Among the army of burger flippers at work across America in the 1960s was a French chef putting his training to use at Howard Johnson's on Queens Boulevard in New York City. I worked for HoJo's from the summer of 1960 to the spring of 1970, doing my American apprenticeship, learning about mass production and marketing. The company had been started in 1925 in Massachusetts by Howard Deering Johnson, and by the mid-1960s its sales exceeded that of Burger King, Kentucky Fried Chicken and McDonald's combined. There would be more than 1,000 Howard Johnson restaurants and 500 motor lodges. Yet after Johnson's death in 1972, the company lost its raison d'etre. The restaurants became obsolete; the food quality deteriorated. You underestimate the clientele at your peril. The late restaurateur Joe Baum used to say, "There is no victory over a customer."
As the Howard Johnson Co. went to pieces, Ray Kroc's obsession with Quality, Service, Cleanliness and Value--the unwavering mission of McDonald's--was gathering momentum. Kroc was adroit and perceptive in identifying popular trends. He sensed that America was a nation of people who ate out, as opposed to the Old World tradition of eating at home. Yet he also knew that people here wanted something different. Instead of a structured, ritualistic restaurant with codes and routine, he gave them a simple, casual and identifiable restaurant with friendly service, low prices, no waiting and no reservations. The system eulogized the sandwich--no tableware to wash. One goes to McDonald's to eat, not to dine.
Kroc gave people what they wanted or, maybe, what he wanted. As he said, "The definition of salesmanship is the gentle art of letting the customer have it your way." He would remain the ultimate salesman, serving as a chairman of McDonald's Corp., the largest restaurant company in the world, from 1968 until his death in 1984.
In 1917, Ray Kroc was a brash 15-year-old who lied about his age to join the Red Cross as an ambulance driver. Sent to Connecticut for training, he never left for Europe because the war ended. So the teen had to find work, which he did, first as a piano player and then, in 1922, as a salesman for the Lily Tulip Cup Co.
Although he sold paper cups by day and played the piano for a radio station at night, Kroc's ears were better tuned to the rhythms of commerce. In the course of selling paper cups he encountered Earl Prince, who had invented a five-spindle multimixer and was buying Lily cups by the truckload. Fascinated by the speed and efficiency of the machine, Kroc obtained exclusive marketing rights from Prince. Indefatigable, for the next 17 years he crisscrossed the country peddling the mixer.
On his travels he picked up the beat of a remarkable restaurant in San Bernardino, Calif., owned by two brothers, Dick and Mac McDonald, who had ordered eight mixers and had them churning away all day. Kroc saw the restaurant in 1954 and was entranced by the effectiveness of the operation. It was a hamburger restaurant, though not of the drive-in variety popular at the time. People had to get out of their cars to be served. The brothers had produced a very limited menu, concentrating on just a few items: hamburgers, cheeseburgers, french fries, soft drinks and milk shakes, all at the lowest possible prices.