDLER: McDonald’s famously had this burger that was 91% fat-free beef and it had seaweed derivative in it.
MCDONALD’S TV AD, ANNOUNCER: Introducing: McLean Deluxe! Made with a 91% fat-free patty.
MCDONALD’S TV AD, CUSTOMER: Fat free and delicious? Can’t be done.
MCDONALD’S TV AD, ANNOUNCER: Can too! You wanted great burger taste with a lot less fat.
CHANDLER: And they launched it to great fanfare and it completely bombed. Jay Leno was making fun of it. Everyone was laughing at this McDonald’s burger that had seaweed in it and asking, you know, what is this about? This is disgusting. And the company was trying to offer something that was a little bit healthier and consumers rejected it. Burger King tried, Wendy’s tried all of these places, tried to make their offerings a little healthier. They put salads on the menu and they still have them. But they don’t really sell very well.
GRABER: Because that’s not what people think of when they think of McDonald’s.
CHANDLER: They think of it as, you know, a place to go get a hamburger when you’ve had a long day or, you know, a place that dispenses thirty two ingredient chicken nuggets for your kids when they’re screaming in the car. You know, it fulfills this idea of indulgence.
GRABER: Marketing foods as healthier didn’t work—but instead McDonald’s went for a stealth health campaign. This past decade, they cut sodium and sugar in their offerings by about 10 percent, and they just didn’t tell anyone.
TWILLEY: These kind of small changes can have a huge impact, given how many people eat at McDonald’s every day. And meanwhile everyone still thinks they’re getting their indulgent treat.
GRABER: It’s the same thing for their sourcing. If McDonald’s makes a change, it affects nearly everyone.
CHANDLER: McDonald’s, for example, announced that it would go with cage free eggs. And 5 percent of the eggs consumed, I think, in the U.S. and Canada are consumed at McDonald’s, which is an insane number. And when McDonald’s makes that shift, which they have started to do, the effect is fascinating on a number of levels. First of all, millions of Americans are going to have their first cage free eggs by way of McDonald’s. And then there is the industry effect. You know, they decided that they would remove antibiotics from their chicken. And that is something that has led to widespread changes across the industry. Same goes for eggs.
TWILLEY: So the decisions McDonald’s makes can literally reshape America and Americans. But in a very deep way, it goes the other way round, too. McDonald’s reflects America—it is what it is because of who this country is and how it grew.
GRABER: McDonald’s was born because of the rise of car culture and the growth of the suburbs and an obsession with technology and efficiency and speed. The hamburger grew in popularity just as America was becoming connected by country-wide movies and radio shows, and everyone was starting to search for a national identity. And a national cuisine.
TWILLEY: And at the same time, McDonald’s was able to become the behemoth that it is because of America’s comparatively low minimum wages and Americans’ belief that private business and individual hard work can solve all of society’s problems.
GRABER: And Marcia says all of this is most obvious when you look at the outsized role that McDonald’s has played in the black community.
TWILLEY: Which, despite everything, she can’t entirely condemn.
CHATELAIN: I have seen people who are deeply indebted and have so much gratitude for the world that was created for them through working at a McDonald’s and rising the ranks and becoming a franchise owner. I know people who are very much devoted to this system in this enterprise that they believed has not only lifted them into a different economic status, but has allowed them to endow professorships and various opportunities at historically black colleges and universities. I know people who had opportunities to travel and to compete in various competitions for athletics and for music because of the fast food industry. So I will say this. I think that the relationship is reflective of how limited outcomes can be when we don’t have robust public systems for people to get their needs met. McDonald’s should not be a person’s only food option, and it should not be the only job that’s available in a community. And it should not be the only place that a person can go to get sponsorship for youth sports. And so I think what I would say is that the relationship exposes how deeply failed the nation has been in serving all of its people equally, and it perhaps reflects not only desperation, but some ingenuity in how people get their needs met.
TWILLEY: But Marcia says you can’t blame McDonald’s and McDonald’s alone for the inner city’s problems. And you certainly can’t expect McDonald’s to solve them all, either.
CHATELAIN: I think that if we believe that the fast food industry is made to solve these problems then we have already kind of given up on what’s possible. And at the end of the day, nothing in my mind can replace a robust, publicly supported, publicly funded set of systems that assesses what people need and tries to meet them. There’s nothing better than that and we’ve never really had it in this nation.
GRABER: Even with her criticism of the outsized role McDonald’s has ended up playing in black communities, Marcia still feels extremely connected to McDonald’s and to her memories of the restaurant from throughout her childhood. And the food.
CHATELAIN: Oh my gosh. In the spirit of full disclosure, I have not eaten McDonald’s in a while. As I got older, fast food was just harder for me to digest. But with that being said, I think McDonald’s French fries are the best French fries of the great fast food franchises.
CHANDLER: McNuggets—McNuggets are—McNuggets are perfect for me. Both my parents worked and my mom—I love her and I hope she doesn’t tune in to this part of it, at least, because she wasn’t like a really big cook. My dad wasn’t a really big cook at all. But growing up, we would go to McDonald’s a lot. I’d get the McNuggets and I love them. And I will always, no matter what they do to the recipe, McDonald’s McNuggets hold a very special place in my heart.
GRABER: Those were actually my favorite, too. I particularly loved the dipping sauces. My family didn’t eat at McDonald’s a lot, but my mom made a homemade version of the nuggets, breaded and pan-fried chicken pieces, and we called it Chicken McGraber, and I loved it.
TWILLEY: That sounds good! But also it’s kind of Adam and Marcia’s larger point. We all have a relationship with McDonald’s, however distant or intimate, however positive or negative. It built us, we built it—it’s who we are, for good and for bad. And their fries are indeed the best.
MCDONALD’S AD: Big Mac, McDLT, a Quarter-Pounder with some cheese, Filet-O-Fish, a hamburger, a cheeseburger, a Happy Meal. McNuggets, tasty golden french fries, regular or larger size. Salads: chef or garden, or a chicken salad oriental.
TWILLEY: Thank you this episode to Marcia Chatelain— her new book Franchise is out right now and has much more to say about the fascinating relationship between McDonald’s and black America than we could possibly cover in one episode.
GRABER: In fact, this complicated relationship and story continues to unfold. Right now, two African American executives in the company have filed a lawsuit against McDonald’s, they’re claining that the company drives out African American franchise owners and gets rid of African Americans in senior leadership, and has a pattern of discrimination and a hostile work environment.
TWILLEY: Marcia told us that this lawsuit reflects the ongoing way that even when African Americans are successful within fast-food franchises, they still have to deal with racism, lack of access to capital, and a fundamental lack of understanding of the communities they serve.
GRABER: Thanks also to Adam Chandler, author of Drive-Thru Dreams. His book is about far more than just McDonald’s, it’s a general history of fast food in the U.S., and it’s worth checking out.