Pictured is McDonald’s restaurant pioneer Dick McDonald, third from left, with (L toR) Chuck Ebeling, Dot McDonald, and Dick Starmann.
Many are looking forward to the new motion picture, “The Founder,” starring Michael Keaton, due in theaters in December, 2016. It purports to be the story of how entrepreneur Ray Kroc discovered the small yet successful and innovative fast food restaurant developed by Dick and Mac McDonald in San Bernardino, California, which Ray later acquired all the rights to, including the name, and built into the world’s largest restaurant business. While the story of the period covered in the film is not altogether accurate, based upon pre-release reports, it stops far short of the final chapter of the story of the McDonald brothers. In the essay below, the complex relationship between the surviving brother, Dick McDonald, and the Corporation built by Ray Kroc is recounted by me, the retired McDonald’s executive who was at the center of all that. The authenticity of this report was verified by Fred Turner, the former McDonald’s senior chairman who succeeded Ray Kroc, when he called me with appreciation for getting it right in this unpublished story. He forwarded this essay to the manager of the McDonald’s Golden Archives with the hand-written note: “Save this gem.” It was a pleasure and an honor to have known Ray Kroc, Dick McDonald and Fred Turner, and it was one of the most satisfying, if sometimes testing, challenges of my career in building public relationships to have become a friend to Mr. McDonald himself.
BREAKFAST WITH MR. MCDONALD
By Charles Ebeling
Presented to the Chicago Literary Club
At the Cliff Dwellers, Chicago, Illinois
October 26, 2009
Copyright 2009 by Charles Ebeling
The nineteen eighties and nineties were glory years for many American-based businesses. It was the golden age of globalization, Sarbanes-Oxley was not yet on the horizon, the tech bust was in the future, derivatives was not a dirty word, and the vast financial bailouts of late were in the far distance. Yet, with all that positive momentum underway, there were still some unfinished issues to reconcile from the rebirth of American consumerism in the aftermath of World War II. In the mid-eighties, I found myself smack in the middle of one such reconciliation.
Once, after visiting Thomas Jefferson’s cleverly-designed house at Monticello, with so many advanced innovations for its time in early American history, I was reminded of the now famous reference to his genius, by President John Kennedy, in remarks to North American Nobel Prize winners, when he said: “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone. “
I wish I’d thought of that quote, when I was writing out notes for my introduction of a special guest at a breakfast meeting the next day on August 22, 1989, on a stage at the Hyatt Regency Chicago Hotel, before a cosmopolitan audience of some 250 breakfast companions. That audience did not know what to expect, because almost none had ever met their special breakfast companion, though many knew bits of his legend, and they saw his surname everywhere they went. He had lived a quiet, private, retired life, totally out of the limelight, for some 30 years, since before most in the audience began their careers and before some were even born. With few fairly recent and notable exceptions, he had been largely invisible over these decades, which he hadn’t really minded at all, because he had long ago achieved his dream of becoming a millionaire and retiring by the time he was 50. After all, back in 1961, when he and his brother had sold their business for a cool million dollars each, after taxes, a million was like eight million today.
The morning’s audience members were to be public relations executives and communications managers from across the U.S. and around the globe. They were sophisticated people, accustomed to listening intently, crafting subtle and compelling business messages and communications campaigns, and then mass communicating this information to carefully targeted, culturally diverse groups of people.
Some of the older professionals in the morning group had met another much more recognizable person, whom they always knew to be the founder of the global company that brought them together. While the founder had been deceased for several years now, they knew his success story well. He had brought to fruition the potential of a new post World War II industry, one that would have an important role in facilitating the expanded mobility and everyday expectations of a modern, fast moving world. They knew about the enormous entrepreneurship and drive that the founder and his ardent disciples had demonstrated. He had made its economic engine into one of a handful of great global brands, and one of the most well-known and profitable giants among those bell weathers of the American economy, the Dow Jones 30 Industrials.
But this morning’s breakfast guest was more of a shadowy figure to them. If the great entrepreneur had been, say Thomas Edison, then this morning’s special breakfast guest might have been his Nikola Tesla. Tesla invented alternating current. Thomas Edison took that invention, which came from his junior associate Tesla’s creative mind, and built it into the dominant form of electric energy on which America runs to this day. Edison’s achievements ring loud through the annals of popular history. Those who dig deeper into the story also come to know Tesla’s.
This large breakfast gathering was to be an important part of an extended coming out party, unlike any Tesla ever received. While Tesla’s name faded into technical history, this man’s name, but not the man himself, had become known to almost everyone on earth, because he gave it, however inadvertently, to the best known and most pervasive food service organization the world has yet seen.
This morning’s event would be part of a process in which the name and the man would be reunited, over more than a decade of events that would bring a glow, and a bit of fire, to his remaining years. This was to be “Breakfast with Mr. McDonald. “
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, eyewitness 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 first met Dick in 1985, the year after Ray Kroc had died, and I would be his most frequent contact, and become his friend, at the business he’d given his name to, until his own death some 13 years later. There was a third of a century between our ages. I’d lost my own grandfather, himself a proud entrepreneurial retailer, a few years before. In some ways for me, as our relationship grew, Dick McDonald began to take my grandfather’s place.
The night before our high profile breakfast, my wife Vicki and I took Dick and Dot out for dinner at the elegant Club International at Chicago’s Drake Hotel. Ron and Pat Miesler joined us. Ron was a veteran McDonald’s vice president who had previously taken a film crew out to Bedford to record Dick’s reminiscences for posterity, as he had once done with Ray Kroc in his later years. That film is preserved in McDonald’s Golden Archives in Elk Grove, Illinois.
I’d told the maître de at the club who our special guest was to be, and after dinner the excited chef brought out a golden frosted cake with McDonald’s arches emblazoned on top. Dick was touched and clapped his hands in delight. He never expected to be treated so specially. It was only when one of his grandchildren or one of his correspondents prodded him about his anonymity that his New England pride would seep through. Dick, like many of his counterparts in the restaurant industry, enjoyed fine dining, and almost always ordered brandy Alexander’s for himself and Dot before dinner. We were to enjoy many excellent restaurants together, from coast to coast, as we traveled to events honoring him in the years ahead.
The breakfast the next day went swimmingly. On stage, Dick and I enjoyed our Egg McMuffins and coffee, as did those in the audience. I introduced him as one of the best conceivable friends and supporters that McDonald’s people could possibly have, as the audience settled down to some breakfast shop talk with the original Mr. McDonald. A brief video followed that included a new McDonald’s Founder’s Day TV commercial we’d produced specially to position the McDonald’s brother’s pioneering role in the so-called fast food industry and their creation and early success opening the first McDonald’s restaurant, along with the role of Ray Kroc in subsequently creating and building the worldwide restaurant company. Dick then earnestly answered my questions and those of audience members, giving everyone a new first-hand perspective on their roots. I later wrote him, saying “I’m glad that during your visit you were able to meet so many of the people here in “McDonaldland” who care about you – our people are uplifted by your positive personality and your optimistic point of view.”
Things hadn’t always been so rosy between Dick McDonald and the company, and the future road would also contain some big bumps. The trouble started almost from the beginning.
Dick and Mac McDonald had come out to California in the 1920s, seeking their fortunes. Their father had come over to New Hampshire from Cork County, Ireland, in the late 19th century. He worked for 40 years in a shoe factory, and was fired, as the Depression was rolling in. The sons resolved to move west, and never work for anyone again. They did work on a movie lot, before opening their own stand to sell orange juice and hot dogs to the crew. For a while they owned a movie theatre, and then in 1940 they opened a traditional carhop, barbecue drive-in in San Bernardino, an old railroad town beginning to grow. The restaurant was a hit, and was written up in trade magazines of its day. But after the war, business began to change and the brothers became restive.
They noted that customers were increasingly complaining about price and the relatively slow carhop service. As families began to grow and the post-war workforce had less time for lunch, the brothers began to devise a plan. Ultimately, they would trim their menu to what customers most frequently ordered – hamburgers, fries, drinks and shakes, so they could prepare and serve it fresh and fast. They would get rid of the barbecue pit, and the complexity of cooking a broad menu. They began to design a new more efficient kitchen layout, drawing the new floor plans in chalk on their tennis court. They would use disposable paper wraps and cups, so there would be no dishwashing. To serve customers more quickly, they’d eliminate the chatty carhops in their white boots and short skirts, and convert their service windows to customer walk-ups.
In 1948, they were pioneering the future of roadside food service. But, customers were slow to accept the new system. As Dick was to say later in Entrepreneur Magazine, “Our customers told us we were losing our minds, and said they would never patronize McDonald’s if they had to wait on themselves – especially if they were only going to be served hamburgers.” But the brothers were anticipating the market, and soon business exploded. He recounted, “The customers changed from teenagers to working class families, and women and their children became the backbone of our business.”
A restaurant in Long Beach copied their layout, so the brothers got the idea to franchise. They ran a national ad in American Restaurant Magazine in 1952, describing an opportunity to get in on “the most revolutionary development in the restaurant industry during the past 50 years.” A story in the same magazine described their operation, “turning out one million hamburgers and 160 tons of French fries a year from a 192-square-foot drive-in with just 18 employees.” They took on an agent, who signed on a dozen franchisees, of which eight built restaurants. Then the agent became ill and could not continue.
Enter Ray Kroc, who was selling milk shake Multi-mixers. The brothers bought eight for their one location. Kroc had to see for himself why this restaurant needed to mix so many milkshakes at one time. He ogled the busy restaurant, and offered to grow the system, thinking mostly of how many Multi-mixers he might sell. The rest is the history of how he built a restaurant empire, not just an outlet for selling Multi-mixers. But that is another story.
Ray Kroc quickly realized that McDonald’s had to adapt to grow, and the brothers were slow to accept change and evolution in what they considered their near perfect system. The friction began, and by 1961, Kroc had completed a full buyout of the McDonald brothers. Kroc went on to build the world’s largest food service organization. Dick proudly displayed in his Bedford office a photocopy of a check for $2.7 million. If the McDonald’s had, however unlikely, been able to keep hold the ½% of sales by McDonald’s restaurants they had received prior to the buyout, their heirs might today have been bringing in hundreds of millions of dollars, a year.
Anyhow, the brothers happily and promptly retired, and soon after, Dick moved back to New Hampshire. They contemplated other new business ventures, including a Mexican restaurant concept and an economy motel chain they would have named “The Scotch Inn,” but Dick dropped the ideas when brother Mac died in 1971. In the late 90s, Dick McDonald sent me sketches he had made of two such concepts that never went forward. These and other personal correspondence, photos and materials I’ve accumulated relating to Dick McDonald will one day go to the McDonald’s Golden Archives, the company’s historical branch, which I named and which reported to me until my retirement.
The correspondence with Dick McDonald I’ve reviewed picks up in the 1980s. In the intervening years, Ray Kroc had little to do with the McDonald brothers, as they had parted on bad terms. In 1983, Dick wrote to Fred Turner, who had been Ray Kroc’s right hand man, and by then was heading up the company, enclosing a copy of his 1952 ad. In his note to Fred he said, “This ad was probably the opening shot that started the entire fast food business. We received letters and telegrams from all over the country asking for more information.”
Then in early 1984, Ray Kroc died. His passing was extensively covered in the press. A memorial ad, in fact drafted by me several years earlier when Kroc became quite ill, recognized Kroc as the founder of McDonald’s Corporation, which he was. However when Dick McDonald saw the memorial ad run in his hometown newspaper by the local McDonald’s franchisees, he was miffed, as the ad had not acknowledged the early pioneering of the McDonald brothers. He did not understand that it was a memorial ad to the memory of Ray Kroc, and wrote to Fred Turner, saying “I look back at the tremendous amount of time and effort Mac and I put into McDonald’s trying to get it off the ground, and then I read in my home town paper Ray Kroc started the whole thing, that is more than I can take. In view of the situation, I do not want any further relations with your company.” He had not noted that an article, which ran next to the ad in the same paper, put McDonald’s history into a more complete context.
A few weeks later, the Manchester Union Leader newspaper, which had interviewed Dick announced, “Reports that the founder of the McDonald’s fast food chain has died were greatly exaggerated, as Mark Twain might have said.” The article went on, “yes, multimillionaire McDonald’s owner Ray Kroc died last weekend. Ray Kroc was not – as some reports called him – the founder.” Later in the article, Dick conceded that reports that described Kroc as the founder were the product of a McDonald’s publicity agent. “Ray Kroc never claimed to be the founder,” he asserted. Years later, Al Golin, Chairman of Golin/Harris, McDonald’s long-time PR firm, told me that the company was careful with the distinction. Al pointed out that Ray Kroc’s reputation as the Henry Ford of the fast food industry often led others to characterize him as the founder of McDonald’s, rather than the founder of the Corporation that bore McDonald’s name.
Once asked why he hadn’t changed the name of the restaurants to Kroc’s, Ray Kroc enjoined, “Who’d want to go to a restaurant called Kroc’s? McDonald’s is an All-American name.” Dick and Mac were themselves pleasantly surprised when the franchisee of the second McDonald’s, located in Phoenix, decided to retain their name on his road sign, which wasn’t required by his contract.
Dick never quite got used to people being confused about his identity. After all, it was Kroc who made McDonald a household name. Dick liked to tell the story of his grandson asking a neighbor’s kids if they’d like to meet the man who started McDonald’s. When he met the children, Dick said, “They had the most disappointed look in their eyes I had ever seen. They thought they were going to meet the clown, Ronald McDonald.”
In March of that year, Fred Turner wrote an open letter, widely distributed through the McDonald’s system, explaining in detail just what the early contributions of the McDonald’s brothers had been to the business. In his letter, he wrote, “Dick and Mac founded the original McDonald’s system. Ray Kroc founded the Corporation which developed, serviced and operated the McDonald’s system.”
But clearly, Dick McDonald’s well-justified New England pride occasionally slipped into bouts of hubris. In September, 1984, Dick was again on the warpath, when a news item appeared on CNN Business indicating that McDonald’s was planning to tear down an obsolete restaurant in Des Plaines, Illinois that was described in the story as the first McDonald’s. In fact, it had been the first McDonald’s that Ray Kroc opened in 1955, after linking up with the McDonald brothers. Fast food fans had wanted to give it museum status as the first, which had attracted the press. An angry McDonald wrote Fred Turner, exclaiming, “This will be the last letter you will ever receive from me.” Turner quickly clarified the situation in the Chicago Tribune’s INC. column, saying, “It wasn’t No. 1 anyhow. The original McDonald’s was in California. The one in Des Plaines, which became the first this side of the Rockies, has gone through too much change to be saved for its historic significance.”
Ken Props, an early franchising executive with the corporation, reached out to McDonald, telling him the company had reversed its decision, and would restore the Des Plaines restaurant, located not far from company headquarters, to its original 1955 red and white tile, neon-lit glory. And with signage it would clearly indicate it was not the very first McDonald’s.
Later in 1984, Dick Starmann, who headed communications for McDonald’s, had developed an idea that would begin the healing with Dick McDonald. He and Ken Props visited Dick to discuss it with him. The company was coming up on the milestone of serving its 50 billionth hamburger, as determined by an algorithm used to update the “Billions Served” road signs outside most McDonald’s restaurants. The idea was that McDonald’s USA President Ed Rensi would personally grill the 50 billionth hamburger, a Quarter Pounder, using a symbolic golden spatula. This unique press event would take place in a hotel ballroom in New York City. Ed would then serve the 50 billionth burger to the man who had grilled the first one, Dick McDonald.
Dick, who had always considered himself the marketing wiz of the brothers, while Mac was the restaurant operations guru, loved the idea. Dick thought it was inspired to set up a McDonald’s grill in a hotel ballroom for the press, writing, “This will probably be the first time millions of people have actually seen a McDonald’s hamburger prepared.” The media event was staged as planned, with Dick McDonald as the star, and it received worldwide publicity. Dick later wrote Ed Rensi, to say the burgers sold sign, “was a gimmick my brother and I instituted way back in 1950. Customers seemed to get a kick watching the numbers change. We had a simulated thermometer painted on one of the windows and as the numbers grew our painter would up the count until we hit one million, when he painted an explosion at the top of the sign.” By the way, when McDonald’s signs hit the “100 Billion Sold” record some years later, we stopped counting, at least publically.
The 50 billionth hamburger, minus one bite, was sealed into a silver-plated replica of a McDonald’s hamburger and presented to Dick. When I spotted it on his home desk on a visit to his house several years later, he told me the story of his grandson playing with it, and one day accidentally opening it. The boy showed Dick the shriveled remnant of that record-setting hamburger, and promptly threw it away.
In late December 1984, Dick Starmann wrote McDonald saying, “Well – I’ve finally been able to confirm that everyone on the communications department staff here in Oak Brook knows of McDonald’s early history and your pivotal and significant contributions to that story.” He attached signed and notarized affidavits from every member of his department attesting to the fact that they knew the real story. All was forgiven, for now.
I had been a public relations consultant to McDonald’s through much of the 1970s, and then in early 1985, I joined the company staff, heading corporate communications. One of the first extra assignments given me by Dick Starmann, was to represent the company in building the budding new relationship with Dick McDonald. Soon thereafter I visited McDonald at his home, and we began a regular correspondence by letter and phone. I kept him updated on company news, sending him copies of publications and articles and videos. He loved the milestones of international growth, and was particularly impressed with the opening of the Russian market in Moscow and later, in China. He avidly followed new products, and often visited “his” local McDonald’s in Bedford, owned by franchisee Ron Evans.
As for Dick’s own menu preferences, he did not consider himself much of a hamburger man, though he thought McDonald’s had done a good job using lean beef and preparing its hamburgers with consistency through the years. Personally he had long preferred to eat hot dogs. One day, at the Bedford McDonald’s I noticed him ordering a McChicken sandwich before a media interview, which he unflinchingly admitted was his favorite McDonald’s product to date.
Dick seemed to be set off when beset by people who needled him about his low profile with McDonald’s. He wrote Fred Turner in 1986, complaining that a friend from San Bernardino had called him, saying he had decided to drive to Oak Brook while in Chicago, to see McDonald’s head offices. Dick said, “He told me he saw streets named after officials but nothing pertaining to the McDonald’s Brothers. He said he even saw a street named after the clown, so my rating must be even lower than the clown’s.” Turner sardonically wrote back, “Dick: Got your note and apparently your “friend” missed one of the street signs, as he missed the fact that the Home Office at the Plaza is located on McDonald’s Drive. Please ask him where the hell he thinks Ronald got his last name. Warm regards, Fred.”
Another milestone of excitement and recognition for Dick came about in 1987, crowning several years of effort. The event benefitted both his reputation and the place of the company in the history of a mobile America. The Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village, Michigan, is a historic icon of the automobile industry and of American industry in the 20th century. It not only features Ford’s history, but the history of the entire automotive industry, and displays hundreds of historic cars of all brands, locomotives, Thomas Edison’s original laboratories and so on. But the structures that house the cars and trains were antiquated themselves. Looking like a bleak indoor car lot, row upon row of largely black autos seemed to go on forever. Determined to refurbish the place, museum staff envisioned a Midwest Smithsonian, with the auto as the star, creatively displayed in context with dioramas of the roadside culture they had spawned. They had contacted me, seeking assistance in obtaining and rebuilding a 50s era McDonald’s inside the museum, along with full scale antique gas stations, diners, motel rooms, road signs and other such mementos of time past.
Unfortunately, we found that by then almost all of the early red and white tile drive-in McDonald’s had been replaced by the then current mansard roof building designs, and that the few remaining red and whites were either too modified to represent the brand or would be too expensive to tear down and move. But our luck was to change. Right in the Detroit market, we learned that a franchisee was about to replace a 50s era giant road sign, illuminated with pink and white neon and with an animated Speedee chef character, which was an early symbol of McDonald’s fast service. If we wanted it, we could have it, said franchisee Dan Shimel, if we could shoulder the expense of moving it, right away. In some hurried communications with the Ford Museum they agreed it would be a perfect giant artifact for inside the entrance to their new display building. I was able to put together the funding, with the help of McDonald’s Detroit regional office, and the sign was moved to the museum for restoration and installation.
The big reopening of the Ford Museum, and its “Automobile in American Life” exhibit hall was scheduled for 1987, and it was to be a national media blow out, with a gala black tie opening fund-raising event attended by the automotive elite. William Clay Ford was to be the event chairman, and McDonald’s CEO was to among the special guests. Then we thought, wait, this historic event, all about roadside history, would be perfect for Dick McDonald, so Fred Turner agreed and Dick was invited to represent the company. We decided to make it memorable for him, which led to a lot of positive publicity.
We worked out the program carefully with the Ford people. The grand opening moment in the vast museum, that mimicked the floor plan of Henry Ford’s first factory, would be the lighting of the giant restored McDonald’s road sign inside the museum’s entrance. As veteran Chicago auto writer Jim Mateja would write in the Tribune, “As you walk in the door, the McDonald’s sign set the tone.” Beneath the sign is a classic 1955 Chevy convertible and alongside it, the recreation of a room in the first Holiday Inn.
At the opening, on the podium beneath the sign would stand Bill Ford, Dick McDonald and Kemmons Wilson, founder of Holiday Inn. The sign would be lighted by the three pulling a large switch that was used by Thomas Edison to illuminate his first light bulb. They did, and as the McDonald’s sign sprang to life again, the thousand-plus black tie crowd roared its approval, as the cameras flashed and the videotape rolled. Dick McDonald was in the headlines, and in seventh heaven. His wife Dot stood next to me, tears rolling down her cheeks. The event had been filled with glamorous receptions and a dinner in Dick’s honor at one of his favorite old haunts, the London Chop House. My associate Susan McBride, who still heads internal communication for McDonald’s, was there to help coordinate all the arrangements and make sure everyone in the McDonald’s system knew about this historic event and Dick’s role in it.
Dick wrote Fred Turner after the event, saying he found Bill Ford “very pleasant” and “he told me he is an avid customer of McDonald’s. It was a memorable evening for Dorothy and me,” and he concluded warmly, saying, “Fred, I would like to quietly slip into Oak Brook to see you and hash over the old days.” He wrote Vicki and me saying, “Chuck, congratulations on the fantastic way you handled the entire affair.” A record 1.3 million visitors would tour the new museum in the next year. Indeed, we were now on a roll.
The next year, following rounds of print and TV media interviews at his home back in Bedford, was our milestone Breakfast with Mr. McDonald at our Worldwide Communications Conference. We thanked him for being “a master storyteller.” He wrote back saying, “We are truly grateful for the manner in which we were treated by everyone at the Conference. In fact, we were overwhelmed.”
McDonald’s opened its 10,000th restaurant in late 1988, just outside of Washington, D.C. Dick was unable to attend, but in Fred Turner’s dedication of that milestone location, he opened his remarks, saying, “Mac and Dick McDonald did the original design, Ray Kroc provided the foundation.” In fact, Dick McDonald had designed the original arches, to give his modest California store some height and to make it visible from the street. His building design evolved into the company’s current logo.
In 1988, my associate Chuck Rubner and I had another idea for Dick. We had decided that the company’s annual report to shareholders would feature a story about the company’s guiding principles as its theme. Those principles include a dedication to quality, service, cleanliness and value. We invited people we thought could well address each tenet to write short essays for the report. Columnist George Will wrote on quality. Stanley Marcus, of department store fame, wrote on customer service, Fred Rogers of PBS fame, wrote on cleanliness, and we invited Dick McDonald to write about value. We offered each writer a $2500 donation in their name to a children’s charity of their choice. Dick selected Ronald McDonald House Charities, a cause he would support many times over the years with personal contributions.
Dick’s page on value appeared in the annual report, along with his photo and a short story about the brother’s pioneering work. He wrote of their early commitment to “highest quality food at low prices, including 15-cent hamburgers, 10-cent fries and 10-cent Cokes. When I go to McDonald’s today,” he said, “and factor in the inflation, McDonald’s still gives that kind of value,” he concluded. Dick and Dot were special guests at the stockholder’s meeting in Oak Brook in 1988. He sat in on the Board meeting, and was introduced to the shareholders, where he spoke briefly. Dick, then 79, wrote of enjoying “all the boys and girls at the meeting,” and liked touring the headquarters campus, which he described as “resort like.”
In 1990, Dick wrote us on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of when he and Mac opened their first McDonald’s, the barbecue, carhop version, in 1940. He recalled trying to get a contractor to put up a building without any collateral. “The first day we opened, I remember my brother saying he hoped the first couple of customers didn’t want to pay with 20 dollar bills, or we would have been out of business, we were so short of cash. Many years later I recall Harry Sonneborn, the first McDonald’s president, making the remark that nothing grows without the first seed and that the McDonald brothers planted that first seed,” Dick concluded. “I never forget that remark by Harry as it made me feel that the brothers did have some role in the success that followed.”
But in 1991, storm clouds were brewing again. The year opened with a nice letter from Dick, in February, indicating, “We are still kicking back here. No big news to tell. All conversation is about the war in the Persian Gulf.” He commented that he had liked the videotape of the Moscow opening the previous year, as he liked to show these to his friends and grandsons. He wondered if the China opening got a “big play.” I replied that the Shenzhen restaurant indeed had, nearly breaking the Moscow opening day record with a volume of 30 thousand customers, and I forwarded him a video of it that I’d just received from Jim Cantalupo, President of the International division. I told Dick I’d just heard he’d be a special guest at an area McDonald’s anniversary celebration. I mentioned that we’d just been skiing with a friend and pioneering Chicago area McDonald’s franchise owner, Ken Norgan. Dick always liked to hear stories about interesting travel.
All hell broke loose in August, when I heard from a Wall Street Journal reporter who called for background information on Dick. She indicated she’d be doing an interview with him for a historical feature profile that would appear in a few weeks. Dick and I had developed a mutual system in which if either of us were contacted by the media regarding his history with McDonald’s, we would talk and coordinate. We were on the same page now, or so I thought, as we had agreed there should be no surprises. I mentioned to Dick that I’d be happy to come out to Manchester, where the interview was scheduled at a McDonald’s restaurant, to help with any questions on the company. The reporter soon called me back to say she did not want me at the interview, and she’d handle everything with Dick. I called Dick after the interview and he said it was all very positive and he’d answered the usual questions about the early days. He said there were no “tough” questions. Despite his feedback, I had a hunch and notified top management of my concern.
On August 15, the time bomb went off, with a full front page center column, 24 paragraph feature story in the Journal under the headline, “McDonald’s Pickle: He Began Fast Food But Gets No Credit.” The subhead called out, “History According to Kroc Irks Dick McDonald, Who Rid the World of Carhops.” The crux of the article was that Dick had just received a McDonald’s house organ the preceding week that touted the company’s annual “Founder’s Day” tribute to Ray Kroc. The reporter said Dick “loathes this annual rite, usually tied to a splashy nationwide television ad campaign.” Dick was quoted saying, “It really burns the hell out of me.” Later in the story, McDonald said, “Up until the time we sold, there was no mention of Kroc being the founder. If we had heard about it, he would have been back selling milk shake machines.” Now, he said, the company history begins in 1955, “and everything before that is wiped out.”
Ouch! We thought we’d cleared the air on that with Dick, over and over again. Even the Journal, which had pushed him on the founder issue, gave the company some grudging credit. They printed, “McDonald’s Corp hasn’t entirely expunged the McDonald’s bothers from company lore. Charles Ebeling, director of communications, calls Mr. McDonald ‘the pioneer – part of our living history’. Mr. Ebeling also cites all the ceremonial occasions to which Mr. McDonald has been invited, such as one marking the sale of the 50 billionth burger. And he provides company histories that mention Mr. Kroc’s fascination with what the McDonald’s brothers were cooking up. In Kroc’s words: ‘I thought I’d go see for myself, So I booked my 52-year-old bones onto a red-eye special and flew west to meet my future.’ “The article went on, “Still, Mr. Ebeling stresses, ‘Ray Kroc was the founder of the corporation, the guy who grew the business.’ Conceding an irony that still irks Mr. McDonald, he adds: ‘Ray Kroc doesn’t have his name on the door. Yet Dick McDonald – whose name is a household word – well, many people don’t realize there is a real McDonald.’ “
“Whose fault is that?” the Journal asks. “Mr. McDonald wonders,” they went on. I briefly wondered about my job security. A letter from a friend two days later said, “Chuck: Congratulations on making the front page of the Journal. After years and years of reading that newspaper, I can finally say I know someone who made the front page.” I wasn’t amused.
There were different strategies put forth to respond to the Journal story, but the more direct ones were rejected by the company. Al Golin, head of McDonald’s PR firm, had drafted a passionate defense of Kroc as a letter to the editor. It concluded, “Dick McDonald made the decision to sell his company at a time when, by his own admission, he didn’t have the desire or ambition to expand any further. I don’t think anyone at McDonald’s would diminish Dick’s original concept – and I hope he can sit back and enjoy the satisfaction of having his name a household word throughout the world. When a baby is left on a doorstep of a home – the true father is the one who raised and educated that baby to maturity. The McDonald’s Restaurant’s father is Ray Kroc.” I had lunch with Al recently, and he said he withdrew the letter before it could be published, out of empathy for Dick McDonald.
The same day, Fred Turner got a long letter from Dick, who wrote, “After the Journal article came out, my phone never stopped ringing with calls from all over the country. I have always tried to be courteous to everyone but I’m 82 years old and this is too much. After I talked with Chuck Ebeling the following day, I took my phone off the hook. Chuck was quite concerned that the media would try to start a controversy between the company and me.”
I had good reason to be concerned, and so did McDonald, because the media onslaught was on. As the letter to Turner continued, Dick worked up his pride, saying, and “My 2 grandsons are starting to have arguments with other students about who was the real founder of McDonald’s. They are just starting high school, and I would be a lousy grandfather if I let that happen. Fred, I will spend whatever amount of money necessary to prove to the public that the McDonald brothers, not Ray Kroc, were the real founders of McDonald’s. P.S. This will be the first time the kids have seen this old, stubborn Irishman in action and I will try to make them proud of me.”
A week later, he wrote again, describing how several McDonald’s franchisees had called him, defending the contributions of Ray Kroc to their success. He complained about how few franchisees had ever called or written to him.
Dick had a special place in his heart for two McDonald’s people who treated him royally. One was regional VP Jeff Schwartz of Phoenix, who had come east to visit him in Bedford. Dick and Dot loved to vacation at the Arizona Biltmore. Jeff picked them up there one day, and took them to the office, where a hundred employees and franchises were gathered to surprise and fete them. Another was Sam Joseph, a long-time executive in McDonald’s Toronto office, who hosted the McDonald’s many times at their offices and at his home, and who introduced them to Canadian McDonald’s President George Cohon, whom also befriended him.
The McDonald’s David and Goliath story was catnip for the news media. Dick’s hometown paper, the Union Leader, ran an empathetic story under a large photo of Dick leaning on the Golden Arches, with the headline, “McDonald’s namesake – Neither a Clown Nor a Kroc.” Dick wrote me in November saying, “received 3 phone calls from CNN for an interview. They wanted me to come to New York. They seemed miffed when I said they’d have to come to New Hampshire, informing me this would be an opportunity to be heard all over the world. At my age of 82, being heard on CNN is not high on my list of priorities.”
Fred Turner called me up to his office one day, saying he wanted to phone Dick McDonald and discuss the article and the letter and the issues. It started out politely enough, but Fred grew frustrated with Dick’s continuing insistence on the founder issue. Too may people were urging him to come out from Ray Kroc’s shadow. It soon turned into a yelling match on the speakerphone, and I watched as the admin staff bailed out of the open-office executive area. The next day, Fred called me back, and said his wife Patty had been at him all night for exploding on the elderly man. Fred said to me, “Just sit here and listen while I call him back to apologize.” I did, and he did.
A new letter soon arrived in Fred’s inbox. Dick said, “First of all I deeply regret our discussion ended up in a bad shouting match. After years of knowing me, I am sure you are aware that I do have a short fuse. However, Fred, you are not a milk toast either. Dot has been working on me for years but I am afraid I am not 100% yet. There is one thing I want you to know. Whatever arguments we may have, I have always had a tremendous amount of respect for you and will continue to have.”
The media coverage of the falling-out went on for weeks, and gave Dick McDonald the public platform to tell his version of the McDonald’s story he’d been wanting for years. When the company celebrated its Founder’s Day in 1991, there was a new message, and a new TV commercial. A Reuters News report summed it up thusly — “In television ads that hit the airwaves Thursday, McDonald’s Corp. paid tribute to the chain’s original founders, one of whom complained about being ignored in the past. The ads marking the firm’s annual “founder’s day” promotions feature employees holding candles while a voice intones ‘It began as a spark from Dick and Mac McDonald and with the guiding light of Ray Kroc it became a flame.’ ” Chicago’s Leo Burnett ad agency created that wound-healing commercial.
A TV program out of Boston, one of dozens that covered the story, interviewed Dick. The program’s host began with this succinct background, “Every would-be entrepreneur in America knows the story of Ray Kroc, probably by heart. His was one of the greatest American success stories, the man who found the pot of gold at the end of the golden arches. But, contrary to what everyone thinks, it was not Ray Kroc who cooked up McDonald’s. In the beginning, it was the idea of two brothers named Dick and Mac, the true inventors of fast food.”
Charles Osgood, in his Osgood File network radio report, had this to say, “His name is on 12, 141 fast food places — the ones with the golden arches. It was Richard McDonald who first sketched those arches for the place he and his brother ran in San Bernardino, California. They were on to something, to say the least. Kroc and the McDonald brothers had a falling out. They acknowledged that Kroc built the empire but resented that he called himself the founder of McDonald’s. With both Kroc and Mac McDonald dead, now the company in its ads credits both the brothers and Kroc. They plan to erect a plaque at the sight of the first McDonald’s in San Bernardino. That makes Richard feel better about everything.”
A plaque indeed! For quite a while I had been in touch with a community organization called the San Bernardino Light Opera Company. They put on semi-professional plays and musicals at the downtown theatre, and owned a building around the corner they used as a wardrobe center on the sight of Dick and Mac McDonald’s original drive-in restaurant. The restaurant was long gone, but the base of the old road sign was there. Fred Turner had been interested in trying to find the red and white tiles from the original store, to have for some possible future historic reconstruction, and had regional manager Bill Marble and his staff doing detective work to track them down.
Along the way, a new idea emerged. We would help the Light Opera Company restore the road sign, identifying it as the location of the Light Opera, but also with a disk at the top that said, “Historic Site of the Original McDonald’s.” We would place and dedicate a large brass plaque at the base of the sign, and it would say, under the original McDonald’s Speedee logo, “Dick and Mac McDonald opened the world’s first McDonald’s Self-Service, Drive-In Restaurant on this site in San Bernardino, California, December, 1948. They previously operated a successful Drive-In barbecue Restaurant with Carhop Service on this site from 1940 to 1948.”
Our special guests for the dedication on January 17, 1992, would be none other than Dick and Dot McDonald, their son Gale French and the two grandsons. We worked with city officials and the Light Opera Company to make it a gala. Local print ads invited the public. Dick McDonald would receive the keys to the city from the mayor at the unveiling, and there would be speeches from the McDonald’s Regional VP, Bill Marble, and other officials. Dick, Dot and the grand children would cut the ribbon with Ronald McDonald as the TV cameras rolled. There was a special performance of the Light Opera in Dick’s honor the night before, and a special reception for his old carhops and former employees and suppliers after the dedication. One letter came in from a 75-year old Carnation Ice Cream employee who had been on loan to the McDonald brothers for their original opening night. He wrote, “My boss was also there and furnished a couple of quarts of bourbon (hidden in the store room) which we nipped on during the evening. Frankly, as I remember, the customer traffic was not booming, but it was fun.”
More than 400 people turned out for the rededication event. At the opening, Dick said, “This is where Mac and I started it all, and it’s like coming home for me.” Bill Marble added, “Dick and Mac and Ray were all founders, and McDonald’s success today is rooted in the work of all three.”
The San Bernardino Sun newspaper led with the headline, “McDonald Got a Break Today, “and reported, “The oldest dispute haunting the world’s largest hamburger chain was settled here Friday when the McDonald’s Corporation recognized 1398 N. E Street as its birthplace. Richard McDonald, the surviving founder of the fast-food chain, and officials of the Oak Brook, Illinois based company declared the controversy over with the unveiling of a plaque set in concrete. ‘I think it’s fantastic’, Mr. McDonald said, ’I’m so appreciative of the company for doing this.’ ” A note I received from Dick afterwards said, “All of us had a wonderful time. For the kids, it was the trip of a lifetime.”
That was the end of our trials and tribulations over who had started McDonald’s. But it was not the end of the fun with and for Dick McDonald. He played an important role in a Smithsonian World PBS special called “A Moveable Feast,” produced by Linda Ellerbee and written and narrated by Lloyd Dobyns. It featured a review of the nation’s dining traditions, ranging from Fred Harvey and his eateries along the Santa Fe Railroad, to New York’s 21 Club and California’s Chez Panise, along with the Father of Fast Food. I accompanied Dick to the premiere at the Smithsonian Castle in Washington DC. We visited Dick’s senator and toured Congress, dining on Navy bean soup at the Senate dining room, where senators and their aides besieged Dick for autographs.
I visited Dick in Bedford in 1994. A major reconstruction had just been completed at the Manchester Airport, and Dick insisted on meeting us on arrival, although he was in a frail condition. He had a neighbor drive and as I walked into the main lobby, and glanced over to the new, state-of-the-art McDonald’s restaurant there, I noticed a tall, gray figure in a trench-coat, slightly stooped, wandering through, and glancing up at the multi-colored neon signage. He looked very out of place, until he turned in my direction, and said, “Hello Chuck.” Indeed, it was Dick McDonald.
In 1995, Dick wrote to McDonald’s Chairman/CEO and fellow Irishman Mike Quinlan, commenting, “It’s amazing how the years pass. I am now 86 years old but fortunately in good health. It is hard to kill the Irish. I vividly recall the days of the old LaSalle-Wacker headquarters building. One day Mac and I were having a meeting there with Ray and Harry. I remember Ray predicting that some day there would be more than 500 McDonald’s units. Give my best to the gang.” Today, in 2009, there are more than 32,000 McDonald’s around the globe.
Richard Threlkeld of CBS News drove up to New Hampshire to do a segment with Dick. Threlkeld wrote him afterwards to say, “I’m still dining out on the story you told about after you let the carhops go and shifted to self-service, you had the employees park in the customer’s slots to make the place look busy.”
The next year, Dick McDonald wrote to congratulate the company on the launch of the ill-fated Arch Deluxe sandwich in a gala at the Radio City Music Hall. “The introduction was really spectacular. Please tell Mike and Ed they did a fine job…and also looked very dapper.”
David Halberstam, interviewed Dick at his home for his book, “The Fifties.” Dick enjoyed being a critic, chiding Halberstam for characterizing him and his brother as failures prior to going to California. He pointed out that he was “only 17 when I went to California, so I must have been 15 or 16 during the ‘failed’ ventures on page 155 in your book.” In his letter to me about the book, Dick said, “Halberstam is probably correct when he states the McDonald Brothers floundered a lot. I am still floundering but manage to flounder to the bank once in a while.” Dick and Fred Turner appeared in the TV series based on the book, in a segment called “The Road to the Sixties.”
Asked what most pleased him about what McDonald’s had become, Dick replied, “What I’m most proud of is that McDonald’s must employ millions of youngsters, and I’ll bet it’s kept a lot of them out of trouble.”
Dick wrote me in 1996 to tell of the time the Carnation Company brought President Nixon’s brother by to see their new self-service concept in San Bernardino, as he was considering a franchise. He seemed tickled to recount that Nixon was not impressed, saying that people wanted car service and thought the idea had no merit.
In 1997, Dick wrote a note to McDonald’s Customer Relations supervisor, Beth Peterson, thanking her for sending along some Beanie Babies for his niece, which he had asked me about. He wrote, “It was great of Chuck to come to my rescue, but that is the way he is. P.S. I’m sure you know that Dick Starmann and Chuck have been two of my closest friends for many years.” I was touched by his comments when Beth gave me the note.
In June of 1998, Dick mailed me drawings he’d had commissioned of two fanciful restaurant concepts he’d long had in mind. He commented that back in San Bernardino he and Mac had many requests for tacos and other Mexican fare, but didn’t do so because of their limited menu concept. His Mexican concept was the Gold Sombrero restaurant, and his other idea was The Giant Orange, designed to serve pitchers of fresh orange juice to tourists leaving the Mohave Desert. Dick said Dot’s reaction to his ideas was that he drink a glass of warm milk and take a nap.
Just a month later, Dick passed away quietly. I had drafted his obituary a few years earlier, and it now appeared prominently around the world. He would have liked that.
Dick liked to send me jokes and cartoons about McDonald’s. One I still have shows two angels looking up at giant Golden Arches in the clouds, saying, “I always thought the heavenly gates would be pearly, not golden.”
I don’t know the whole story about his wishes. He had no funeral. However, in researching this story, I ran across a website I’d never known, called findagrave.com. And there he is, alongside Dot, in a mausoleum in Calvary Cemetery in Manchester, and above their names and dates, in large dignified script against a mahogany background, are the words, “Founder of McDonald’s,” next to a bright rendering of the Golden Arches.
On a hunch, I searched the same website for Ray Kroc, and found a photo of his grave marker in California, where the inscription simply reads, “Ray A. Kroc, 1902-1984.”
In the year 2000, Time and CBS cooperated in producing a book on, “the 100 men and women who shaped the last one hundred years.” Chef Jacques Pepin interviewed me for the profile of Ray Kroc. He concluded his piece, writing, “Like many of America’s great entrepreneurs, Kroc was not a creator…for he had the cunning ability to grasp a concept with all its complexities and implement it in the best possible way. And that’s as American as a cheeseburger.”
As Kroc liked to say, “None of us is as good as all of us.”
Rest in piece, Mr. Kroc — and Mr. McDonald.
Chuck Ebeling is a public relations man who invested more than half of his career, some 22 years, managing the reputation of McDonald’s Corporation. He held virtually every job in directing internal and external communications for McDonald’s, first with their long-time public relations agency, Golin/Harris Communications, and then as director of corporate communications with the corporation. He retired on the cusp of the Millennium as a vice president and chief spokesperson for McDonald’s.