A cynic might view John Lee Hooker’s portrait of Ray Kroc, The Founder, as an indictment of the American Dream itself. McDonald’s has come to signify everything illusory, toxic and and inhuman about American capitalism and idealism. Whether it’s Morgan Spurlock’s Supersize Me, Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, or any of the various #FightFor15 campaigns, the progressive Left has the fast food industry squarely in the crosshairs. Depending on the outrage du jour, the fast food industry is underpaying workers, poisoning the population with toxic food, contributing to the obesity epidemic, hastening the global warming crisis and propping up oversized agribusiness conglomerates. No other restaurant chain embodies all of this amoral rapacity, soulless industrialism, and ruthless expansionism more than McDonald’s. Of course, there is some truth to the charges leveled at McDonald’s and the fast food industry. However, as this film brilliantly illustrates, these qualities were features of Ray Kroc’s personality flaws and what he injected into the McDonald’s brand rather than design flaws in the fabric of American values or even the fast food industry.
The Founder is a fairly straightforward historical biopic which, like its subject matter, succeeds on economical storytelling and tasty performances. It’s a fascinating story because it reveals how McDonald’s and fast food became synonymous with American values. More importantly, it shows how Ray Kroc deformed those values through his own ruthless ambition.
Hollywood films often present their subjects through an ideological lens of progressive politics, and I suspect the filmmakers of The Founder had a similar aim. As long as you recognize that, the film presents some fairly decent lessons in market economics, industrial engineering of food production, contract law ethics, and brand building. The title of the film is very loaded because it draws up an assumption in your mind about its meaning. What Ray Kroc “founded” is not exactly what you might think.
Before McDonald’s, Ray Kroc was a mediocre traveling salesman trying to hock milkshake multimixers to the burgeoning fast food industry. The drive in was the dominant model and it included features of the fast food experience that have been long consigned to the historical memory bin. Hamburgers and fries were served on washable dinnerware and delivered to your car by waitresses on roller skates. Ray Kroc had a mass market mentality, but no one in the middle American fast food business seemed to share it. His attempts to appeal to American ingenuity and Say’s Law fell on deaf ears.
Ray Kroc: But if ya had the Prince Castle, 5-spindle, multimixer… with patented direct-drive electric motor we’d greatly increase your ability to produce… delicious, frosty milkshakes, FAST. Mark my words. Dollars to donuts, you’ll be sellin’ more of those sons of bitches… then you can shake a stick at. You increase the supply, and the demand will follow… Increase supply, demand follows. Chicken, egg. Do you follow my logic? I know you do because you’re a bright, forward thinking guy who… knows a good idea when he hears one. So… What do you say?
When Kroc receives an order for eight multimixers from a burger joint in San Bernardino, his hopes and curiosity intensify. Kroc arrives at McDonald’s and he is thunderstruck. He receives his order instantaneously, the wrappings are completely disposable, there’s no wait staff, and there’s a line of customers as far as the eye can see. However, all of this innovation came from the minds, sacrifices and work of Dick and Mac McDonald. Through a combination of ambition, courage, and Dick McDonald’s ruthless pursuit of cost savings and production efficiency, McDonald’s changed the fast food game for all time. Kroc is captivated and ingratiates himself with the McDonald brothers.
Kroc pitches the McDonalds a national vision for the restaurant. The Golden Arches are more than just a visual brand; they are the symbolic glue between the Christian cross and the American flag. The McDonalds aren’t sold because they tried franchising the restaurant but couldn’t maintain quality control. Dick McDonald was a master of industrial food production and a capitalist through and through, but he didn’t want to lose control over the quality of the product. Being the more sentimental of the brothers, Mac sees a possibility for the kind of national success that eluded them and persuades his hard headed brother to sign a deal with Kroc.
Kroc returns to the Midwest with his sights set on complete domination. He makes appearances at Rotary clubs, churches and synagogues and begins recruiting families into the McDonald’s franchise with the fervor of an evangelist. Kroc may not have invented the food production system, but he did succeed in grafting the idea of McDonald’s to the psychological infrastructure of American ideals: family, opportunity, optimism.
Despite his early success, his is unable to repay his business loans due to the small percentage allotted in his contract. He grows increasingly impatient with Dick McDonald’s insistence on quality control. Kroc really turns an ethical corner when he forms a real estate holding company at the advice of Harry Sonneborn. By owning the land on which the franchises are built, he is guaranteed a larger revenue stream and capital base. Most importantly, it offers him leverage over the McDonalds. When he sees a possibility to cut costs with milkshake mix instead of real ice cream, Kroc sets himself on a collision course with the McDonalds. Kroc amasses enough power to buy his way out of his contract. Through the process, he kicks his wife of 39 years, Ethel Kroc, to the curb and courts the wife of franchisee, Rollie Smith.
The film tips its partisan hand in a final scene which shows Kroc rehearsing a speech he’s preparing for an event in which Governor Ronald Reagan is scheduled to attend. Kroc is rehearsing all of the catch phrases and appeals to American ideals he perfected during McDonald’s ascent. When he finally approaches the part of the speech involving the first restaurant, he stammers and stumbles. Yes, we get it, folks. Republicans are shallow hypocrites who don’t uphold the ideals they espouse. But that’s a little too simplistic. Kroc won the McDonald’s enterprise, but he sacrificed its soul in the process. He took Dick McDonald’s industrial food production innovation and replaced it with a ruthless Benthamism. The McDonalds were the Jeffersonian capitalists who wanted to keep their idea regional and decentralized, but Kroc was the Hamiltonian who wanted a strong national identity for McDonald’s.
If you walk away from The Founder with the impression that American capitalism and idealism are false and hollow, you bought the cynicism that Hollywood is always selling. Fortunately, it’s a film that I believe has more meat on its bones than the average agitprop shit sandwich. Corruption, soulless industrialism, megalomaniacal ambition and hollow appeals to nationalism aren’t inextricably linked to capitalism. If that’s what the business is projecting into the world, that says more about the values of the individuals behind it. In the case of McDonald’s in its contemporary incarnation, the blame for these phenomena lies squarely at the feet of Ray Kroc. The McDonald brothers embodied American idealism without any grandiose speeches or national ambitions. Capitalism takes on the characteristics of the individuals behind it, and McDonald’s was ultimately hijacked by a particularly ruthless individual. If there’s any overriding message of The Founder, that is surely it.