Monday, 24 April 2017

The Founder (4½ Stars)

I'm a naive person. I've always believed that the fast food chain McDonald's was founded by Ronald McDonald. I didn't think that he really looked like a clown, but I assumed that it was his real name. "The Founder" has educated me.

In 1954 Ray Kroc, a moderately successful travelling salesman, discovered a hamburger restaurant in San Bernadino, California. It was like nothing he had ever seen before. The queue to be served was long, but it moved fast. He received his hamburger so fast after ordering it that he thought a mistake had been made. The restaurant was called McDonald's, run by the brothers Dick and Mac McDonald. They were committed to running a successful business without sacrificing quality. Their secret was speed, possible by streamlining the restaurant. Rather than offer a large menu like other restaurants, they only sold three items: a hamburger, french fries and a milkshake. These could be cooked in advance, based on the length of the queue, because they knew that everyone would order the same thing.

Ray decided to invest in the company. The brothers were happy running a single restaurant, but he saw the possibility of creating a chain of identical restaurants throughout the USA. At first he was a junior partner in the operation, required to confirm all business deals with the McDonald brothers. He grew increasingly impatient with them because they insisted on quality before profit, and the big showdown came when he wanted to replace the real ice cream in the milk shakes with powder to cut down on refrigeration costs.

Ray Kroc wasn't a nice person. He was enterprising and charismatic, but I suspect that the film glosses over his character faults. His deal to buy the company in 1961 must go down in history as one of the biggest con tricks ever. He offered the brothers $2.7 million plus 1% of the profits in perpetuity. Ray said that the 1% couldn't be included in the contract because of resistance from his financial backers, but he was a man of his word and would pay them. He wasn't a man of his word. He never paid a single cent from the profits, defrauding the brothers out of at least $100 million.

The brothers insisted that their original restaurant was exempt from the deal and would remain their property. Ray grudgingly accepted, but he didn't take his defeat lying down. Immediately afterwards he served them a legal notice that they were no longer allowed to call their restaurant McDonald's. He opened up a McDonald's directly opposite their restaurant, and within two years they went out of business. That was unnecessarily cruel.

After watching the film I decided to go to the nearest McDonald's to see if the company still has the magic. Evidently not. The first McDonald's I went to was a so-called McDonald's Café in the pedestrian zone without any seats. The benches near the café were all full, occupied by rowdy semi-drunk men, because there had been an evening football match. So I walked to the next McDonald's. There were four cash registers, but only two were manned. There were six people in the queue ahead of me. The waiting time to be served was 5 minutes 50 seconds. The time required to receive my food (shown above) was 4 minutes 43 seconds. The milk shake was the fastest. Then the fries. The longest wait was for the hamburger. The days of the 30 second hamburger are long gone.

What's the problem? I think that it's because McDonald's has departed from its initial business model as devised by the McDonald brothers: one burger, one size fries, one milk shake. Now there's a menu, with different burgers to choose from. A restaurant can't be expected to keep all the different burgers pre-cooked and wrapped, so there's a delay with the orders.

As for the quality, when Ray Kroc first visited the restaurant he told Mac McDonald it was the best hamburger he'd ever tasted. What I ate tonight wasn't bad, but it wasn't anything special either. Maybe the hamburgers sold by the original 1950's McDonald's restaurant really were something special, but the Krocburger that I ate today wasn't. Burger King's flame-grilled burgers taste better, and I've tasted even better burgers at small, privately owned restaurants.

My overall impression of the film is very positive. Michael Keaton is an incredible actor. By the end of the film I felt that I knew Ray Kroc inside out. I even liked him, despite all his faults. The film shows a typical American success story. The way they tell it is that anyone can succeed if he works hard and perseveres. That's only half the story, as the film shows. In America anyone can succeed if he works hard, perseveres and is cruel enough to trample his competitors underfoot.

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