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Fred had just observed his 80th birthday, and had served for nearly a decade as Chairman Emeritus of McDonald’s Corporation, the world’s largest restaurant company and a Dow Jones 30 Industrial. He began his McCareer as one of entrepreneur Ray Kroc’s first employees, as a grill man.
Over the years he developed the operating system (Quality, Service and Cleanliness) that made McDonald’s famous. He kept a low profile outside the company, but was a lion to those inside the 34 thousand restaurant organization — employees, franchises and suppliers — which he called the three-legged stool upon which McDonald’s stood. Fred created the training system that introduced millions of employees to the world of responsible work. Hamburger Universities and their home campus, the Fred L. Turner Training Center (which I named) in Oak Brook, IL, are taken very seriously by the generations of managers who are graduates. I hold a Bachelor of Hamburgerology degree, 1985.
I wrote about Fred, as well as fellow business legends,Dick McDonald and Ray Kroc, in my essay for the Chicago Literary Club, “Breakfast With Mr. McDonald.” You can Google it, or go to http://www.chiit.org and search under Ebeling. Fred was a wonderfully irascible character.
When Rodney King was dragged from his vehicle and mercilessly beat by south LA police in 1992, he triggered riots that tore apart that area of the city. King will be remembered for his plaintive admonition in the wake of the riots, “Can we all get along?”
One of the few positive things to take away from those horrible riots was the value of proactive community relations, as had been practiced by the minority entrepreneurs who owned the five McDonald’s restaurants in the riot and fire zone, which escaped unscathed, because those franchisees followed Ray Kroc‘s adage to give back to the communities they served, and put regular deposits of goodwill into the “trust bank” of social investing that McDonald’s has long followed.
I was director of corporate communications for McDonald’s in the 80s and 90s, and we told and retold the LA riots survival story to company employees and franchisees around the world. The philosophy survives today, just as those five restaurants did in 1992. Here’s the story:
In the area of South Central LA, a five square miles radius of devastation, the outcome was like a bomb. It resembled Nagasaki. Buildings had been looted and set alight. It was martial law. The streets were dangerous. Many people were killed in the frenzy, either as a statement of opposition between the established powers and the disenfranchised or as a gateway for much deeper held sentiments regarding race, class, poverty, and divisions between the entitled and disentitled.
In the wasted landscape of South Central LA, everything had been destroyed. Everything except for five buildings. In the post-apocalyptic aftermath, surrounded by smoldering ruins and debris, there were five buildings which had been untouched. Not a broken window. Not a slash of spray paint. All flooded in their usual operable fluoro lights.
These five buildings all had one thing in common. They were all McDonalds.
‘When the smoke cleared after the mobs burned through South Central Los Angeles in April, hundreds of businesses, many of them black owned, had been destroyed. Yet not a single McDonald’s restaurant had been torched.’
Edwin M. Reingold, June 29, 1992, TIME
Months later, Sociologists at Stanford University came aross this data. They were also intrigued. They sent teams into the field some time later. They went in to interview many involved in the riots. They went in to discover what the story was here – not why the devastation had taken place, but why they hadn’t taken place at McDonalds.
Now it must be said, these were not the crème de la crème of society. They organized meetings and interviews with those who had pulled people out of cars and beaten them to death. When asked why McDonalds was spared, the answers were unanimous across all the interview centres. The general conversation went something like this.
“They are one of us.”
“What do you mean?”
“They ‘re looking after us.”
‘How could McDonalds ‘be looking after you’?
“Because we like to play basketball. There’s nothing else to do except get high and shit. McDonald gives us balls.”
It turned out that McDonalds had in fact supplied a number of basketballs to youth groups and basketball centres in these low socio-economic areas. Not thousand of balls. A few hundred.
“And the old men. My old man. They don’t have jobs or nothin. They don’t have nowher eto live. McDonalds gives them free coffee.”
It was true. In that area, McDonalds suppied several hundred free cups of coffee each morning. In terms of its profitability, a piss in the ocean,
In a purely commercial sense, McDonalds gained years over Pizza Hut, Wendy’s, Denny’s, Taco Bell, Burger King, and every other fast food restaurant in the area that was razed to the ground. Each had to undertake major rebuilds and ascertain their strategic direction to decide whether South Central LA would be part of the strategic plan.
Even today, Tesco the supermarket leader of the UK is launching a ‘grocery gap’ stores in the same aea. Most of the old stores have disappeared. Wal-Mart fears to tread due to union barriers. Residents suffer lack of renewed investment.
Emotionally, financially and psychologically, McDonalds’ competitive advantage after the LA iots was vast. Lest we forget. Marketing is not about producing advertisements. It’s the battle for the heart and mind of the consumer.
I met George Romney not long after the 1987 President’s Volunteer Action Award went to McDonald’s Ronald McDonald House program, a network of homes away from home near children’s hospitals, to assist families of seriously ill children, and staffed and supported by teams of volunteers. McDonald’s president went to the White House to receive the award from President Reagan and George Romney, founder and chairman of Volunteer, the nation’s leading volunteerism organization, later merged in the Bush’s Points of Light Foundation.
Romney senior scheduled a trip out to McDonald’s headquarters in the fall of 1987, to meet with our president, Ed Rensi, with my boss Dick Starmann and myself to “discuss possible volunteer programs you could build onto your Ronald McDonald presidential award-winning program.” Before Romney’s arrival, and he drove his own car from Detroit to Oak Brook, IL, for the meeting, I briefed Ed on his visitor. Romney was a long-standing McDonald’s fan, and company founder Ray Kroc had personally presented him with “a gold McDonald’s pass for free product” many years before. In the interim, Romney had become chairman of American Motors, Governor of Michigan, and then Secretary of Housing and urban Development under Nixon.
Over lunch at the McDonald’s Lodge, Romney assured Rensi, ” when you build a corporate public image, you help build sales.” McDonald’s discussed creating special restaurant tray liners for National Volunteer Week, the following April, as well as other supporting activities.
Romney, once a Presidential contender himself, had lost momentum to Nixon when after a briefing trip to Vietnam, he alluded to the “brainwashing” he’d received from the generals, and disavowed the war. Romney had been one of the first to resign the Nixon cabinet and distance himself from the emerging Watergate scandal.
When we met him, he was 80 years old, “but walks 8 to 12 miles a day and looks 25 years younger,” I reflected in my briefing memo. Few alive remember that in World War II, Romney was the chief spokesperson for the U.S. auto industry. Just yesterday, Mitt Romney‘s older brother recalled that Mitt was known as a boy for his amazing ability to make realistic auto sounds. With his automotive history, no wonder George was a fan of McDonald’s drive-in restaurants.
With Manchester, NH, constantly in the news, and tomorrow’s Presidential primary in the media bullseye, I’m reminded of my frequent trips there in the 80s and 90s to meet with a local resident whose name was and is better known than any of the current political candidates, yet the man himself was known to too few.
He was Dick McDonald, co-founder with his brother Mac of the ubiquitous global restaurant chain. He would often meet me at the airport, and I remember arriving one day shortly after a modern McDonald’s had opened inside the terminal. And there was Dick, wandering through in his trench coat and hat, bedazzled by the bright neon, as if he had just landed on the moon. I was head of corporate communications for the company, and our chairman had given me the job of rebuilding our relationship with the man who started fast food in America. His house was on a cul-de-sac of a little street, with a tiny sign above his mailbox with the word “McDonald” on it — surely the smallest McDonald’s sign in the world.
Below is a segment from my essay, “Breakfast With Mr. McDonald” that can be read on the website of the Chicago Literary Club at http://www.chilit.org. Just click on the “Roster of members” and then on my name, Charles Ebeling, and you can read that and other essays I’ve written for the club.
Here’s the excerpt from my essay about a great man of modest ambitions:
Dick McDonald, who lived on until 1998, was first and foremost a kindly man, a gentleman. He was tall and solidly built, with thin gray hair combed back. He was always well dressed, seemingly always wearing a crisp suit or sport coat and tie, with a neat checked pocket square, and a McDonald’s logo pin on his tie or lapel. In retirement, he was a quiet, friendly New Englander, direct and unpretentious, enjoying a slow predictable pace into his twilight years. He was married in 1965 after his retirement and returned to his hometown, with the love of his life, his old high school sweetheart, Dorothy, whom he called Dot.
Dick and Dot lived in a neat, modest tri-level house that must have been new when he moved to Bedford, New Hampshire, a suburb of Manchester, near where they both grew up. He loved to drive and always had one or more new Cadillacs, a luxury he’d acquired when his San Bernardino restaurant became successful. He had moved back to Bedford from California after he retired in 1961. He was to spend much of his time managing his portfolio of stocks and real estate, and actively corresponding with old friends, and with those few who had discovered his pioneering innovations in restaurant service. He was quoted then as saying, “We keep a low profile. We like it that way. We value our privacy.”
They traveled a lot, driving to Arizona and the west coast, to Florida and Canada many times. He and Dot had both been married before. Dick had no children, but Dot had a son, who had two sons of his own whom Dick thought of as his grandchildren. The grandsons would come to stir old pride and determination in their grandfather’s aging bones, and bring back both tensions and gratifications that enlivened the elder’s hours.
Yes, Dick McDonald had experienced a life full of energy and experiment, failures and successes, before that retired life, at the other end of the country, in another time, which we will revisit. But now, in the autumn of his life, he was again beginning to have some fun and was reaping a second round of well-deserved recognition for the spark of entrepreneurship that he and his brother had lit, in the 1940s and 50s, and which had been fanned into an enormous flame of global consumerism by Ray Kroc, founder of the modern McDonald’s Corporation.
This then is the largely untold, eye-witness story of the reemergence, recriminations, reconciliations and the ultimate reverie of Dick McDonald. He was a man, who with his brother Mac played a pivotal pioneering role in the continuing evolution of food service for the mobile lifestyles of our modern civilization. I was given the chance to help bring his story back to life.
I met noted poet Andrei Codrescu in the early 90s, as he drove his high-finned Cadillac convertible onto the lot of Ray Kroc’s first McDonald’s drive-in restaurant, now a company museum, in Des Plaines, IL. I guessed he was properly impressed, because he was to write in his book, “Road Scholar — coast to coast late in the century”, a commentary on his visit, including the conclusion, “Next to rock “n” roll, McDonald’s is the most enduring American creation of the second half of the twentieth century.”
Of course, being the cultural critic he continues to be today, nearly two decades after releasing the Peabody Award-winning filmed version of his book both in theaters and on PBS, as he interviews me ( I was then heading corporate communications for McDonald’s) wearing our vintage paper McDonald’s “crew” hats, Codrescu observes that the immensity of the Midwest plains, “allows imperial daydreams to roll unimpeded.” Was he trans-mutating the agricultural abundance of middle America with Ray Kroc’s hopes and vision for the growth of McDonald’s? I suppose so. Sort of thing a displaced Transylvanian might do.
The following is from the poet’s website, http://www.codrescu.com:
|Road Scholar: coast to coast late in the centuryHyperion, 1993Andrei Codrescu describes his coast-to-coast journey across the United States, discussing the beatniks, ex-hippies, and poets in New York’s East Village, a drive-through wedding in Las Vegas and other oddities. Inspired by Kerouac’s legendary paean to American wanderlust, On the Road, Codrescu sets out to discover for himself the wonders of the USA. Published to tie in with its companion PBS-TV special, the book sparkles with the author’s wit and sardonic humor. 60 photos.|
|Click here to order this Hardcover from Amazon.com Signed editions available from the author. Please email Andrei for more information.|
My major essay on the history of the French Fry, called “French Fried: From Monticello to the Moon,” is full of the lore of the French Fry and its complex and fascinating historical and cultural background. McDonald’s unique relationship to the French Fry is highlighted. You can find the essay at: