I didn’t catch it when it was released in the theaters, but that didn’t stop me from buying the Blu-Ray at the first opportunity because I knew it would be a brilliant film—and it was. The Founder starring Michael Keaton was just that—and it may well be the most important film you’ll see this year—or whenever you read this. If you haven’t seen the film, do it now. Don’t even finish reading this. Just go see it. I adored the film and personally I could relate to the type of character that Michael Keaton played as likely the most true to life rendition of Ray Kroc ever done—the founder of the McDonald’s franchise concept. Readers here know I love McDonald’s; I make no secret of it. I love a lot of things in life but I always have a special place for McDonald’s and the reason for my love was summed up extraordinarily well in the great movie directed by John Lee Hancock.
The Founder is all about innovation and American ingenuity. It’s not always pretty, not always civil—but the engine that drives American capitalism specifically was captured so wonderfully well in this great movie that its worth watching and should be done in every American household. Another favorite of my is the great Francis Ford Coppola classic, Tucker: The Man and his Dream—this movie might as well been the sequel to how innovative American enterprise was in the period from 1940 up until the 1960s. The Founder is about nothing short than the invention of the fast food industry which has left the biggest mark on world culture that we’ve ever witnessed.
When I walk into a McDonald’s no matter where it is in the world I think of this creation story of Ray Kroc and his relationship to the fabulous McDonald brothers. I simply love all those people even though as the story shows, Ray Kroc unethically outwitted them in the end to take possession of the company that featured their name—and that was likely a good thing for the invention of fast food. In fact, I think the scene in The Founder where Kroc and two other people (one who would become his future wife) were discussing a new way to produce a milk shake. It was one of the best scenes in film history because it captured so well the risk and innovation that was going on all the time during that post World War II period in America which we today all take for granted. Imagine the skepticism that making a synthetic milkshake with powder was to the naiveté of the 1950s generation yet without people with the drive and charisma of Ray Kroc, we’d all still be eating a lot slower and living a lot less productively. Anti-capitalists of course would love to go back to the days where it took 30 minutes to get a hamburger—instead of 30 seconds—but American society as we know it now was built on the extra productivity per capita that specifically came from the invention of fast food that started with McDonald’s. To me that makes the company and this movie enormously relevant.
I’ve had McDonald’s in many countries around the world and to me it is always a piece of home. Most dramatically my wife and I had a McDonald’s across the street from our hotel in Cancun which probably saved our lives. We were both sick from our experience with a cenote inland on the Yucatan Peninsula where we were swimming on a very hot day. The Mexicans use such places as their only relief from their terrible living conditions as most of them live in thatched huts. I saw fish swimming around in the water so I figured it couldn’t be too bad, and it was clear water. The local people were used to such bacterially infested water, we weren’t and the next day we were both terribly sick and massively dehydrated. We lost trust in the local water supply even in such a popular resort town. But we knew the quality control of the McDonald’s across the street was our best chance at a good meal—because many of the materials that made the material came from the United States. So for the rest of our trip, we only ate at McDonald’s even though we had access to some of the best places to eat that the world offered. We didn’t feel we could trust the water since our systems had been disrupted at the cenote. Those Golden Arches were one of the best experiences I ever had eating. I can say that my wife and I have had some fine dining in many of the best places in exotic cities and that McDonald’s meal for us was our best because we were so parched and in need of food familiar to our diet with tightly controlled filtered water.
Another time for me was in Japan. I was so tired of eating seaweed and octopus. I was trying to be respectful to their culture, but I woke up one morning really looking for some American food so I found a McDonald’s in the middle of the very nice city of Kobe. Now consider I had just had authentic Kobe Beef the night before with some great wine and immaculate other dishes. But at 7 AM in Japan after a hard week of work I wanted a Sausage and Egg McMuffin from McDonald’s with a nice big Coke. When I found one I found a nice place to eat it off in the corner of the restaurant and it will always be one of the best meals I’ve ever had. There is a lot to be said about the consistency of McDonald’s food because it is pretty much the same anywhere you go and someday when I visit the moon I plan to eat at McDonald’s because it will give a stable diet to my body in an unfamiliar environment—and sometimes that is better than the actual flavors of the food. I find that when I’m doing hard things, whether they are exotic adventures or tough business engagements, or even intense competitions, McDonald’s provides stability in a diet that is consistent and that is often far more valuable.
A lot of those techniques that make McDonald’s food so constantly fast and reliable were developed by the McDonald’s brothers and marketed to the world by Ray Kroc and we are all better for it. When I’m having a really rough week, it is not unusual for me to stop by and grab some McDonald’s breakfast on my way to do whatever I’m dreading, because it does bring me a lot of joy to have that food. So a story about how that remarkable place was born is a lot of fun to see, especially as honest of a movie as this is. Essentially, the McDonald’s brothers developed a great idea and a means to make food fast. But it was Ray Kroc who put them into every city and was able to take the chance to pound out the fast food concept as a chain of real estate transactions. That was really the hinge point of the entire McDonald’s story, that the business concept of franchising wasn’t in the food itself, but in the real estate transactions involved, where McDonald’s owned the stores and franchise owners would lease the spots—which put the quality control firmly in the hands of the company—instead of the individual owners. That was the key and it took someone like Ray Kroc to pound out the idea. The McDonald brothers were simply too nice to make that next step plunge.
In the end the point of the movie was a clear definition of capitalism that was spelled out clearly. When Kroc tells the McDonald brothers that his business was war and if he saw a competitor drowning—that he’d put a hose down their throat to finish them off. Mac McDonald wouldn’t have done that and neither would his brother. That essentially was why they failed to move beyond their initial concepts but no further. To make projects work you need a Ray Kroc type of person or things just stall, and that is what makes capitalism such an elusive concept elsewhere in the world. Every business needs their dreamers, and their concept people—but in the end they need someone who can bring persistence to whatever is being attempted. Ray Kroc with all their faults was undaunted by the prospect of failure. He had failed over and over through his entire life and in the end; he was speaking with Governor Reagan just before he was elected president as the most successful restaurateur in the world.
McDonald’s makes all of our lives more efficient. My daughter often before she picks up her kids at our house brings them Happy Meals from McDonald’s to entice them to get into the car and go home. It helps her to give them quick food while as a busy young parent time is often short. The ability to get a Happy Meal frees her time up making her much more productive in other ways. And the same story could be told for all of us, whether its breakfast on the go in the morning or a relief far from home while traveling on the other side of the world. McDonald’s makes an essential thing we all must do in our lives—which is eat—faster making it so that we can do many other things in our 24 hour day possible.
This movie is just a champ—it captures the American Dream in ways I’m not sure even the filmmakers realized. For instance, why was Ray Kroc so obsessed with the idea of franchising the McDonald’s concept when he had a nice wife, a nice house, and a membership into an exclusive country club with rich friends? Isn’t that what people want in America? And why did the McDonald brothers work so hard to find faster ways to make food more reliably? The answer goes beyond the wealth that can be achieved by such endeavors. It is in the hunt of doing them which makes this story different from any other. Ray Kroc wasn’t about personal jets and boardrooms, even though those things did come to him over time—it was about the thrill of doing something impossible for the benefit of doing something that had never been done before. That is what drove all the protagonists in this story and what’s wonderful about it is that it was a true story. It is in that concept that American capitalism works so well and how when those battles are fought the benefits get sprinkled so wonderfully to the rest of the world. The wars of capitalism are worth fighting because the byproduct of it makes all of society better. Even though capitalism can be ruthless, the products that come about as a result advance civilization and it is people like Ray Kroc and the McDonald brothers who best exemplify the American Dream. Not in their successes as much as in their eternal optimism to keep trying until they finally do win—or die trying.
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