Released 2016. Director: John Lee Hancock
I'M SURE YOU KNOW BUT I'LL SAY IT ANYWAY. McDONALD'S WAS NOT founded by Ronald McDonald. So who did? Have you heard of Ray Kroc? Didn’t think so.
The Founder, as written by Robert Siegel, recognises Ray Kroc as the founder of McDonald’s. Kroc did not come up with the name because it wasn’t his. Kroc also didn’t invent the McDonald’s method but what he did was take somebody else’s innovative idea and turned it into his empire. Under the golden arches the McDonald brothers find a nugget but Ray finds a gold mine.
As the movie tells us (“based on a true story” – but I advise you bring your own pinch of salt), Ray is a milkshake-mixer salesman who comes across a busy family eatery called McDonald’s in San Bernardino in 1954. The queue is long but it moves fast. Burgers appear faster than Kroc has ever seen or anyone has encountered at any drive-in, as speed of service has always been a major issue in those days. Ray is puzzled; there’s no cutlery or seating. Food comes wrapped in a paper bag to be discarded afterwards. Remember it's 1954 and this is all new.
Ray is so intrigued he makes friends with the owners, the McDonald brothers named Dick and Mac (played by Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch as honourable, trusting, family-oriented businessmen). The brothers give Ray an enthusiastic guided tour of their kitchen and show him the revolutionary assembly line production method, where employees are trained to follow a strict formula (two pickles!) and memorise every step of the build in a regimental work ethic to maintain consistency of output.
Dick and Mac explain they tried turning McDonald’s into a franchise but failed when they could not exert quality control. Ray knows a good thing when he sees one and signs on to be a partner.
The brothers are reluctant but decide to give it a go anyway, on the condition that any change Ray implements must first be approved by them. From his first restaurant in Illinois, half a continent away from the brothers, Ray quickly expands, selling franchise investments starting with his friends in the country club, then to middle-income suburbanites.
Despite the expansion, money isn’t rolling in. Profit margin is so slim Ray is facing foreclosure on his home. While Dick and Mac are satisfied with running their single busy restaurant, Ray works on new ideas to cut operational and food costs. What about powdered milkshake, just add water! The brothers are horrified. “Where’s the milk?” asks the incredulous Dick. By changing this one menu item, each restaurant saves an astronomical amount on electricity because they no longer need to store tubs and tubs of ice-cream in the freezer.
Whilst this one example shows how Ray’s idea (which originated from Joan Smith, who would become Ray’s second wife) goes completely against the brothers’ idea of the kind of food they serve, it tells us two things.
First, the future of fast-food for the masses has truly arrived and Ray is in the driver’s seat. Two, the McDonald brothers are being left behind because they have stopped evolving their business model. Just like another time they refuse another of Ray’s idea to have Coca-Cola sponsor their menu boards because they don’t want to advertise the brand.
But what really propels Ray’s business plan is acquiring the land on which McDonald’s restaurants are built, an idea by Harry Sonneborn who becomes his associate. The brothers, already aghast at powdered milkshake and taken aback by the audacity of Ray to implement new ideas behind their backs, try to curtail Ray to no avail. Mac has a heart-attack and Ray visits with a blank check to buy out the brothers.
Eventually the brothers sign away their name for $2.7 million, with a handshake that they’ll receive 1% of royalty. The transfer is complete and McDonald’s begins its stratospheric rise over the next few decades spreading all over the globe to become the world’s largest chain of fast-food restaurants for a long time (until it’s dethroned by a certain sandwich brand).
McDonald’s owes its massive success to Ray Kroc. The brothers’ service model of speed and simplicity needed someone with vision and the balls to take enough risks, and not averse to muscling with ruthlessness. Although Ray is portrayed by Michael Keaton as a driven, focused, hardworking and persistent entrepreneur, the movie doesn’t laud him as a hero. Neither does he come across a villain even though he’s a neglectful husband who doesn’t (or seems interested to want to) understand his unhappy wife, played by a suitably glum Laura Dern whose talent is under-utilised. Or even when Ray walks all over the brothers and eventually dishonouring their gentlemen’s agreement and never paid the 1% royalty (which would have amounted to a staggering $100 million).
The founder, the title role, is a busy entrepreneur with an achievement equalled by few, yet director John Lee Hancock seems unsure how to finish moulding this character. A business genius with a few flaws is a terribly wasteful way to present Ray Kroc when a deeper and more insightful storytelling could have shown us more about the man behind one of restaurant industry’s biggest stories.
Ray Kroc is neither inspirational nor villainous because Hancock and screenwriter Robert Siegel neither puts him on a pedestal, nor gives the man a malicious intent. We’re never sure whose side the filmmakers want us to take.
Business ethics, integrity, truth, trust, productivity over principle, and the importance of a brand name (“Kroc’s” would never have made it) – there are certainly interesting elements in the genesis story of McDonald’s. The focus is on a particular man, and for a biopic on the man who built an empire using someone else's name, the star of the story is a little under-flavoured.
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